INTERVIEW | Stuart Gill: Exciting times ahead for Malta/UK relationship

Stuart Gill, British High Commissioner to Malta, is adamnant the UK will leave the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal. He tells BusinessToday why he feels the relations between Malta and UK are only bound to get stronger in the years ahead and why he believes a very exciting time for the bilateral relationship is coming up


Since being appointed High Commissioner to Malta in September 2016, how have you settled in in Malta? What was the biggest “shock” of moving to Malta?

This is a role which I had wanted, and it has been a very good experience. My wife and I have been and are enjoying it, and it took me no time at all time get to know many people and to settle in. Malta is a beautiful country, steeped in history, and the Maltese people have been very welcoming, displaying great warmth and hospitality. Malta has had a very good relationship for over two centuries with Britain, and the two countries enjoy an everlasting friendship. And I think my appointment here was going to be quite an experience regardless of the UK’s ongoing EU withdrawal process, but Brexit has indeed made my job here very interesting.

As you pointed out, Malta enjoys a particularly close relationship with the UK, due to our historical links. Does this make your job easier, or does it cause added challenges in terms of having to ensure the relationship is maintained and strengthened?

Malta and the UK indeed have a very long-lasting, deep relationship, and this makes for a very good start for any diplomatic appointment. I firmly believe that this b-lateral relationship will get deeper and stronger post-Brexit. In this regard, I think it would be overly simplistic to say that the bilateral relationship between Malta and the UK will merely return to how it was before 2004, when Malta joined the EU. Since that time, the world has changed significantly, and the issues which dominate the international sphere are now different.

We now have to work very closely together on issues such as terrorism, migration, human trafficking, stability in Libya and illicit finance. And I can see an upward shift in the relationship. Our tourism-related and cultural links will also be preserved and continue to thrive, but, on a diplomatic level, I also see plenty of scope to work on issues common to both countries. A very exciting time for the bilateral relationship is coming up.

You took up your position a few months after the UK voted to leave the EU. Did you imagine, back then, that the UK would still be debating when to leave, whether to leave and how to leave three years down the line?

Brexit is the most complex and sensitive issue which the UK has faced since World War II and leaving the EU after many decades of membership was never going to be easy. The newly appointed government has put in place a new dynamic, and has been very clear about delivering the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum, and leaving the EU on 31 October. The government wants to reach a deal with the EU and is making great efforts for this to happen. But, at the same time, if that’s not possible then we will leave without a deal on 31 October.

The government has been explicit in saying that there can only be a deal if the Irish backstop is removed from the agreement. The backstop would be a continuation of the applicability of EU law in the UK, and would not meet our concerns about sovereignty. Discussions are ongoing about this, and the preparatory process for a no-deal scenario has been accelerated to ensure people and businesses are ready. Deal or no deal, however, the departure date is 31 October.

Britain’s parliamentary system is generally acknowledged as being one of the best functioning and most democratic. After the past three years, with all the political resignations, defections, and new appointments, do you still believe in your parliamentary system?

Just because what has been going on is politically dramatic, this does not mean the system isn’t working.  Yes, there is a vigorous debate but our parliamentary system and constitution are working. I have great confidence in them, and we are witnessing them function.

Once the UK voted for Brexit, several commentators said that various British and multinational companies might decide to move from The City to other European financial centres. Amongst these destinations, Malta featured prominently as a possible solution for UK-based companies seeking to secure EU passporting access in a post-Brexit scenario. Are you aware of any multinationals that chose to move or open a subsidiary in Malta for this reason?

It is no surprise that companies have sought to manage the perceived risk of Brexit and reviewed their structures, including their access to passporting rights. The Maltese government has been in touch with UK companies and worked very hard to let them know that Malta is open to them for co-location. I am aware that some UK companies, for example in financial services, have looked at Malta, with perhaps the most well-publicised one being Bet365. This is understandable, because Malta is a country where it is easy to do business. Another major advantage, of course, is that English is spoken in Malta.

Many near-apocalyptic scenarios are being promoted as to the UK’s possible fate outside of the EU. But, in fact, how does the UK plan to remain a top global player in many industries as it stands today?

One principal reason for Brexit was to allow the UK to negotiate its own trade deals. With the EU, we want a friendly and constructive relationship in facing the challenges that lie ahead. It will be a relationship based on a deep Free Trade Agreement.  Come Brexit, however, we will have left the customs union so we will have control of our own trade.

On this particular point, we have already reached trade agreements with partners worth around £70 billion of current trade, and agreed in principle an agreement with South Korea which represents another £15 billion.

Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and is number one in Europe in terms of global investment. Currently, it attracts more investment in Artificial Intelligence than the rest of the EU, and lots of funding is also going into research and development. This says a lot about Britain’s global reach. Add to that the fact that the UK is the only country in the EU to spend more than 2% of its GDP on defence and 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance every year.

Brexit will give Britain not only the additional freedom to pursue its own trade deals, but also to spread its values when it comes to human rights and democracy. This paints a picture of a country which is not retreating from the world but rather looking outwards. We’ve always been like this, and it will continue.

A great example of our global ambition is our leadership on climate change. Only last week, the UK, in partnership with Italy, was officially nominated to host COP26 in Glasgow by the UN Western European and Others Group (WEOG) in New York. This summit will put climate change and protecting the environment at the heart of the multilateral agenda. COP26 will be a turning point in the push for cleaner energy, a more resilient future and flourishing nature, and the mainstreaming of green financial systems.

What is your message to British expats in Malta, and to those many Maltese who chose to move to the UK for study or work? Are you confident that their lives won’t be disrupted after Brexit?

Lots of attention is being given to ensuring expats’ lives continue unchanged, and we have been working very closely with the Maltese government on this. Joseph Muscat said he wanted Malta to be the most Brit-friendly country, and he has been true to his word. The Maltese government has put in place arrangements which will protect the rights of British nationals and there is a lot of information about this available. Malta’s government has created a very simple application which will be open for two years after Brexit and will grant British nationals 10 years’ residence in Malta, assuring them continued access to healthcare, social services, and so on.

How important will the Commonwealth be in any post-Brexit scenario? Is the Commonwealth still relevant in today’s globalised market?

The Commonwealth will continue to be very important to both our countries after the UK leaves the EU. We are determined that it will carry on doing its great work. The Commonwealth is a family of 53 member states, each very different and representing a huge portion of the world’s population.

As two Commonwealth countries, we have much to do together. Take for example, human trafficking and modern slavery, on which we are working very closely together. The scourge of modern slavery still claims 40 million victims around the world. So, this is something the UK, Malta and the other Commonwealth countries must work together on. We can achieve a lot, and the UK is committed to seeing the Commonwealth thrive.

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