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As part of our Monday Talks series supported by Science 14, we have talked with H.E Carmelo Abela in Valetta, the capital city of Malta, about many pressing issues including migration, populism, and the upcoming European elections.

Ebubekir Isik: Your Excellency, thank you for having us today and thank you for making time on such a busy day. You have been Minister for Foreign Affairs of Malta for near one and half year and your country has been getting lots of notice regarding many sensitive issues, including migration. As Foreign Minister of the EU’s smallest member state, what are your concerns and priorities for Malta in 2019?

Carmelo Abela: Well, thank you very much for this interview, first of all. Our top priority, as a country and a EU member state, is to have stability in the Mediterranean region. I consider the Mediterranean not as a foreign affairs issue but as an internal one for us, since we are located in this sea. We have issues in North Africa, especially Libya, which is struggling to become a stable country, the Middle East, Yemen, and Syria.

So, our priority is to have stability in the region and tackle issues in a way that finally achieves some kind of solution because, directly or indirectly, we are going to be affected. Then, there is also the current issue of migration, as the central Mediterranean still is the main route that hundreds of thousands of migrants use to cross from North Africa towards here. Thus, migration still is a challenge that needs to be tackled.

Ebubekir Isik: There are many in Brussels arguing that the massive migration flow that started to hit the shores of EU back in 2015 has finally ended. Mr. Foreign Minister, given all the measures taken at national and European levels across Europe over the past several years, is it your opinion that the migration issue has been mitigated or do you think the situation is being underestimated?

Carmelo Abela: No, I do not think the migration issue has ended. Figures given by UNCR show that there are hundreds of thousands in the African continent that are willing to migrate or are migrating, not only with the intention to come towards Europe but also between African countries.

We need to continue facing this global challenge and that is why we were pleased the United Nations also took the initiative regarding the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly Migration, as migration is not a European issue nor an African issue but a global one and thus we should tackle migration globally as well. So, I do not think that it has ended and I do not think that we might have the aspiration to end migration completely, as, since its existence, human beings in this world migrate from one place to the other for different reasons, maybe to have a better life, because they are escaping hardships in their own country or persecution.

Therefore, I think the best option is to manage migration better. We need to focus on irregular migration. First of all, we have to admit there is a criminal activity going on, with the human trafficking and smuggling, and it is not safe for people to cross the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea, where we know that, unfortunately, thousands lost their lives.

Ebubekir Isik: The European Commission recently expressed its concerns regarding the rule of law in Malta, referring to the Venice Commission’s findings on 17 December 2018 with respect to “the wide powers of appointments by the Prime Minister”. Mr. Foreign Minister, are there any reasons to be concerned in terms of the stability of the democratic process in Malta?

Carmelo Abela: It was the government that wanted the Venice Commission to make a report on Malta. We are very happy with its outcome since what the Venice Commission pointed out was not about legislation that this government changed or that this government enacted but legislation prior to 2013 when we were elected for the first time in government.

On appointments on the power of the Prime Minister, this administration did not change anything or did not put more power on itself. Furthermore, the Prime Minister publicly said that we will look into the report of the Venice Commission and make amendments to our legislation, also in view of the constitutional reform that has started, which of course does not happen overnight.

I also have to point out that after 2013 we made a number of amendments to our legislation that were actually praised by the Venice Commission.

We introduced the whistleblower act. We issued legislation regulating party financing. We also abolished the prescription on corruption offenses committed by politicians. In the past, if a politician was not brought to justice within a number of years, he or she would not be taken into court, and we abolished that.

Carmelo Abela (L), Malta’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion, and Ebubekir Isik (R). Credit | Vocal Eaurope

We also reformed how the judges are appointed. In the past, it was the exclusive decision of the government to appoint magistrates and judges. Now, with the reform, there is an independent committee to whom the government presents names of individuals who would like to become a magistrate or a judge and this commission will give its opinion on every individual. The government will only continue the appointment if there is a positive opinion. We also introduced, for example, parliamentary scrutiny for a number of posts within agencies, including for our ambassadors, the so-called career diplomats.

Finally, we have introduced amendments for the media and defamation act, which is now more in favor of freedom of expression and makes it more difficult for politicians to take someone to court if they feel aggrieved by what was written.

Therefore, we made a whole list of amendments, some of which were praised by the Venice Commission and I think that when we are criticized about the rule of law we have to be clear on what exactly we are being criticized for. Is it for legislation that we did after 2013 or for legislation that was enacted before 2013 and which the government wishes to amend?

Ebubekir Isik: Mr. Foreign Minister, let me mention one of the major challenges that the overall EU project has been facing. Populism, particularly the one coming from the far-right, has been a source of great concern in mainland Europe. Which factors, do you think, are behind this trend? Are there risks that for Malta to end up succumbing to the populist tendency as well?

Carmelo Abela: First, politicians are not being attentive enough in listening to the people. With the financial crises, most of the time people that need help the most are the ones being affected more negatively.

So I think Europe needs to be more attentive towards working-class citizens that are doing their uttermost to earn enough money to pay the living for their own family. When people end up with politicians that are speaking the same language, they become attracted to them and may end up supporting them. However, I do believe that in order to listen to the people politicians do not need to be a populist. Maybe it is a contradiction, but I do not think one should be named a populist if he or she is more attentive to what the needs of the people.

Besides that, I think that the issue of migration is being exploited by certain populists or extremists for their own agenda, without giving a fair and balanced picture of what migration is. It is unfair to hear some politicians speaking about migration and, at the same time, speaking about terrorism. These are the two main reasons, in my opinion.

Regarding the risk of populist tendencies arriving in Malta, I do not think it is not a concern at the moment, even if there are certain candidates that already contested the last general election and, presumably, will also contest the upcoming European elections in May of this year. I do not think their message is not well received by the Maltese electorate.

For that not to happen, as I previously said, I do believe it is important to give attention people’s needs, especially for those people who are in risk of poverty, and to have a balanced approach to issues that are of concern to people, such as migration for the Maltese population. Thus, I think that by being balanced and objective mainstream parties will receive support from people.

Ebubekir Isik: Mr. Foreign Minister, let me conclude by asking you for about the future trajectory. What kind of European Union are you expecting following the European elections in May 2019? Do you believe the European political scene is shifting further towards the right-wing?

Carmelo Abela: Well, I hope not. I hope that mainstream candidates get, in the end, the support of European voters and I think that if we look back to the last European elections, people did convey the message, while voting, that they were not happy with the general state of play in Europe. So I hope that there will not be a repetition or a worst result when it comes to the upcoming European elections.

I think we need to focus more on issues that are of interest to the people rather than to politicians, diplomats or bureaucrats. We need to examine our own conscience, as Europeans. Everyone in Europe needs to be concerned about the future of our citizens, of our European Union and, hopefully, we will be more focused on where we want Europe to go, rather than only focusing on current issues.

I hope that will be reflected in the upcoming European elections as a vote of confidence towards the European Union rather than the opposite.

Ebubekir Isik: Thank you for this fruitful exchange and thank you for the hospitality.

Carmelo Abela: Thank you very much.