Editorial | The price to pay for securing American support

Soliciting the help of the US is a practical way of gaining some leverage on the international stage but in doing so Abela’s government must be open and honest about its intentions


Malta has rejected signing a Status of Forces Agreement with the US for the better part of two decades. The cross-party consensus was based on SOFA possibly being in breach of Malta’s neutrality as enshrined in the Constitution, although this has never been properly argued and tested.

Without a SOFA arrangement in place, the US has been reluctant to send military vessels to Malta for courtesy calls. Maltese shipyards have also been unable to tender for maintenance work on the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.

The lack of agreement may also stunt the level of military cooperation between both countries in cracking down on smuggling in the central Mediterranean.

A SOFA itself does not constitute a security arrangement but establishes the rights and privileges of American personnel present in a country in support of other arrangements they would have agreed to.

A SOFA does not mean the US will have a military base in Malta or a permanent presence.

There are benefits of having a SOFA in place even if Malta includes qualifying clauses like other countries have done, including those on shared jurisdiction in the case of criminal acts carried out by American servicemen.

At the very least, Malta must have a serious debate on the type of military relationship it should have with the US, even if this is based on practical considerations.

After all, despite its neutrality, Malta joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme in 2008, and practical considerations were the principle reason for this.

Through its participation in PfP Malta was allowed to sit in on EU defence meetings where privileged information is shared. The country had been experiencing problems at an EU level until then because it was neither a NATO nor a PfP member.

But while calling for a debate on SOFA, this leader cannot but note that the circumstances under which it is being considered now are anything but ideal.

The truth is that renewed pressure from the Americans comes at a time when Malta is at its weakest on the international stage.

Faced with the prospect of grey-listing by Moneyval over shortcomings in the fight against financial crime, Malta could use the clout the US has on the international Financial Action Task Force to convince its partners it means business.

However, American clout comes at a price and SOFA appears to be one such condition despite official pronouncements by the government denying any link between an agreement and Moneyval.

It is unfortunate that the debate on SOFA, and in the wider context, Malta’s relationship with the US on security and military matters, has to happen under a dark cloud. It is truly the price of maladministration.

Malta has registered progress in addressing good governance failures since Robert Abela’s administration took office in January. Important reforms have taken place and others are in the pipeline.

Efforts to beef up the regulatory and law enforcement agencies tasked with overseeing the fight against financial crime have been intensified.

More needs to be done to see deeper investigations on financial crimes, dismantling of organised criminal networks and eventually prosecutions but we have seen the first signs of a police force willing to go after the big fish over allegations of money laundering, bribery and corruption.

There appears to be the political will to run the full course but this alone may not be enough to convince Malta’s international partners after the disgraceful happenings under the Muscat administration.

Soliciting the help of the US is a practical way of gaining some leverage on the international stage but in doing so Abela’s government must be open and honest about its intentions.

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