The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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How neutral is neutral?

Albert Galea Sunday, 14 April 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

For decades now, Malta’s foreign policy has come to be defined by one core pillar: neutrality. 

A subject of fierce debate over the years, Malta’s neutrality is established in its constitution – but in this day and age where the world is closer and more globalised than ever before, how relevant does it remain?

Malta has been officially a neutral country since January 1987, with this coming about after long and hard negotiations between Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party and Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party.

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These negotiations came about after the PL was re-elected to government in 1981, but only by winning the most parliamentary seats and not the absolute majority of votes cast.

The PN did not accept the result and embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience to force new elections.

Negotiations between the two parties led to a deal being struck in 1986: Malta’s electoral laws would be changed to ensure that the party which wins the absolute majority of votes would govern but only if the PN would back changes which would entrench Malta’s neutrality in the Constitution – something Mintoff had long been seeking, having joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1973 and seen to that British forces left the country in 1979.

That agreement came to pass in January 1987: Malta’s Constitution was changed to include the country’s neutrality and Malta’s electoral laws were changed in order to avoid a repeat of the 1981 elections, which is what allowed the PN to come to power in the elections held that same year.

Malta’s Constitution defines the country’s neutrality as follows: "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."

There has been much debate since, and particularly in recent years, as to what that neutrality actual means in practical terms. 

The Constitution speaks of neutrality in a military sense, but this didn’t stop debate on when Malta was set to enter the European Union in 2004. The PN – the main proponents behind EU accession – argued that the union isn’t a military alliance, ergo there was no breach of Malta’s neutrality, and part of Malta’s accession treaty is dedicated to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, where it was ultimately affirmed that Malta’s neutrality would not be prejudiced.

But in today’s day and age where conflict has come to transcend the purely military aspect, how relevant can we hold Malta’s provisions for neutrality to be?

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello told The Malta Independent on Sunday on the topic: “Neutrality is now regulated by Article 1.3 of the Constitution which imposes military non-alignment on the state of Malta. So far, the constitutional courts have had very few occasions to apply or interpret Article 1.3. Most of its provisions are but a string of pious platitudes founded on the concept of ‘two superpowers’ which might have been relevant before the fall of Communism in 1989, but which sound anachronistic and irrelevant after the international panorama changed so drastically.”

Indeed there have been a couple of instances in the past decade or so where Malta’s actions vis-à-vis its constitutionally established neutrality have been questioned.

For instance, in Malta’s response to the Libyan Revolution in 2011, supporters of Malta’s neutrality alleged that the government – then led by Lawrence Gonzi – had breached the Constitution by allowing foreign forces involved in the military intervention in Libya to pass through Maltese airspace during operations.

Likewise, the same supporters suggested that Malta had “taken sides” in the conflict by denying an official request from Libya for the return of two Mirage fighter jets.  There were similar suggestions when Malta refused to refuel Russian warships which were en-route to Syria in 2016 when the Middle Eastern country was in the midst of a civil war.

More recently there was Malta’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the country like the rest of the European Union and several other major economic players – implemented various packages of economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion.

Clear signs that this war is not ending any time soon, and that the more time passes the more of an upper hand Russia gains prompted the European Union to start to discuss and insist on increasing its military spending.

European Parliament President and PN MEP Roberta Metsola called for the EU to increase its defence budget to strengthen Europe's defence in the wake of international political developments, but that triggered weeks of criticism and attacks from Prime Minister Robert Abela and other government exponents who suggested that she was a warmonger.

Yet after weeks of criticism, Abela voted in favour of an EU agreement to bolster defence and defence spending, saying that he had done so only because Malta had secured a clause which protects the country’s neutrality in the case of a conflict.

And as Malta continues to back and implement economic sanctions against Russia, is it reasonable to question whether neutrality is being maintained? From a military sense, Malta may not have boots on the ground, but in today’s world where the global economy has become so intertwined any such negative action may not be all that well received by its victim – boots on the ground or not.

So is Malta’s neutrality as established in the constitution merely something of a placeholder which the passage of time and the development of conflict has rendered largely irrelevant?  Can one truly argue that Malta is a neutral country when – merits or otherwise aside – it issues sanctions designed to cripple a country’s economy?

When taking into consideration Malta’s constitution and its wording, strictly speaking, one can argue that Malta is indeed neutral, mainly because the Constitution itself ties neutrality to military conflict.

But Europe is, as former Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo told The Malta Independent on Sunday, in a fresh Cold War with no end in sight, and within this context, the natural question is: how neutral is neutral?

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