INTERVIEW | Glenn Micallef: Malta’s significant impact as honest brokers in Brexit negotiations

As head of the Brexit Unit and the EU Coordination Department within the Ministry of EU Affairs, Glenn Micallef has been spearheading Malta’s preparations for any Brexit deal. He explains to BusinessToday what has been achieved this far and how Malta was percieved in the Brexit negotiations


What are your duties as head of the EU secretariat within the Ministry for European Affairs?

The EU Secretariat, recently been renamed the EU Coordination Department, is responsible for coordinating consolidated positions on all European Union matters.

My role is to ensure that our representatives in Brussels have clear instructions, to enable them to effectively participate in discussions on legislation or policy that will impact Malta and its citizens. Such instructions have to be coherent and emphasis needs to be made on word consolidated if are to be effective as a Member State. Many a times we need to ensure that we find a fair balance between the interests of different ministries, that may be conflicting, and that take into account both the discussions taking place in Brussels as well as the impact of any proposals on Maltese stakeholders.

Insofar as the coherence of our positions is concerned, the importance of this is many times underestimated but I think this is intrinsically related to our credibility around the EU negotiating tables. In other words, if we are to be really effective and safeguard our interests, we need to be credible to have reliable allies and partners in different policy areas. Such credibility can only be achieved if we’re seen as a consistent and reliable partner.

Last but not least, we also oversee and monitor the transposition of EU Directives. Although we (as a Department) might not have a direct role in their implementation, we try to ensure that as a government we uphold our commitment to correctly implement and transpose EU law in a timely manner.

You also head the Brexit Unit, which must take up a lot of your time and attention. How big an input did Malta have in terms of the EU’s position when negotiating Brexit with the UK?

The Brexit negotiations have undoubtedly taken a lot of my time over the past two and a half years since the negotiations started. As regards our input, I think that it’s been significant. And I’ll sustain my point with concrete examples.

First and foremost is a point that many people tend to forget. The principal set of guidelines establishing the parameters for the Chief Negotiator were agreed and concluded during Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Whilst I don’t want to give the impression that our government wants to all the credit for this achievement, it had a role in persuading the rest of the Member States on their content before they were actually adopted by the leaders and the European Council. In this regard, it is imperative to note that these are still referred to this day, more than two years later and their content is still relevant.

Secondly, in the Article 50 meetings where Member States were being regularly consulted by the Chief Negotiator ahead and after negotiations with the UK, we had as significant an input as any other Member State. For instance, and more concretely, I remember that when we were discussing the Citizens’ rights chapter of the Withdrawal Agreement, Dr. Helena Dalli (then Malta’s Minister for European Affairs and Equality) had raised a point about the importance of treating the children of beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement born before the end of the transition period in the same way as those who are born after. This proposal was eventually included in the legal text and there were many other (proposals like it).

Last, at the very highest of levels, amongst Heads of governments and State, in the European Council, I think we are seen as neutral and honest brokers. Fortunately, throughout these negotiations, the Union has always been very united in its approach and its positions and I don’t think there was ever an issue where we’ve been disappointed at our negotiating team or our position.

What was the Maltese government’s main priority in its preparation for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU?

One word: Citizens.

Since the very beginning of the process the government was always aware that there was a significant diaspora of Maltese in the UK and of UK nationals in Malta. These had made life choices and exercised their rights to move freely between our countries. We wanted to give them clarity and peace of mind, also considering their valuable contribution to our society.

This is why this was our first priority and the first thing we wanted to sort out. And in this regard, we have not left any stone unturned. We considered their rights to access the labour market, to access the national health services and in other important areas. These were and will be protected regardless of whether there will be a deal or not, and we are very pleased that the UK government will do the same for Maltese nationals in the UK.

We then also looked into the potential impacts on our economy, our trade links and other important areas to make preparations accordingly.

The ministry has just launched its “Brexit Be Prepared” campaign, wherein it will be ensuring that all government departments are up to speed on any actions and new regulations that might need to come in effect on 1 November. What are the major changes we can expect?

There will be changes in different areas because the regulatory environment in the EU is not homogenous in all sectors. The government saw what the potential impact in different sectors could be and tried to ensure that we prepared as best as we could.

There will definitely be larger traffic volumes in customs because rules will change when it comes to trade with the United Kingdom. There will be more thorough checks at airports and ports for people travelling to and from the United Kingdom, and there will be different regulations to place products from the UK on EU Markets.

Having said all this, I am confident in our preparations. Whilst I am aware that not all will be business as usual, I am optimistic that there will not be any major disruptions.

As part of the campaign, you also announced that full drills will be carried out across all government departments. What will this entail?

This is something that Minister Zammit Lewis started working on immediately as soon as was given the responsibility for this portfolio and as part of his push to intensify the preparations for a no deal scenario.

Basically, all government departments will internally test their systems and administrative processes as if the UK were - what in EU lingo - we refer to as a, third country. This will enable us to identify any areas where we would need to fine tune our preparations.

In view of the developments in the past week – where the UK, the EU and now even Ireland are showing more positive signs of reaching an agreement by the prescribed date of 31 October – what is the feedback your department is getting from within the EU?

I think the mood is more positive than it has ever been since the Withdrawal Agreement was concluded almost a year ago. It augurs well but we are still keeping our feet on the ground – hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Time is not on our side and until we are absolutely certain, we cannot and should not, rule out the possibility of a no deal.

Whilst I know better than to speculate, I sincerely hope that the negotiators manage to put a deal together.

What do you envisage will cause the biggest disruption in Malta come Brexit?

Uncertainty is what irritates people the most. There will be pressures on the administration in various areas but I am confident that the public sector will be able to handle it.

Malta has thus far not been able to start bilateral negotiations with the UK because of the EU’s policy, but have ideas been exchanged with the UK representatives as to what kind of relationship both countries will seek once the UK leaves the EU?

I think that both governments have always been clear that they want to have the strongest possible relationship after the UK leaves the EU regardless of the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations. Insofar as the bilateral relationship between the two countries after Brexit, this will have to be framed within a new context than what we had before Malta became an EU Member State. In other words, as a Member State we are bound by the Treaties and therefore need to ensure that the division of competences is respected.

More specifically, whilst internally as a government we are studying how the future bilateral relationship can be shaped, we remain committed to the approach agreed amongst the EU27 that there should not be any bilateral negotiations.

Frequently, over the past three years, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and, more recently, even minister Edward Zammit Lewis, have mentioned the special relationship Malta enjoys with the UK. The Prime Minister went as far as to say that Malta was aiming to be the most UK-friendly country in the EU. How realistic is this claim, and can we expect any special treatment from the UK simply because of our historic ties?

I think it’s realistic because there’s a lot the two countries have in common and because of our government’s commitment to deliver on this.

This has been confirmed by the UK’s High Commissioner to Malta, when he publicly spoke about our preparations and our assurances to the UK community.

They remain unmatched in the EU 27.

On the second part of your question, I think that time will tell but that to a certain extent we already have a special treatment. Take the bilateral agreement we have in the healthcare sector for instance. This is something that both sides remain committed to, that will continue to apply after Brexit and which shows that we enjoy special treatment(s) in / by the UK.

In the BusinessToday breakfast meeting held recently, where you formed part of the speakers’ panel, serious concerns were raised by representatives of various sectors, including the GRTU, the pharmaceutical industry, pensioners and expats. Are you sure enough has been done to dispel the fears of many concerned citizens?

I reiterate that I am confident in our preparations.

I will not be naive or arrogant and tell you that there will not be issues or hiccups. What I will tell you is that I am committed – as the rest of my colleagues in the different departments in the public sector, to do everything possible to ensure the smoothest possible changeover.

Please provide one word to describe the following:

Brexit: Unpredictable
Brussels: Misunderstood
British High Commissioner Stuart Gill: Articulate
Boris Johnson:
UK-Malta relationship: Healthy

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