Malta, Denmark and the United Kingdom; unlikely bedfellows at first glance. These countries are in the spotlight of European politics this week. Monday saw a shift in tone for the European Union, as it took a step towards military cooperation with the establishment of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). This change in the member states’ attitudes, previously recalcitrant with respect to the prospect of a European military alliance, follows uncertainty regarding the future of NATO and other political calculations.
The geo-political scene of late has been characterised by the flaring up of old tensions and the escalation of conflicts. The European Union stands relatively untouched amidst this sea of turmoil to which it once oscillated so readily and violently. The last year or so has seen the resurgence of the idea that the EU may be a forum for structured military cooperation of a more permanent and less reactionary nature. The European Commission welcomed the Council’s decision to formally approve a plan towards this end, with the approval of 17 projects of joint cooperation in areas such as ‘military mobility, maritime surveillance, and cyber security’.
The greatest catalysts for this action seem to have been the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the French President Emmanuel Macron. The former had spoken glowingly of the prospect of actualising this potential of the Lisbon Treaty in a speech he made in June of this year. Macron, for his part, has seen the implementation of this military pact as a strengthening of the European Project, in keeping with his electoral promises of last year. The Lisbon Treaty, seen by many as a way to eventuate the aims of the failed Constitutional Treaty in a less forceful and more palatable form, sought to break from the strictures and limitations that the Union had faced with regard to military cooperation. However, as expected, countries were given the choice to opt-out of such a forum upon its realisation.
Though the abdication of three countries from this incremental approach to a defence pact might seem disheartening to the untrained eye, it was to be expected. Firstly, the United Kingdom, set to leave the Union in 2019, could hardly be expected to be included in this lasting commitment. Secondly the Danish government has its hands tied to a certain degree. In the 1992 referendum for the approval of the Maastricht Treaty, Danes rejected the Treaty, a move many chalked up to, in part, a reluctance to be caught up in a military union. This led to the government of the time negotiating an opt-out on such matters for Denmark, an opt-out which persists till this day. However, the most curious case for us Maltese is of course our islands’ say in the matter.
The crux of Malta’s hesitation lies in the neutrality clause enshrined in Section 1(3) of the Maltese Constitution which holds that Malta should not participate “in any military alliance.” Though a sparse body of judgments relating to the clause gives little guidance to the full scope of its implementation, one cannot easily escape the explicit prohibition of a military alliance. For this reason, the current administration has decided to opt-out of the pact at this point until the choice becomes clearer and the constitutionality of such an action can be established. This hesitation on the part of Malta was unsurprising as following a debate hosted by JEF Malta this October, politicians of diverse political persuasions expressed their wariness in approaching membership in any military union.
The European Union has taken a decisive turn towards further cooperation in security matters, complementing its wide ranging economic and social competencies. It remains to be seen whether Malta will follow suit in due time or remain a principled objector to this growing aspect of European militarisation.