22 May Interview with Ian Borg, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and Trade, Malta
BF: The conflict in Ukraine has caused major upsets in value chains across the EU. In December you mentioned Malta had sent around €17 million to Ukraine in emergency aid since the beginning of the conflict. How have these challenges affected Malta, and what are the country and the EU doing to bridge supply gaps and ensure global demands are met?
Ian Borg: First, we must take into consideration the context. When the world was coming out of a pandemic that we hadn’t experienced in a century, we found ourselves with another war in the heart of Europe, something which our generations had always thought or assumed would never happen again. The Russian aggression on the sovereign territory of Ukraine was unprovoked and not necessary. Especially keeping in mind that the aggressor here, the Russian Federation, is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which is there to secure the upholding of the charter and international treaties.
In the face of what our Ukrainian brothers and sisters are facing, Malta could not remain silent just because we are a neutral state. Neutrality could not serve as an excuse to remain idle, to remain silent, because being neutral means that your true defense is the protection of the very same international treaties, international rules, and charters, which are clearly being violated by Russia, in this case.
We are claiming what is right and what is wrong without any fear, but at the same time, being neutral, we don’t believe that the military path is the one for resolving the issue. The country that decided to invade and start this war can easily be the country to stop the very same war. But meanwhile, the Ukrainians must defend themselves. Therefore, this instigated military support from NATO: EU, U.S., and other allies, which are heavily supporting the Ukrainians. They are, on the other hand, using those resources very wisely because a war that everybody thought would take a couple of days, and that the Russians were going to win, didn’t stop a year after such invasion. Therefore, the international community is assisting Ukraine to defend themselves. They are not aggressing on Russian territory; they are defending their own territory.
Malta is also doing its part as an EU member, but not for military aid. The European Peace Facility, and all the resources that we are giving as a country, are going for non-military aid. We are also very active on humanitarian aid in welcoming refugees, like the other European countries; Europe welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees, and this showed the solidarity.
The European Union, together with other allies as well, decided to embark on a series of sanction packages, to ensure that with our economic activity, we do not finance and support the aggressor. Here again, Malta is doing its part when it comes to the freezing of assets, the sanctions of persons, or sanctions of companies, making sure no one is circumventing those sanctions. We’re not only constructive during the negotiations in Brussels, but also through implementation.
We are now sitting on the Security Council. We started sitting as of the first of January. In the month of February, we also had the Presidency of the Council, which marked the first-year anniversary since such invasion started. In this regard, we held an important debate in the Security Council, with the members of the same council represented at the highest level possible and invited other countries and briefers to express their positions and their state of play, hoping that this will end very soon because it’s also having indirect effects on the rest of the world, not least in Europe: energy crisis, food security or nuclear threatened securities. The issues are various, and the effects are impacting families and businesses, not only in Ukraine, but across the continent.
BF: Malta joined the UN Security Council for two years at the beginning of this year. How important is the UN in ensuring Malta’s future stability and success, and what key issues does Malta intend to address on the council going forward?
Ian Borg: The war in Ukraine is the most pressing one, not least because it’s a war in the heart of Europe. We are proud Europeans, we’re part of the EU bloc, and it is unacceptable to have such an invasion, a total attack on the international rules-based order. We’re here having an overhaul of the security architecture of our world. Therefore, this war is of particular importance. In fact, it featured prominently in our events during the Security Council meetings and decisions that we will be taking.
But then, there are also other conflicts which we cannot neglect. We still have instability in the north of Africa, especially our dear neighbors, Libya. Libyans are experiencing a situation where you have foreign interventions. In our opinion, during this juncture, the Libyans should have friends, they should have business investments there, and have their respective international relations. But at the same time, the process should be Libyan-owned and Libyan-led, for the Libyan people to decide what sort of constitution they want, what sort of democratic rules they want, and then to decide whom they want to have represent them in parliament, at the prime ministerial level and at the presidential level. This is our position: advocating for free and fair elections as soon as possible. But meanwhile, we must keep assisting them. We’re doing it at an international level also, through the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General. Therefore, Libya is also very much on our mind and priorities. But there’s also Syria; I’m glad that we managed to extend the humanitarian resolution.
Another issue that is going to feature in our Presidency of the Security Council is climate change. We wanted to be constructive and therefore, while climate change has various facets, we wanted to cover a non-controversial aspect of it. These are the issues that are brought by sea level rise. The fact that we are experiencing, and the experts are telling us, that with climate change, we will continue to experience sea level rise, is a security threat to many small island states. At the same time, it’s also a threat to whole coastal areas in even bigger countries. It means that this issue needs to be tackled also from a legal point of view. It’s not only an environmental issue, but also causing the possibility of having communities displaced, with people relocating themselves because of climate change, and countries losing whole areas of territory. The question therefore is what will their legal standing and legal status be from then onwards? In terms of our international treaties and our charters, Malta was one of the first, if not the first, to raise the issue of climate change in the 1960s. Such realities that are now being experienced and which will only worsen in the coming years, are coming to pass. These are the same realities which were not present back then. Therefore, we must discuss this matter.
As a small island state, we’re also willing to share best practices with the least developed small island states and other less developed countries because climate change is a big concern. For example, I met the president of Kiribati who is telling us that his whole country may be displaced and transferred to another island they already acquired from Fiji, to basically start a new life, a new country, because of the effects of sea level rise. It’s not an issue of having a colder weather or a warmer summer and fix it by wearing less of more clothes or by climate control. We’re talking about serious and devastating effects, ones that we’re already experiencing in other disasters, be it in Pakistan with the floods or in Africa with dehydration. That is why we’ll give it also a lot of importance.
We will give importance to children in armed conflicts, because while there are conflicts and there are wars, it’s crucial to always protect the children and to protect civilians. Also, when it comes to women peace and security, it is going to feature prominently in our program.
BF: This year marks the 50th anniversary since Malta and China established diplomatic relations, and you have been positive about the Belt and Road Initiative in the past. How global partnerships like this are helping to build Malta’s infrastructure and national scope, and what impact are large global partnerships having on Malta’s relations with the U.S.?
Ian Borg: There’s a misconception that Malta depends on some other countries when it comes to investments. First, we do our best to attract every good and sustainable foreign investment. But our biggest investment is from the Maltese business community itself. They are by far contributing to most of our investment. Then the Europeans: Germans are our biggest investors; Italy and UK following them; and we have more investment coming from the U.S., ahead of the Indians and the Chinese.
While we have excellent, long-standing historical relations with China, we have one strategic investment, which is 33%, so, no control stake when it comes to the energy company. When it comes to capital projects, roads, sports financing, we have no Chinese investment there. We’re mainly focusing on the Maltese money itself, and especially on EU funding. I know that there may be this misconception because we are happy with the excellent relations we have with the U.S., with China, with the UK, but our country is dependent on the hardworking Maltese, and we have no foreign debt, which is unique for the Maltese island.
We’re not dependent on anyone, but at the same time, we look forward to having good, sustainable investment in Malta, from all those of goodwill. This was also the spirit that took me to Washington, when I received the invitation by Secretary of State Blinken. I also met the Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who is the son of a Maltese national, and other people. There were very positive meetings where we discussed not only bilateral relations, but also how we can improve connectivity, investment, and how to share and coordinate on policy matters. The discussions were conducted in the best spirit possible. I look forward to following them up in this calendar year.
BF: In December you met with your U.S. counterpart Blinken to address strong ties between the two countries and promote peace in the region. What is being done to put Malta on the map?
Ian Borg: The fact that we are geographically so far away from each other should not keep us away from deepening our relations, not only politically, but also from a business and training standpoint. When you’re accessing Malta, you’re accessing a single market of 500 million people; it’s not the half million population of Malta. Malta is also very much seen as the bridge between Europe and the immensely important continent of Africa. We lie just in the middle of the shipping route. Air connectivity is also another thing which can be exploited positively, as well as the huge maritime area that we have. Therefore, we’re also, now, exploring investments when it comes to renewables: solar, wind energy, and our maritime area.
Also, with the setting up of the Malta/North America Business Council (I happened to meet the chairman only a few days ago), we’re actively discussing matters. It can help us connect better our business community and the United States. I’m sure also that contributions such as your article, and the fact that you will be meeting and interviewing other ministries and other entities, commercial ones, and regulators, can further expose the potential of Malta as an EU member state to the United States.
BF: You stepped up as Minister for Foreign and European Affairs in March last year after a long career in politics, including being Parliamentary Secretary of the EU Presidency, Minister of Transport and mayor of your hometown. As the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, what are your top three priorities, and what future role do you see possible for Malta on the world stage?
Ian Borg: Malta can do more when it comes to the SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and the assistance given thereof, with the best practices, at international forums like the United Nations, but also in other clubs such as the Commonwealth, since most of these SIDS are part of the Commonwealth. That is why, during COP26 and COP27 in Glasgow and in Sharm el Sheikh respectively, our Prime Minister discussed about our initiative, “Island for Islands.” This is a Maltese initiative to share our best practices when it comes to, for example, water management. The excellent way we manage our water system is something we can share with such countries.
We are approaching the second decade of European membership. I would like to see Malta having a constructive role. I would like to see this vibrant economy keep growing in a sustainable way. Our impressive numbers, since 2013, and the way the economy grew also left some marks that need to be addressed. It’s crucial to keep growing. There’s no other way. But at the same time, we must keep ensuring that this is done in a sustainable manner. Finally, one of my main goals remain to strengthen our relations with the USA and the American people in all spheres. We share the same culture, the same ideas, the same ideals of democracy, liberty, and rule of law.