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Speech by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the EP Plenary Session on the Presidency Priorities

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat discusses the 2017 Maltese Presidency Priorities at the EP Plenary Session in Strasbourg.

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Mr President,

I’d like to start by congratulating you for the election of your new office.

I know that following this hard-fought election campaign, you will do your utmost to pick up from where your predecessor, Martin Schulz, has excellently left off. Mr Schulz has done wonders in improving the relevance and the visibility of this institution. As I have just stated, I am certain that you will do your utmost throughout this delicate time for our Europe, as you have always done in previous positions. I assure you that during this European semester, the Maltese Presidency will be a loyal interlocutor and will work tirelessly to achieve its goals. Congratulations once again, to you and to all the other candidates.

I admit that this is an emotional moment for me. Nine years ago, the last time I set foot in this Plenary, I was a Member of this chamber. Back in the day, together with Louis Grech, my incumbent Deputy Prime Minister, and others, we were the first European Parliamentary group from the so-called New Member States. There was a tangible atmosphere of excitement and optimism in this institution and beyond, throughout Europe. Our concerns revolved around economic growth, paving ways to complete the Agenda 2020, safeguarding out consumes’ interests and driving Europe forward. Only a few foresaw the global financial crisis - a crisis which cost us so many jobs. No one expected powerful banks had to be bailed out by the tax-payer, no one expected negotiations aimed at saving a bankrupt Member State. Almost no one predicted the initiation of debates on one of us leaving, just as many smiled when only a handful of us discussed the immigration crisis, which back then was perceived as an exclusively Mediterranean issue, not European.

Back then, I also had two, sometimes five, minutes to speak. Today, I’ve been allowed more and I will strive to make the best out of this privilege. I am aware that most of you have read the Maltese Presidency programme which, together with our Dutch and Slovak friends, was intentionally made to be specific. Throughout the following six months, we chose to focus our attention on six sectors: immigration, single market, security, social inclusion, European neighbourhood u maritime sector. I opt instead to briefly go through all sectors while focusing on some and their respective implications. I will also draw out from what we've learned through the reshaping of Europe and the rest of the World in this decade and through the change in atmosphere from back in the day in this Plenary, the European institutions and most of all, where it really counts, in the homes of families across Europe. Once finished, I will of course, answer your questions on all sectors.

I believe we should start off with migration. We know for a fact that there is a need for a holistic policy, which has gone amiss for so many years, and that only recently has been recognised as a priority. I must say that the Commission has shown exceptional leadership in this, as has Parliament. And I have to admit, that the stuttering is coming from the institution I represent here today. I will not waste your time in repeating clichés that have been doing the rounds for so long, on the need of using all our policies, including development aid and a long term approach. We all know that. We all agree with that. Finally, also thanks to decisions taken during the Valletta Summit a little over a year ago, which have given new impetus to the external dimension and led to the negotiation of a number of compacts which are the basis for such a long term approach.

But the issue is much more pressing and time is not on our side. You know very well Malta’s position on this issue. We have been harping for more than a decade that the migration situation in the Mediterranean is unsustainable. We were amongst the first to sow the seeds, within this Parliament, on the need of responsibility sharing, and that the burden of managing the flows cannot fall exclusively on the shoulders of front line Member States. Yet, we were left almost alone, for many years, trying to overcome a crisis which was not our making. The only solution we were given, only at times, was some more money. But that is not a solution.

I confess that when last year we came to take sides in Council on the distribution mechanism proposed by the Commission, there were quite some voices back at home that urged me to stand against relocation of migrants. “Nobody helped us when we needed it. We took our fair share. Now let us mind our own business.” I assure you that it would have been a stand which would have had a very popular backing within the silent majority. Instead, we opted to do just the opposite because we know that this is an issue of principles and credibility. Solidarity is not an a la carte option that we use when we need it, and turn a blind eye to when others need it. Solidarity is an essential European value, at the very core of what the founding mothers and fathers envisaged sixty years ago in Rome. And so, the smallest Member State which over the years bar the last few, has suffered firsthand the brunt of the human plight of migration with no or little help, signed up to take asylum seekers from other Member States who are facing a crisis. To me, that is more than enough to assert that our European and human values are indisputable.

I was sorry to see a minority of Member States resist this system. During these six months we can choose to dig our heels and antagonise each other even more. On the other hand, we can try to understand any genuine concerns and misgivings that these Member States, indeed our people in our own Member States, have about the whole way in which Europe is handling the migration issue. We opted for a two pronged approach which focuses on the effective management of our borders, while concurrently working to achieve progress on the fair allocation of responsibility and, to be very clear, burden, since we are used to calling it so. The proper management of our land and, more problematically, sea borders, is part and parcel of our approach towards the revision of the Dublin regulation, which needs to be an ambitious and workable solution.

The last major crisis that we had caught Europe unprepared, also because the situation was rendered even more critical by our own inadequate and dated European systems and procedures. In fact, these flaws were exposed in their entirety. All this led to tensions on different approaches. To wall or not to wall. At the end, the only way in which the flow was stemmed was through an agreement with Turkey. We all know it is not the perfect deal, and that it is not a long term solution, but this is what until now has made some difference.

Europe cannot be caught in such a conundrum again. Come next Spring Europe will face a heavy influx of migrants through the central Mediterranean. Needless to say, the composition, origin and reasons why these people want to undergo the riskiest voyage of their life across a deadly sea, is different from that of mainly Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean sea. We all know too that the countries across the southern littoral of the central Mediterranean are different in so many ways from Turkey. Nevertheless, in my mind there is no doubt that unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis. Let me not mince my words. I see no way in which one single Member State can manage or absorb this further wave. Thus, the essence of the core principles of the European Union will be seriously tested unless we act now.

Let me also be very clear in what I mean by replication of the essence of the Turkey deal. I mean, most importantly, breaking the business model of the criminal gangs raking millions of Euros out of this inhumane business. I do believe that a strong political message is necessary at this point. And I say that if we manage to get such an agreement, we should then, as European Union, organise humanitarian safe passages and corridors that would get recognised asylum seekers to Europe safely.

One final point on migration. I have no doubt that unless we are ready to take such bold moves, we would be made to take even bolder ones in the months to come, and these decisions would be led by people who do not have progress of the European project at heart. This is a matter which we intend tacking directly during the meeting of the Heads of State and Government in Malta next month.

I said I will not go into each and every priority of the Presidency, but I cannot make this address without mentioning specifically the priority of security.

The European Union is meant to deliver an area of freedom, security and justice for its citizens. Our citizens need to feel safe and protected wherever they are within Europe. In recent times we have seen a direct threat to that security. We have learned, at our own cost that the security of one Member State is the security of another. If we are not together we are vulnerable. Strengthening our resilience to protect our way of life is a common responsibility and therefore taking cooperation in this area to a different level is not an option. Member States and institutions need to work relentlessly to deliver a safe Europe for the citizens.

In recent months a lot has been done, but more needs to be done and our efforts need to increase because time is of the essence. The Maltese Presidency will work hand in hand with you to address this common challenge with determination.

Allow me now to take some time to discuss Brexit. It is quite a historic irony for a country that has been a British colony for two centuries, and which currently also presides the Commonwealth, to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the time of the triggering of the process by means of which the United Kingdom will, unfortunately, cease being a member of the European Union which it supported us to join.

Given our historical ties, and the great, and mostly positive, influence that British systems had on our own, from the basis of our educational and administrative systems, to English which is one of our two official languages, from the George Cross for the bravery shown by our forefathers during World War II which we proudly display on our flag, to the side of the road on which we drive, this is not a happy event for us. We want a fair deal for the United Kingdom, but that deal necessarily needs to be inferior to membership. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Indeed, thinking it can be otherwise would indicate a detachment from reality.

Yesterday’s statement by my colleague and friend, Prime Minister Theresa May helps clarify the priorities of the British government during the impending negotiations. Our understanding is that Prime Minister May is prioritising curbs to freedom of movement of people over membership of the European Single Market and Customs Union. She added that she does not want for the United Kingdom to replicate something that exists, but the creation of something new.

I would like to confirm to this House today that at this point there is unequivocal unity within Council. This stand does not arise from antagonism but from belief in the core principles of the European project. As stated by the 27 Heads of States and Government after the Brexit referendum result, which we respect as a sovereign decision, the freedom of movement of persons, goods, services and capital cannot be decoupled. Put it simply, the four freedoms are indivisible. Indeed, the fact that the British Prime Minister declared that she will take her country out of the Single Market because of the political choice to limit freedom of movement of persons, confirms the position of the EU27, that the four freedoms are one package. That is in itself is a somewhat positive development.

This is not to say that we should allow those principles to be abused and undermined. Freedom of movement of persons is aimed at allowing people to move freely across the Member States to work and establish themselves and their families freely. It was never meant to encourage persons to shop around Member States to see who offers the best social benefits. This is why we look forward to Commission proposals in this area.

Once there is a notification, a clear and clean cut from current arrangements, and afterwards negotiating an unrelated and new free trade agreement, ushered in by possible transitional arrangements where European rules and institutions cannot be compromised, will be an arduous task, as our recent experiences with trade agreements suggest. There should never be an underestimation of this task, as there should never be an underestimation of our colleagues on the other side of the table.

I would like to report how Council intends to go about the mechanics of Brexit. First of all, we will keep to the maxim that there will be no negotiations without notification. Once a notification is made, depending also on contents of such a notification, consultations will start amongst Member States with the intention of convening an extraordinary European Council meeting within a short period of time, possibly four to five weeks from notification, with the aim of establishing the guidelines that will serve as a mandate to the Commission to negotiate. I want to also take this opportunity to say that I am very impressed with the thorough preparations of Michel Barnier and his team. The Commission will be asked to refer back to Council as appropriate. The General Affairs Council will be tasked with the preparation of the Council’s work.

This leads me to the role of Parliament in all this. As already publicly stated, I advocate that Parliament should be involved as much as possible within the process. Having been part of this institution myself, I am aware of the organic dynamics that are within. I am of the opinion that not involving Parliament is not the best choice, comes at its own risk, and that even the fairest of deals could be scuttled. While saying this, I do appeal to all institutions to adopt a consistent approach that is aimed at safeguarding the European project and not punishing a particular country.

Before closing, I would like to pinpoint to a further element which is present in the narrative and programme of the Maltese Presidency, the social factor. I believe that the social aspect of this 60 year old project is the essence of our European Union. It is an ethos that no other group of nations can say is theirs. It is a characteristic that no trade deal can aspire to replicate. Indeed, Social Europe is the X Factor of the European Union. You either have it or you do not. This is why we want these six months to lead the drive towards a strengthening of this ideal which can go a long way in contributing towards the real questions that families across our continent are asking, and the experiences they go through each and every day of their life. Social Europe should not be treated as a concept belonging to the nineties, but rather as the unique European essence, the real scope behind projects such as the Single Market and the Euro. The fact that we have not pursued this goal actively over the past few years, may provide an explanation to the current mood in many of our Member States. So, we are proud to put Social Europe back on the agenda, in synch with the Commission’s recent work. I strongly believe that matching this dimension with policies conducive to economic growth and more and better jobs, can help provide a guiding light not only to our people, but also to the global community that is looking for progressive leadership.

There are many topics that I would have liked to discuss and I hope I can debate them in answering your questions. The single market, taxation, interinstitutional dynamics, the environment and climate, the maritime sector and above all, the social sector, to mention a few.

Europe signifies something different for everyone. For some, Europe is a converging union, for others, an excessive interference. Some perceive subsidiarity as a lacking sense of Europism. However, with all its ups and down, the 60 year old European project has undoubtedly been the best period in Europe’s long and convoluted history and certainly the most progressive and prosperous. Hence our theme: rEUnion, as Europe should be focusing on moving forward, not contemplating disintegration.