The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

When neutrality is worse than belligerence

Mark Said Thursday, 16 June 2022, 09:57 Last update: about 3 months ago

When delivering the “speech from the throne” on the occasion of the opening of parliament, President Vella appeared to redefine the concept of our neutrality.

He specifically stated that neutrality does not mean closing our eyes when faced with injustice and disgusting behaviour. Has the time come to discuss the current shape of our policies and the future of neutrality and non-alignment in general? Among other pertinent considerations, one must try to answer that question in the light of the fact that, Malta being a member of the EU, eventually has to take in its stride the rapid steps towards a common security and defence policy within the Union that have opened up new questions. Does the EU pose a threat to our policies, or do they themselves pose a threat to the EU’s policy?


In Article 1(3) of our Constitution, it is still laid down that “Malta is a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance”. In some respects, neutrality and non-alignment have receded into the background, particularly since the time that Malta joined the EU. Given this, one might have thought from the outset that the topic was outdated. Neutrality and non-alignment can be seen as relics of the past. Is there anything new to be said on the subject?

Can we continue to consider Malta as a permanently neutral country? Permanent neutrality is an international term, and its status can be changed.

Apparently, the policy of permanent neutrality only applies to some small countries. This might be because large powers, especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council, have a special responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and cannot be neutral. Medium-sized countries and most small countries can maintain their own security through self-defence, alliance, collective security, etc., without neutrality. Assuming that our country is a rational actor, if we intend to continue being permanently neutral we must judge that the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages, and where the advantages are. So where is the disadvantage?

In terms of disadvantages, permanent neutrality reduces our obligations and responsibilities as a member of the international community. In particular, maintaining neutrality in the face of issues involving international fairness, justice, and major right and wrong will make our country appear to be independent of right and wrong and lack a sense of justice. In addition, permanent neutrality means that our country has lost a large part of its diplomatic initiative. We must ask ourselves about the perception of the development of the EU’s common foreign and security policy (ESDP) and its compatibility with our policies, particularly the new forms of security and defence cooperation mentioned in the Draft Constitutional Treaty, cooperation with NATO, and the draft EU Security Strategy.

Austria, for example, departed from the permanent neutrality model when it joined the UN in 1955 and developed the concept of the policy of active neutrality. Until the end of the Cold War, Austria was of the opinion that the Security Council of the United Nations would be required to respect Austrian neutrality and would not ask Austria to participate in any measures under chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. The international response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1991 led Austria to the legal view that the obligations under the Charter of the United Nations would take precedence over Austria’s status of neutrality.

Upon joining the European Union, the complete body of legal and political rules and procedures, the acquis, of the European Union was incorporated into our law. The Treaty of Maastricht and in particular its clauses concerning the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which formed part of the acquis when Malta joined the EU, did foresee the perspective of a Common Defence Policy (Art. J 4 Treaty of Maastricht) which could eventually lead to a common defence. The fact that Malta is unlikely to abandon its neutrality in the foreseeable future is due, above all, to the continued strong support for this status by public opinion, which can in turn only be understood against the backdrop of our history. Neutrality apparently places us Maltese in the best of all possible worlds, geographically in the centre, politically and economically in the West, and militarily outside Europe, since neutrality is expected to keep our country out of armed conflict despite its vulnerable geostrategic location.

When war breaks out, as happened between Russia and Ukraine, what does it mean for a country like ours to remain neutral? We tried to maintain a delicate balancing act over Ukraine. We tried to portray a strange type of proactive neutrality. Malta was not saying we have nothing to do with the conflict, but we strived to be very proactive in spite of Russia eventually labelling us as a ‘hostile’ country. But our neutrality also brought responsibilities with it, from humanitarian support to diplomatic efforts to bring about peace, and I am sure that our country can also change its mind during the course of a war too. In fact, EU non-aligned and neutral counries like Finland and Sweden, urgently considered applying for NATO membership during the Russian-Ukrainian war,  a monumental shift for two nations with a long history of wartime neutrality and staying out of military alliances.

Any war like the one we have witnessed can shatter our long-standing sense of stability, leaving us feeling vulnerable. Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence. Neutrality, as a lasting principle, might appear to be evidence of weakness. Unless our government is respectable, foreigners will invade our rights, and to maintain tranquillity, it must be respectable. Even to observe neutrality, we must have a strong government. If we remain neutral in situations of injustice, we would have chosen the side of the oppressor. Dante had written that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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