The Malta Independent 27 November 2021, Saturday

Is the EU crumbling? And where does Malta stand?

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 7 November 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 19 days ago

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press carried a report which said that, after the exit of Britain from the European Union, there are movements in other current members that indicate an anti-EU sentiment which could, if it remains unchecked, lead to more countries leaving the bloc.

The EU has seemingly moved from decades in which there was a constant expansion to a period of uncertainty, sparked by Brexit.

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In the years straddling the end of the last century and the start of the new one, the EU saw its membership double. The break-up of the Soviet Union and developments in Eastern Europe led to a surge in the number of countries that wanted to join. But, even before that, other states had satisfied the criteria to be accepted as part of the group that started off as an economic community in 1957.

The founding 6 member states – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and The Netherlands – were successively joined by Ireland, the UK and Denmark in 1973, Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986.

The 12 became 15 in 1995 with the addition of Austria, Finland and Sweden. Then, in 2004, we had what was described as the largest single expansion in the EU’s history, when 10 more countries became members overnight. Apart from Malta, the others were Cyprus, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Romania and Bulgaria joined three years later, in 2007, while Croatia became the last new member in 2013, taking the total number of members to 28.

But it did not take long for the number to return to 27.

Brexit

While other countries are in the negotiating process to join, Britain became the first member to leave the bloc following a referendum in which the majority voted to exit in 2016. There followed intensive negotiations which led to the formal departure in January 2020.

But, if you think that this formal departure has really closed a chapter, then you’re mistaken.

There were too many loose ends when Britain and the EU reached a deal after years of wrangling, threats and missed deadlines. The divorce agreement failed to conclude on items such as fishing and Northern Ireland, so much so that the two sides are in contentious mood once again.

Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK which shares a border with an EU country, remains within the EU single market for trade in goods so as to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland. This means that there are border checks on goods being transported into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, although they are part of the same country.

But things do not seem to be working out well, with Britain and the EU exchanging hard words as a solution is sought. It is not expected that the two sides will come to terms in the short term.

What next?

The Associated Press report mentioned earlier indicates that Brexit could soon be followed by similar movements in other countries.

The headline is indicative of a situation that is still indecipherable. “Is it bluff?”, the headline begins, followed by “Some in Hungary and Poland talk of EU pullout”. That “some” indicates that the anti-EU movements in these two nations are still in an embryonic stage, but they are already picking up and could grow as it did in Britain. Unless things change, the possibility is that this sentiment grows.

The article’s introduction sets the scene aptly:  When Hungary and Poland joined the European Union in 2004, after decades of Communist domination, their citizens thirsted for Western democratic standards and prosperity. Yet 17 years later, as the EU ramps up efforts to rein in democratic backsliding in both countries, some of the governing right-wing populists in Hungary and Poland are comparing the bloc to their former Soviet oppressors — and flirting with the prospect of exiting the trade bloc.”

Although the “vast majority of their citizens want to stay in the bloc”, as recent surveys have shown that over 80% want their country to remain as an EU member, the article explains that anti-EU rhetoric “has increased in recent months, after the EU resorted to financially penalizing members that fail its rule of law and democratic governance standards”.

What starts with a trickle can quickly become a flood.

This is what Donald Tusk, who was President of the European Council during the Brexit referendum and the subsequent EU negotiations with the British government, believes.

Tusk, who is now Polish Opposition Leader, warned that allowing anti-EU rhetoric to grow out of control could unintentionally touch off an unstoppable process.

“Catastrophes like, for example, Brexit, or the possible exit of Poland from the EU, very often happen not because someone planned it, but because someone did not know how to plan a wise alternative,” Tusk said.

Having been in the thick of things when Brexit was making so much noise, he knows what he is saying.

The article goes on to say that Hungary's President Viktor Orban has repeatedly insisted that “there is life outside the European Union." A few weeks ago an opinion article in daily Magyar Nemzet — a flagship newspaper allied with Orban's Fidesz party — said “it’s time to talk about Huxit”.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Malta

Here in Malta, there are no signs of a huge anti-European sentiment.

The country seems to have settled in its European role. We all know that the run-up to Malta’s European membership was an arduous one, with an application that was filed in 1990, frozen in 1996, and re-activated in 1998 until a referendum in 2003 finally sealed the issue. Malta joined on 1 May, 2004.

The Labour Party, which had been against membership and advocated a partnership, accepted the people’s decision and moved on. Alfred Sant, who had led the crusade against membership, went on to become an MEP after resigning the party leadership. His successor, Joseph Muscat, had himself earlier found a place on the Brussels gravy train after being in the forefront against membership.

But Labour seems to have made its peace with membership, and now that it has been in government for eight years plus, knows its financial benefits, given that it regularly boasts of projects that it carries out, partly thanks to European funds.

There is no talk against European membership, other than from a few, small pockets, who have little impact.

But this does not mean that people do not grumble.

On the one hand, the financial backing that Malta has had from the European Union has been of great significance. It was only last year that Prime Minister Robert Abela negotiated a €2.25 billion deal with the European Union, funds that will serve between 2021 and 2027. This doubled the €1.12 billion that was clinched by former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi for the seven years between 2014 and 2020.

Added to this, Malta is also receiving €320 million to assist in its recovery after the negative economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a lot of money.

But EU membership is not only about the money.

And this is where, sometimes, membership has been disappointing.

Take migration, for example. We have had too many instances in which Malta was left on its own to deal with the phenomenon. There were occasions in which we thought we were fighting a battle on our own. There were other times when we were in the same boat – excuse the pun – with Italy. What is sure is that the EU as a bloc and individual nations should have been more helpful.

Agreed, many countries at the border of the European Union on the east and the south have to deal with migrants pouring across the border or coming by sea. So they have their own problems too. But then, so did Malta, and given our size there were times when we could barely cope. So we did expect some more support.

Before membership, the EU idea was sold to the general population as a protector of the rule of law and good governance. Remember, when Malta first applied to join, in 1990, Malta was coming out of the terrible 1980s, the black years of instability and violence. We were then told that EU membership would guarantee a safe and secure country, one in which political wrongdoing would be punished.

It was only later, after membership, that it was realised that there was little that could be done from the “external” EU on matters that were considered as “internal”. The EU cannot even stop Malta from selling passports, just to give one example, even though the selling of citizenship directly affects the EU, since anyone becoming “Maltese” automatically becomes “European”.

To some, European membership has not fulfilled all the expectations.

 

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