Throughout history, bridges have helped to bring countries and people closer together. Nowhere is this more so the case than in Europe, whose nations – most of which possess distinct languages, cultures and traditions – are sardine-canned together, naturally divided by a topography of mountains, rivers and lakes.
The Europe Bridge, which connects Austria with northern Italy via a 777m overpass spanning the Sill River and providing a main route though the Alps, is one such stunning example. When it was officially opened by then Austrian chancellor Alfons Gorbach in 1963, he said “may this bridge connect the peoples of Europe in peace and freedom”.
Today, the Maltese Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion, Carmelo Abela, evokes this symbolism of bridges when referring to the role that the island can play in connecting Europe with Africa.
“Our position here is that we are not only seen, but we act also as bridge builders between two great continents,” he says.
Of course, Malta does not offer a physical bridge between the two land masses (though it does make for an ideal conduit, with its geostrategic location in the Mediterranean Sea making it a first European port of call). No, the bridge that Abela talks of building is one that is constructed through dialogue.
“Both the African continent and European continent need to work more together, in the sense that there are opportunities, for example, that we Europeans are not taking when it comes to the Africa. We need to have a new narrative.”
It is a narrative that Malta – with its close geographic ties with northern Africa, and Libya in particular – has carefully been nurturing over the years. Since the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the political and economic instability that has subsequently transpired, Malta however has had to strip back its long-held trade and business interests in the country. Instead, the new relationship between Malta and its neighbour has come to be defined by a worsening humanitarian crisis: migration (something that Abela describes a “top priority” for the EU).
“In recent months, we are trying to focus more on Africa, and not just the northern part”. Copyright: South EU Summit
As a result, Malta has started to look further afield to strike up new friendships in Africa and begin writing new plotlines when it comes to international cooperation and trade.
“In recent months, we are trying to focus more on Africa, and not just the northern part,” explains the minister. “Case in point is Ghana, where we have a High Commission now, and they also have an Ambassador here present in Valletta. This is our first High Commission, our first embassy in Sub-Saharan Africa, and that is something that we are keen to continue doing to promote trade, to promote relations.
“We are trying to convey the message, not only to ourselves first and foremost as a country, but also within the structures of the European Union, where I think that we need to do more in our relations with Africa as partners, as equals. We should not remember Africa because we have an issue with migration – there is much more to our relationship than just that.”
And it is not just over the water in Africa where Malta’s increasingly outward-looking foreign policy (beyond traditional European markets) now stretches. Just last month (April 2019) for example, it sent a huge delegation comprising of more than 60 representatives from Maltese government, agencies, and businesses to Singapore, where a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in the fields of emerging technologies and cybersecurity was signed.
This forging of ties between the countries – who share clear similarities – is no accident. Like Singapore, Malta an is island-nation that, while small, is home to a large export sector and serves as a strategic regional gateway. Both are also important hubs for maritime affairs, logistics, financial services and increasingly – as highlighted by the MoU – the digital economy. With the delegation also having visited Seoul for the first time during its trip to Asia, Malta soon hopes to establish comparable cooperation with South Korea as well.
I think it’s important for us to have a constant dialogue. Copyright: South EU Summit
Next month (June 2019), Malta will have the perfect opportunity to showcase the steps it is taking to use foreign policy for the improvement and internationalisation of its economy, as it plays host to the sixth South EU Summit. Bringing together the leaders of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, besides economic cooperation, the summit will address other areas of mutual concern, including migration and regional stability.
“First and foremost, it’s good that we meet and discuss these issues,” says Abela. “Not only at the level of our heads of government, but also in different formations. I think it’s important for us to have a constant dialogue on these issues. Not necessarily to agree on everything, but at least to acknowledge that these are the challenges, and that we need to do something on those issues as a first step.
“It’s important not only to discuss what we see as challenges,” continues the minister. “But we also need to discuss what the opportunities are, even due to our geographical position, like Africa for example.”
The summit will also be an opportunity of the nation’s leaders to discuss the fallout of EU elections, which have taken place this weekend, on 23-26 May. According to Abela, with the EU model currently “at a standstill” owing to ongoing affairs such as Brexit, Europe he says has been unable to “think about its own future”.
In light of this, the South EU Summit will have a clear mandate to recognise the importance of developing a united roadmap forward for the future of Europe as union, and the southern region in particular.
“As the European Union elections for the next European Parliament approach, I think that we are in a situation where we have only been thinking about the present. We are not thinking enough about the future, including enlargement of the EU, and where we want to go in a number of years.
“Still, we have populists that are trying to convey a certain message, that maybe is not balanced enough […] so who knows how the European elections can go. Some argue that Brexit is the result of a lack of action when it comes to the European election results of five years ago. Let’s hope that we will not have a repeat this time around.”