The tiny nation holding Britain hostage (like 27 others)
Published by The Mail on Sunday (2nd April, 2017)
The symbolism could not have been more stark, nor the power plays more loaded, when Europe formally responded to the historic triggering of Article 50 starting Brexit on Friday.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, stood at a podium in a baroque palace. He spoke about ‘damage control’, laid down Brussels’ terms for negotiation and made clear Britain was already on the opposite side of the table from the 27 other member states.
‘This is my first divorce,’ he joked in his thick Polish accent. ‘I hope it is my last one.’
Beside him, fluently responding to reporters’ questions on EU strategy and security, stood a stocky, smaller man at a second podium. This was Joseph Muscat, often unrecognised on the global stage, the socialist prime minister of tiny Malta in whose splendid medieval offices the event took place.
Now this man holds the destiny of our country in his hands. For make no mistake, the obscure Mr Muscat is every bit as crucial to our future as Monsieur Hollande or Frau Merkel.
And doesn’t he know it. Just 14 years ago Muscat was a prominent voice opposing his own nation joining the EU. Yet today this former radio journalist, educated in a British university, is soaking up his moment in the sun and lecturing us on the ‘inferior’ deal Britain can expect at the end of Brexit negotiations.
As leader of one of the 27 nations who must sign off on any deal, we must treat Malta every bit as seriously as France or Germany if we are to prosper.
So it was Malta’s red-and-white flag that stood alongside the blue-and-gold stars of Brussels for the cameras. And it was this tiny nation that saw presidents and prime ministers drop in last week to discuss Britain’s disruptive withdrawal.
Yet Muscat is leader of the smallest member of the Brussels club, a country with a population the size of Bristol’s – the city that provided him with a university education and a doctorate in philosophy.
It is ruled by a government stained by swirling corruption rumours. And its entire economy is more than 20 times smaller than Britain’s single biggest firm.
Yet thanks to Brexit, Malta can hold its former colonial master hostage – underlining the cruel conflagration of history and geography ignited by last year’s referendum and causing waves of concern from Ireland to Gibraltar.
In a strange twist of fate this insignificant nation currently holds the rotating Europe presidency, placing its leader at the core of discussions over our future. Our terms of departure from the EU, our trade deals, our rights and our freedoms depend on winning agreement from the Maltese – along with the Cypriots, Croats, Czechs and all the rest of the EU crowd.
Hence the significance of this politician – a puffed-up pin-up of Europe’s Left – pompously discussing the terms of our departure. For his very presence at that podium underscores the huge risks and high hurdles on the path ahead to Brexit.
Just six months ago, after all, a Belgian regional parliament stymied a delicate EU trade deal with Canada. The Walloons, fearing competition for their farmers, won last-minute concessions by threatening a 1,600-page treaty that took seven years to negotiate.
Yet even those intense discussions were a cakewalk compared with the mind-blowing complexities of Brexit.
After Friday’s press conference – ironically held on a public holiday to celebrate Malta’s ‘freedom’ from Britain when our last naval base closed there in 1979 – I chatted briefly with Muscat and his aides. All insisted they sought a ‘fair deal’ for both Britain and Europe.
Yet the Maltese leader has called for Britain to be treated as roughly as Greece, forced to accept a harsh austerity package when it sought a bailout.
The same talk of a ‘fair deal’ kept cropping up earlier in the week when 2,500 delegates descended on Malta for a gathering of Europe’s centre-Right grouping – which the Tories quit after David Cameron became leader in his first, foolish and doomed attempt to appease Eurosceptics.
Angela Merkel pointedly kept talking about 27 members of the EU in her speech as if Britain had already left.
Afterwards Antonio Tajani, Italian president of Europe’s parliament, underlined their determination to ensure Britain does not win this tense divorce. ‘We will lose less than the British,’ he told me. ‘The British will lose the most.’
This was the message I heard repeatedly: we must suffer consequences since there must be costs to exiting the club. Otherwise, what is the point of its existence?
So they are preparing for tough negotiations to protect their interests, insisting trade talks will only begin once Britain has settled its £50 billion bill and sorted citizens’ rights. ‘When the British people see the real price tag that comes attached to Brexit they might think again about leaving,’ said a Merkel aide.
Now think again about the implicit dangers when each member state must ratify our exit deal. Politicians from Baltic states told me they were not bothered about car deals or the City of London, focusing instead on protecting their citizens in Britain. Gibraltar has raised alarm over Spain winning a say on its future in Tusk’s draft document for Brexit strategy.
Note also how the EU is insisting Ireland’s border issues must be resolved and the peace process protected before we start to discuss trade deals.
Now go back to Malta, this nation of 423,000 people that holds a veto over our prospects alongside 26 other countries.
Malta may be small. But, like every EU state, it is a nation looking out for itself. They speak English, enjoy low taxes and, unlike other south European countries, have a thriving economy. A few crumbs from British business could make a big difference given their diminutive size.
Already there are suggestions easyJet might move its base there to stay in the EU. ‘Malta will benefit without doubt,’ said Jeremy Leach, whose fund management firm moved to the island two years ago.
This is why Britain should take note of Muscat’s place at the top table. We must remember the shape of our country lies not just with the traditional power players of Germany and France, or in the markets beyond Europe in the Americas, Africa and Far east.
It lies too with the Muscats and the Maltas, minnows who could yet threaten the big fish.
Welcome to the new world order.