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EU-Malta relations in last chance saloon after historic Roberta Metsola election

Last week saw record-breaker Roberta Metsola (pictured) undertake her first official visit since becoming the youngest ever President of the European Parliament earlier this year. Metsola’s decision to return to her homeland as the first Maltese national to lead any EU institution was an obvious but highly symbolic one.

Arriving to a hero’s welcome, Metsola met with Malta’s President George Vella and performed her official duties as a feeling of positivity swept across the island. Behind the scenes, however, tensions between the European Union and its smallest state appear to be at an all-time high.

Metsola’s visit to Malta comes at an important time. Her meteoric rise is in stark contrast to her own country’s downward spiral into the geopolitical gutters after a string of corruption scandals involving a plethora of politicians, domestic businesses, and hostile foreign entities over recent years. For all Metsola’s success, Malta now suffers the indignity of being branded ‘a high-risk state’ for money laundering and corrupt activity as Europe’s only member of the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list since June 2021.

The island nation has also been seen to be strengthening ties with questionable allies, moving under the thumb of the Chinese and Russian states. Metsola was pipped to the post by China’s President Xi whose phone call to George Vella was the Maltese premier’s first major international engagement this year. Xi invited Vella for a visit to China later this year while Vella promised to back China on the international stage in dealings with the UN.

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Russia meanwhile views its influence in Malta as an important strategic asset with plans afoot to use the Mediterranean island as a naval base. Malta’s golden passport scheme, providing Russia with a gap through which its dirty money and influence can seep into Europe, is seen as tantamount to sabotage by the EU. The expectation that EU member states should be putting on a united front at a time of great international tension in Ukraine has clearly not reached Malta. Western hegemony is being undermined right under the EU’s nose.

It was somewhat surprising that Metsola did not seize the chance to take a harder line on these developments. Metsola’s vague public statement stressed the need for accountability and justice but stopped short of pressing President Vela on issues of corruption and foreign influence during their meeting.

Where Metsola did manage to achieve a cut through was on the issue of press freedom. She laid a wreath at the site of the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and sent out a warning shot that the European Parliament would keep demanding truth, justice and accountability for her murder.

Her comments lie in stark contrast to current Prime Minister Robert Abela’s government refusing to implement the public inquiry board’s recommendations into Galizia’s death, which found the state to be accountable.

Prime Minister Abela was notable in his absence during Metsola’s visit, himself embroiled in a handful of scandals. The latest allegations against Abela trickling out over the weekend involve property dealings with a man who is alleged to have been involved in a kidnapping operation as well as narcotic smuggling and money laundering. Abela’s rogue’s gallery of associates is likely to hamper his chances of re-election when the country foes to the polls in the coming months.

It is this no-nonsense attitude that the EU is relying on Metsola to maintain in an attempt to keep her old house in order. She has the political prowess to make a difference, but the road ahead appears forked.

On one hand, Metsola could become a driving force within the EU to facilitate the rehabilitation of Malta’s political and financial system. The risky decision to elect Metsola, given her country’s many troubles, pays off as she brings a fresh perspective to the table, untainted by association with the corrupt old boys club of the Abela regime.

Alternatively, Malta is simply too far gone and the job too great for Metsola, even with the might of the EU behind her. If the trade Bloc cannot solve the Malta issue now with the leader of the EP hailing from its shores, then it surely never will.

Metsola’s presidency will ultimately have huge ramifications for Malta and the EU. The EU has thus far failed to act adequately in combating the seismic problems presented by its smallest member. Metsola must immediately stem the tide of corrupt activity and hostile foreign influence and bring her country back in from the cold.

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