Bilateral Relations between Ireland and Malta: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Billy Lawless.

Today we will have a discussion with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion in Malta, Mr. Carmelo Abela, to discuss matters of mutual interest. The Minister is most welcome and I trust his visit to our country will be successful. It has been successful already in that he has been warmly received at every engagement included in his programme. Committee members are very interested in hearing from him and we are very happy to have this engagement with him in our Parliament. I also welcome the Maltese ambassador to renew our friendship. I thank colleagues on the Joint Committee on European Affairs for accommodating the approach to this meeting. A visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion of a valued partner member of the European Union is very much of interest to our colleagues on that committee. We will hear the Minister's opening remarks before having a question and answer session with members of the committee.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person or body outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I call on the Minister to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Carmelo Abela

I am grateful for the kind invitation the Chairman and members have extended to me to address this esteemed committee on the occasion of my visit to Ireland. I wish to provide them with an updated résumé on bilateral relations between my country, Malta, and Ireland, as well as to discuss issues of common interest at bilateral and global levels, namely, migration, the Middle East peace process, the situation in Libya and Syria, as well as Brexit and the future of Europe.

I underline that Malta and Ireland have enjoyed strong bilateral relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties on 13 June 1990. During the years these ties have been strengthened by means of several agreements in various fields such as air services and the avoidance of double taxation, through continued exchanges and high level meetings and within the framework of co-operation between our two foreign ministries. I am also pleased to observe that in defence matters both countries enjoy excellent, long-standing co-operation, with regular contact. Personnel of the armed forces of Malta receive regular training at Irish military institutions, while Malta co-operates with Ireland in humanitarian search and aid matters. Thanks to co-operation with Ireland and the vessel LÉ Aoife, now renamed P62, Malta's largest naval vessel, the Maltese armed forces have been better able to assist in the rescue of migrants who regularly encounter difficulties in Malta's search and rescue area. Similarly, I am pleased to observe the ongoing postgraduate medical training being offered to Maltese health specialists, in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. This is a highly prestigious undertaking and Malta is very proud of this collaboration with Ireland. I take the opportunity to inform the esteemed members of the two committees that Malta and Ireland look forward to further amplifying their mutual collaboration on a multilateral level, reflecting the excellent bilateral interface nurtured during the years.

I will speak about migration. Malta wholeheartedly welcomes the efforts of the Irish Government in supporting other EU member states directly hit by large flows of irregular migrants and in relocating asylum seekers. Frankly, we remain concerned about the lack of predictability that prevails before and after the process of disembarkation of migrants arriving by sea. We are disappointed to register that the European Union has been unable to respond effectively to the irregular arrival of migrants along the central Mediterranean route. Were it not for an ad hoc solidarity procedure agreed to every time by a coalition of willing EU member states to relocate migrants, member states in the region would have been left guessing at how the next case would pan out. However, we could not continue with ad hoc arrangements all the time. In view of the status quo, I am particularly grateful for Ireland's direct support in relocating migrants arriving in Malta on the MV Lifeline in June 2018 and, again, aboard the Sea-Watch 3 and the Professor Albrecht Penck in January this year.

The peace process in the Middle East has always been a subject close to the heart of Malta's foreign policy. I reiterate Malta's long-standing position in favour of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict and the readiness of my country to support any initiative that aims to breathe new life, in concrete and tangible terms, into the peace process, with the aim of advancing the prospects of peace through the revival of negotiations as soon as possible. Malta also believes the status of Jerusalem as a capital city must be mutually agreed to through meaningful peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Any unilateral pronouncement to the contrary jeopardises the prospects for peace in the region. In that regard, I underline the importance of effective multilateralism and the role of the United Nations and its agencies in addressing this conflict that has been ongoing for 70 years.

Malta, together with the European Union and its member states, continues to support the excellent work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, and will strive to ensure sustainable, continued and effective assistance for Palestinian refugees at this difficult juncture. We regret the United States' decision to cut financial aid to UNRWA and urge it to reconsider. In that context, it is worth noting the efforts of both our countries to further support and sustain UNRWA in its endeavours. Last year Malta tripled its share of overseas development aid, ODA, funding for UNRWA and this year a substantial contribution has already been made prior to my visit here. I am also pleased to note that Ireland fares no less well. With the Middle East peace process firmly consolidated as a priority of its foreign policy, I note with positive interest that Ireland has launched a new initiative, the Ireland-Palestine scholarship programme, about which I look forward to learning more. I also firmly believe the European Union can play a significant role in the region. The Council conclusions of July 2014 on the Middle East peace process remain valid today. EU unity in this regard is crucial. We need to maintain the long-established EU position, particularly on the four parameters.

The situation in Libya is another issue that is very dear to my country, given Malta's proximity and long-standing relations with Libya, including its commercial ties.

Malta continues to fully support the UN-led facilitation process based on the United Nations' recalibrated action plan for Libya. The overarching baseline remains full commitment by the Libyans and the international community to the political process and the renunciation of the military track. In a follow-up to the Paris summit in May 2018 Malta welcomes the conclusions adopted in Palermo to revitalise Libya's road map by all local and international stakeholders. The need for a constitutional and legal framework before elections are held remains essential. The support of the international community is imperative to ensure the necessary technical, legislative and security conditions will be in place prior to the holding of elections by spring 2019, if they are held by then. The results will be acceptable to all if the rules of the game are agreed to prior to the holding of elections. Within this framework, Malta will continue to provide its unwavering support in facilitating capacity-building measures in Libya and reiterates its support for the efforts of the United Nations, especially those of Special Representative Ghassan Salamé, to that end.

Another conflict is happening in Syria where the escalation of violence continues to be a source of grave concern. There can be no military solution to this conflict. We condemn, in the strongest terms, the use of chemical weapons which resulted in numerous casualties. This is unacceptable and the international community has the responsibility to ensure the perpetrators will be held accountable in calling for zero impunity. The Syrian conflict is causing heightened regional instability. Malta urges all regional players to exercise restraint and pursue the path of political dialogue to re-establish peace and security in the region. It also supports the UN-led reconciliation efforts via the Geneva process and the creation of a broadly representative constitutional committee in co-operation with the Astana guarantors which would be charged with drafting a new constitution and laying the ground for the holding of democratic elections to be supervised by the United Nations. Malta looks forward to participating in the upcoming Brussels III conference on Syria and building on the work and outcome of the Brussels II Syria conference last year which asserted the importance of establishing a lasting, fully inclusive political settlement based on the Geneva communiqué and full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. For too long - nine years, to be precise - the Syrian people have toiled in the woes of the conflict. It is high time that we regenerated the discussion and took stock of actions taken in the past to forge our present and future. We owe them that much.

I will turn to Brexit which may be the subject of the day for quite some time. Malta fully respects the democratic decision taken by the United Kingdom, although we still find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that it will soon depart the European Union. Notwithstanding this decision, I reiterate Malta's stance that it will do its utmost to maintain a very close relationship with the United Kingdom. We hope the transition, whether through a deal or without one, will be as smooth as possible. I reiterate that the Maltese Government remains committed to the unity of the EU 27 and we reaffirm our support for Ireland on the Irish backstop.

I again thank the committee for the opportunity it has so kindly given me to inform it about some of Malta's bilateral relations with Ireland and share with it our perspective on a number of issues. I look forward to hearing members' perspectives on the issues I have presented or on others and answering questions they may have.

I thank the Minister, Mr. Abela, for the very detailed outline of issues of common concern to both countries and those that have a particular resonance with the international community. I had the opportunity yesterday to thank Malta for its support of this country in its concerns about Brexit. Mr. Abela has reiterated that the unity of the EU 27 is particularly important and articulated his understanding of the backstop and the necessity for it in the withdrawal agreement.

I welcome the Irish ambassador to Malta, His Excellency Patrick Duffy. I call on the Vice Chairman of the committee, Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, to make some remarks.

I welcome all of the delegates. I see that Mr. Abela has had a very interesting political career and been continually re-elected.

There were concerns about the murder of the journalist Daphne Galizia. I note that there was something happening in January and wonder if there is an update.

There are many concerns about the situation in the Mediterranean and Libya. They include concerns about the Libyan coastguard which is not really engaged in a rescue operation as such but which is bringing those whom it takes from the sea to detention centres in Libya. We know from a number of NGOs what conditions are like in the detention centres. Does Mr. Abela also share these concerns? There is a massive amount of money from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa going into this activity and I have considerable concerns about the fate of some of the migrants. Malta has accepted a number of migrants and I wonder how it deals with them. I know that it has had close relations with Libya dating back to before Colonel Gaddafi and his reign. Is it confident about the elections, considering that there are so many diverse groups in Libya and that the economy is in such a precarious position?

Malta has recently sent a trade delegation to Ghana. Ireland is very proud of its development aid record. Our aid is untied and poverty focused. Mr. Abela might outline Malta's role in the provision of development aid.

I welcome Mr. Abela to Ireland. Following on from what my colleague said, I thank Malta for its support and solidarity in the ongoing debate on the Irish backstop.

Will Mr. Abela give us an overview of Malta's position on taxation? Malta has received criticism, rightly or wrongly, for being a tax haven. We have also received some criticisms and undertaken measures along the way to improve the level of transparency.

Mr. Abela made specific reference to the Middle East peace process, which interests the committee a lot. We have controversial legislation before us on occupied territories, of which there are stand-out examples in the Middle East. I am not sure if Mr. Abela is aware of that legislation or if there is any debate in Malta on goods and services originating from territories occupied illegally under international law. What is the state of the discussion or debate in Malta on the absence of any viable Middle East peace process? A promise has been held out that there is some form of initiative coming. While nearly every country in the European Union is prepared to recognise the state of Palestine, not everybody is on board in finding a viable solution.

I will invite the Minister to answer those questions before I call on the rest of my colleagues.

Mr. Carmelo Abela

I hope that I have taken note of all of the questions asked but if not, I ask the Deputy to remind me.

A question was asked about developments in the investigation of the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017. The Maltese Government has condemned that killing and has made it clear that it will leave no stone unturned in terms of solving that crime. After a number of weeks the local investigators, with the help of international investigation organisations, managed to gather enough solid evidence to arrest a number of people. Three people were arraigned and the investigation is ongoing. Of course, the three suspects have been kept in prison and the hearing in the law courts is still going on. This is the judicial process when it comes to the arrest of these three people. The investigators believe that they have enough evidence to prove that these three people are the ones who committed the crime but the investigation is ongoing because the investigators need to establish whether they acted alone or whether others were involved in the ordering of Ms Galizia's killing. The investigation into this aspect is ongoing. An article was published recently which indicated that the police have a number of suspects in their sights but they want to have hard evidence before proceeding or announcing further developments.

The Deputy referred to the conditions in Libyan migrant camps and I share his concerns in that regard. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, IOM, have the same concerns. They are on the ground in Libya and we share their concerns. The Libyan authorities, if I am not mistaken, say that the numbers of migrants kept in these closed camps are not excessive but regardless of the numbers, human decency must be respected. These are not centres that respect human decency. I share the thoughts of the Deputy on this issue and believe that we must help the Libyan authorities in this area. The Libyans feel that their country is being used as a point of transit when it comes to migration. It must be said that we have seen improvements in terms of the work of the Libyan coastguard. As members will be aware, a number of EU member states participated in the training of the Libyan coastguard and we are now seeing the positive results of that in terms of the commitment of the Libyan coastguard to saving lives and handling situations at sea well. It is not enough, however, and we need to do more in this area and to work together.

The Deputy asked if I have confidence in the Libyan elections. I made reference to the process that needs to be undertaken in terms of agreeing the rules of the game. That will help everyone to recognise the election results. It is important that this is decided as soon as possible and that everyone agrees with the legislative framework. I acknowledge the work of Mr. Ghassan Salamé, the UN Secretary General's special representative in Libya, who is trying to involve every actor and authority in Libya, to bring them together to at least agree on the way forward. This is a very good sign because we need everyone to be on board. This should be a Libyan led and owned process, first and foremost. While the international community must support the process, primarily it should be Libyan led and owned.

The next issue is Ghana. When it comes to Africa, from our perspective the developments in Ghana are relatively recent. We have relations with all north African countries which is understandable, given our geography. However, we were absent in sub-Saharan Africa until some weeks ago when we opened an embassy or high commission in Ghana. The Deputy referred to a trade mission or delegation. That took place in July 2017 when her excellency, the Maltese President, Ms Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, visited Ghana. I accompanied her on that state visit and we were positively surprised to learn that a number of Maltese businesses were interested in joining the President on that trip. I was positively surprised because 21 companies, which is a considerable number, were interested in a destination with which we had no close contact or connectivity and in which a number of issues had to be overcome. We are trying to look at Africa in a different way, especially the sub-Saharan region. We would like to develop this further. We can learn from and share the Irish experience in respect of the African continent, particularly in the area of overseas development assistance. We may even be able to consider some joint projects and to work together in that area.

This brings me to the broader question of development aid or assistance. In the context of our African partners, we need to speak more about trade rather than aid. That does not mean that there is no scope for aid, especially in certain regions, but in essence we should talk about trade, which means investment and the creation of employment in these countries. At present, we are looking at our development assistance programme to determine how we can improve it, particularly through the work of NGOs that are active on the ground. Hopefully we will continue to improve on the process that we have started. We are grateful for the support of the Irish Government in this regard.

Questions were asked about the issue of taxation and about statements that were made by some which suggest that Malta is a tax haven. I fully reject such statements because that is simply not the case. Let me remind everyone that before we joined the EU in 2004, like every other member state Malta had to go through a whole process with the Commission and the various European institutions. Our taxation system did not change. The regime of taxation that we have today is the same as that which prevailed before we joined the EU. When some in certain European institutions say that Malta is a tax haven, which I refuse to accept, one must ask if they are alleging that the EU did not conduct its pre-membership scrutiny properly before we joined. Taxation is a sovereign issue and we want that to remain the case. When it comes to taxation, every member state should make its own decisions.

It is important to state that we have a similar attitude towards Europe when it comes to taxation. Deputy Niall Collins mentioned the Middle East peace process and the fact that, for the time being, there is no process ongoing. This is a concern I share with the Deputy. That is why, in my opening remarks, I made reference to the current situation and to the hope that something will be going on soon and that discussions can possibly be engaged in again. We need to prepare for that however. Taking unilateral decisions will not help with the process. That is why, like many other countries that are active in the United Nations, we were not happy to use the terminology used in the unilateral decision of the US to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise it as the capital of Israel. That will not help the process. We also heard statements from the Palestinians that will not help the process to start.

The Deputy made reference to goods and services which originate in the occupied territories and asked whether we have a debate on this issue in my country. At least at present, we do not have such a debate. When it comes to the 1967 borders and all the rest we fully concur and agree that we need to find a solution to the issue of the settlements. That is part and parcel of the discussion that needs to restart. We hope that, especially if the US is coming with some proposals such as the famous "deal of the century" about which we have heard, there will be a balanced approach to all of these issues which will bring all to the table again.

Mr. Abela may not be in a position to say, but does his Government have a view on whether it is right or wrong to trade in goods and services which originate in the occupied territories? Is that something that concerns his country's Government or its people?

Mr. Carmelo Abela

We are aware of the situation and of the political sensitivities involved. Being aware of these means that we try to be careful about the issue.

I wish the Minister a good afternoon. On the last issue, I suppose he is looking on with interest to see what developments occur in respect of the Bill going through the Irish Parliament. Many countries in Europe and around the world are looking to see how this debate shakes out. I am not putting words in the Minister's mouth in that regard.

I welcome the fact that he has mentioned his support in respect of the backstop regarding Ireland. As he knows, we believe it is critical to the Irish situation that there be a fallback position. We do not want to go back to a hard border. We have had a hard border in the past and we had conflict. We should be thankful that we have moved from that and that we have a peace process which, while it still has its flaws and challenges, has helped us to move on as a people and to develop better relationships with our neighbours. Brexit is obviously one of the main issues facing the EU today. I have visited Malta and am aware that it has a very large population of British expatriates. What impact does Mr. Abela think that a hard Brexit would have on a country such as Malta? What impacts are his Government looking at, particularly in respect of the impact of retired elderly people on Malta's health service post Brexit?

There was mention of the journalist, which probably ties into the hard border issue. Mr. Abela used the expression "no stone unturned". This has a different significance in Ireland. Many atrocities were carried out here over many years. A film made by families affected by the Loughinisland massacre was recently released in Ireland. These people were watching a football match. The Republic of Ireland was playing a game. Some loyalist gangs came in and slaughtered people in the bar. The British Secretary of State went on television afterwards. Those who carried out these killings were loyalists but also British agents. Unfortunately the expression used by the Secretary of State was that there would be no stone unturned. Here was a British Secretary of State in Ireland who may not have been aware that his own security services were involved in the assassination of these people. Many of those families still believe, to this day, that those who directed, controlled and armed those loyalist paramilitaries, some of whom were convicted of other offences, and those senior politicians who were complicit and who would have been aware of that strategy of killings, will never be brought to justice. I am not drawing comparisons with what Mr. Abela said, but that expression stood out starkly. Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder sent shockwaves around Europe. Groups have been set up to investigate it and they have come out with very strong statements. Ms Caruana Galizia's own family has spoken out publicly and said that they fear that those who ordered her death will never be brought to justice. I am just making the comparison with families in Ireland who had a similar problem.

Mr. Abela mentioned migration and its impact. It is one of those massive issues affecting countries right around the world but Malta's location means that it has a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous burden in this regard. It is facing significant challenges every day. One of the concerns expressed by many countries - particularly Italy but also Greece and other countries, probably including Malta - is the lack of solidarity from the rest of Europe with regard to this issue. Does Mr. Abela have any view in this regard? Ireland has offered its support in a very small way. Many of us in this House believe that we could do more. Ireland has been involved in the rescue of people and so on, as Mr. Abela has said. Other countries, however, are talking about building barriers and stopping people who are fleeing conflict.

Mr. Abela mentioned some of the regions in which there is conflict in the Middle East. People are fleeing wars and so on. Many of these countries have no difficulties with selling weapons of war to those counties who have ended up in these conflict situations or with supporting these conflicts. Is Mr. Abela concerned about the lack of solidarity? Is he concerned about the direction in which Europe is going? During the time of austerity we felt that Europe could have done more for Ireland, particularly with regard to the banking crisis. Does he feel frustrated? Does his country feel that Europe, and particularly those countries who are further away from where the refugees are landing, is not showing solidarity? What more should we be doing in that regard?

Mr. Abela mentioned Libya. To go back to that conversation, many of us look at Libya as a failed state. One sees the images of slave markets and militias dividing up and running the country. At the same time, we are supporting a coast guard that is stopping people leaving Libya and bringing them back to these slave markets.

That would be my concern about the direction in which we are heading in Europe. I thank the witnesses for their support for the backstop and Brexit. It is probably the big issue that is dominating discussion for the past two years, certainly in this House. I hope there will be a soft Brexit, or perhaps no Brexit at all, which would be the ideal. It will certainly have an impact on Ireland. We are trying to work with our European partners but when Brexit happens we will look to countries such as Malta which understand the difficulties a small country such as Ireland will have.

Could the witnesses please comment on the lack of movement in the peace process in one of Malta's neighbours, Cyprus?

The Minister is very welcome, in particular as he is a Labour Party Minister. I am a representative of his sister Labour Party in Ireland and we are also a member of the PES in Europe. I thank him for his comments on the backstop and echo what colleagues have said about the most pressing nature of the backstop and the issues around Brexit as we count down the days until Britain is due to leave the EU.

I wish to focus on social developments in Malta. Many parallels have been drawn between our jurisdiction and that of Malta. We were very conscious when we passed the gender recognition legislation providing for transgender rights that Malta had very progressive legislation on transgender and intersex recognition. We had a lot of references to the process and legislation in Malta. We have also followed with interest the marriage equality debate. Marriage equality was legalised in 2017, a little more recently than we did in 2015.

My specific question relates to abortion law. Until last year Ireland and Malta were often linked as having the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Now that we have at last legalised abortion in Ireland, following our referendum last year, I am conscious that Malta is now the only country in the EU with an outright prohibition on abortion. Are any steps currently being taken to change the position in Malta, especially now that it is so exceptional within the EU? I speak as somebody who campaigned for many years for change in the law here from a pro-choice perspective. I know that many of us here are looking with interest at Malta. We still campaign for a change in the law in Northern Ireland, which retains a very restrictive abortion law since the British legislation was never extended to Northern Ireland. That is an anomaly in terms of Europe too. I wonder if there are any moves afoot to change the law in Malta. I am conscious that Ireland is now pushing for greater emphasis on sexual and reproductive rights funding at a development aid funding level. This is an issue not just for domestic policy but it is also an issue that is feeding into development aid programmes and into the UN programme, for example, and into policy-making at international level too.

I welcome the witnesses to what I regard as an important event. Given the fact that Britain has decided to leave the European Union, this country finds itself out on its own in the middle of the Atlantic, further away from mainland Europe and therefore that has a psychological effect. It is important that we renew the friendships that we have with people within Europe and that we realise how important it is for us to be part of the European venture, as it were. I very much welcome having the Maltese representatives here today. That is important, especially as Malta is a smaller country like ourselves. We live in a time when we could get lost. We are a very proud member of the European Union, dating back many years, but I do not think the importance of the exit of Britain is realised in terms of the break-up of the European Union and how it will affect us physically. Therefore, visits such as the one by Malta are very welcome to me personally.

It is time for Europe to have a look at itself and the mission of the European Union. From time to time one tends to lose sight of why we have this Union. Is it just about finance? Is it about people? Is it about the movement of people? We must renew what we mean by being European. I make no apology for supporting colleagues within the European Union, no matter where it is or what the event may be. It is time that all of us had a look at why we are in the European Union and what it is about. Is it solely about trade or is it about allowing us to be European in the real sense, so that we can travel, meet, share and learn? Such things are vitally important. We tend to look at all the problems around the world without looking at our own problems within. I am in this Parliament since 1981 and I find that as countries we are becoming more and more selfish, as distinct from following a particular cause or route. For that reason, visits like this are very important to me as they allow us to share ideas and support. I stress the word "support" for each other.

Smaller countries in particular need to recognise that they are full members of the European Union and we must demand our rights within the European Union. It is very important that Malta visits us and that we visit Malta, that this contact continues and we share our concerns. Following the visit, there should be more parliamentary delegations from both countries meeting and sharing our concerns and views. That seems to have fallen away because in this country it is regarded as a junket by the media if we decide to visit other member states for two or three days. That said, one just has to ignore it because it is vitally important to build up the European project. I do not underestimate the damage the European project is suffering as a result of the exit of Britain. It is underestimated, although it is going to happen within four or five weeks. We are going to be strangers, in effect. This is something that is very big.

It is something all of us who are interested in the European project need to seriously start thinking about. There is a need for us to meet each more often and share views, and we should make no apologies for helping each other. For that reason, I certainly welcome the Minister's visit, as do all my colleagues as has been said. I hope we can reciprocate by returning to his country and I had the pleasure of being in Malta previously. There is nothing in particular I want to ask him other than to say how important it is that he is here. He is very welcome and I hope this will be the beginning of ongoing relationships.

Mr. Carmelo Abela

I thank the members for their welcoming remarks with respect to my visit here and also for their interesting questions and comments. Regarding the backstop, as I said in my opening remar we support the Irish position. It is good the EU 27 remain united on this issue. It is good for the European Union, at least for the EU 27, and it is important we remain united.

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to go to Cavan County Council next to the Border and it provided a different perspective to the declarations we usually make. I agree with my colleague who said we need to meet, discuss and see the situation with our own eyes and look into the eyes of the people who will be affected because after all Brexit is not only a political issue, it will have an impact on the people. In terms of meeting the people who might be affected by these kinds of decisions, it is important for us as policymakers, politicians, and as their representatives to understand the hardship they might have to experience. The current situation is creating a great deal of uncertainty. We do not know where we are going or what will be the impact of Brexit, which, as was said, will happen within four or five weeks. It is like preparing for the unknown.

I apologise but I have to leave now.

Mr. Carmelo Abela

I can understand that because I have to go to my parliament too. How can the business community prepare for something when they do not know what it will look like? Yesterday's visit was very much an eyeopener and a confirmation of our declarations but it provided a more informed position such that when we give our support we know exactly what we are talking about. We met the business community and the representatives and we can better understand this issue. However, there is also the Good Friday Agreement. The concern is not only regarding the commercial aspect, how matters might work out and what changes we might expect after Brexit, there is more to it. The Irish people, especially those who live close to the Border, know better than anyone else what the situation was in the past. No one wants to return to that and, therefore, we need to move forward on this. We know the situation that exists today and we need to preserve that - given the discussions taking place in the House of Commons in London - as was agreed by the EU 27 in terms of the support we give to the Irish Government and the Irish people.

Reference was made to whether there will be a hard Brexit or what kind of the Brexit we will have. It seems everything is possible as matters stand today. We need to be more focused on how the situation will impact on the people. For example, we have a number of people of Maltese descent who live in the United Kingdom and likewise there are citizens of the UK who live in Malta. Political declarations have been made by both sides. We want to make it easier to protect these people such that the impact of Brexit should not create difficulties for our respective citizens. That is the type of attitude we would like to continue to adopt when considering the future relations between the EU and UK but also on a bilateral level between each an every member state and the United Kingdom. We should definitely work hard to avoid creating hardships for people when it comes to education, health, work and residence. We also discussed that process in cabinet in my country in order to facilitate people as much as possible in every possible scenario whether we have a deal or a no-deal Brexit.

Deputy Crowe raised the issue of the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia's and he asked what does it mean to leave no stone unturned. I will not comment on what happened. I do not believe it is right to do so but I can comment on what that means for us. For us, it meant that we already arrested three people. They have been prosecuted and are going through the judicial system. We also for the first time ever announced that for people who come forward with tangible information, there will be a €1 million reward. If people come forward with tangible information that leads to arrests - there have already been arrests - and they have evidence that can lead to people being condemned for this, that is still valid. Local investigators have been involved and they have full access, as should always be the case, and more resources have been put at their disposal. There is co-operation still even today, as far as I am aware, with international investigators. I mentioned the FBI and the Dutch forensic laboratory, and Europol was also involved. This is what I meant by what is being done at present. That is part one as I see it. Part two is that the investigation is still ongoing. As I said, we need to verify whether these people acted on their own or people were involved in the ordering of the killing. Our hope is not only to bring to justice those three people who have been arrested. The local investigators, with the help of others, are working to bring to justice also those, on the basis of evidence the investigators will have, who ordered the killing. I can sympathise with the family. I might not agree with what they say, with their allegations or with their behaviour at times, but I can sympathise with them. I assure everyone that our government, with the respective authorities, would like to solve this case as soon as possible. That is for sure.

When it comes to migration and lack of solidarity within the European Union, such migration flows have been happening for four years. I recall in 2001 to 2002 when the migration flows began from north Africa to Europe that the number of migrants leaving at that time were fewer but over the years there have increased to hundreds of thousands.

This is a concern, and the EU has not agreed on how to deal with the situation internally. When I was the Minister for Home Affairs and National Security, we discussed the relocation and resettlement programmes. This was done primarily to help Italy and Greece, which were considered to be under a great deal of pressure at the time. I am satisfied that we kept our promises. We were the first member state to implement them over a two-year period. We do not just talk about solidarity - we practise it as well. We wish for others to do the same. We are happy that Ireland is doing so and are thankful to it for the collaboration it has shown in various ways, for example, defence. Our collaboration in terms of the LÉ Aoife has allowed our armed forces to work in the Mediterranean saving lives and three or four ad hoc arrangements allowed for the relocation of a number of migrants.

The question on the direction Europe is going is a big one. We are not debating the future of the EU. Perhaps that is because of Brexit and our fears about one of the largest member states leaving. As mentioned, we are rightly afraid about that. Maybe we are not appreciative enough of how the EU will be after the UK leaves. We also need to consider the future relationship between the two. After the divorce, we need to start discussing a way forward.

Reference was made to austerity measures. At times, they hit those who are most in need. When austerity measures are in place, the first budget cuts are to pensions and social contributions. These cuts affect people who need them most, putting them under pressure and pushing them into poverty or risk of poverty. We need to reconsider whether austerity measures are the best way forward when dealing with difficult economic or financial situations.

It was suggested that perhaps Libya should be considered a failed state. We need to work with the Libyans. Libya becoming a normal state should be a Libyan-owned and Libyan-led effort. We must appreciate that it is not a poor country. Rather, it is a rich one when one remembers its oil production. We are not discussing a country that is poor, but one with many possibilities. The money is there. Therefore, it should be easier economically. My concern is from a security point of view, that is, whether there will be sufficient security to proceed with the elections this year. Spring was mentioned, but it seems that we will miss that target. Not only the legislative process needs to be in place, but also the requisite security. To proceed with this process, there needs to be political will on the part of everyone involved in every region in Libya and it needs to be supported by the international community.

I was asked about the social developments in Malta, in particular gender rights, marriage, gay rights and so on, that we managed to achieve in a relatively short period. Today, we view these as rights given to minorities, but they are citizens who deserve to be considered first-class citizens instead of being made to feel like second-class citizens. The changes that we made were a credit to activists who worked on this for a long time. I will also give credit to a Maltese Administration that implemented in a just way the rights that every person should enjoy.

A question was asked about abortion. It is not allowed in Malta for any reason. It is a criminal act according to our legislation. There are no steps being taken to change that legislation and the current Administration has no electoral mandate to do so. Mention was also made of sexual and reproductive health and rights, SRHR. With the exception of abortion, we provide all kinds of service that fall under the terminology of SRHR, for example, IVF.

On renewing friendships, I will reiterate that committee members may consider Malta as a friendly nation to Ireland.

I was asked about the mission of the EU and why we had the Union. We are nations of values, including solidarity, even when that solidarity is just interpreted by some as fitting their own purposes instead of the general well-being of each and every member state. The EU is also a confirmation of our belief in multilateralism and in being far better off together rather than apart. In today's world, we need to make this statement about multilateralism in terms of the internal and global challenges that Europe is facing.

Regarding the role of smaller countries, I agree with the comment on this being a union of states and that there should be no difference between a small and large member state. It is a union of states irrespective of size. Opinions and relevance should be respected.

Visits help us to understand the situations in other countries better. They also give us the opportunity to work together more on a number of issues. I had the pleasure of meeting the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, this morning where we explored the possibility of our countries working together bilaterally on a number of issues that we would like to consider further. We are not only partners within a union.

We also need to work to enhance our collaboration from a bilateral aspect. I agree on the parliamentary aspect mentioned. I believe in parliamentary diplomacy, and i am all for friendship groups, for example. Irrespective of the opportunities to talk with media and via different technologies, the human element should be included, and exchanging views and visiting our respective countries will help us work better together for our people. It is important to stress the parliamentary aspect of this, and use parliamentary diplomacy.

I thank the Minister for his detailed engagement with the members of this committee and for answering very comprehensively the different issues raised. I was glad to hear the Minister reiterate his country's strong support for the Irish position on the backstop. He again emphasised the importance of the solidarity of the 27 EU member states and the support for Irish issues that have been raised. The Minister spoke in a similar way when he visited the Border region yesterday. I was struck by the comments he made, and also those of the Maltese ambassador, to the effect that we cannot view Brexit solely in the context of the effect on the economy or on political structures, but also must be very conscious of the effects it will have on people, particularly those living in the Border region. There is nothing as good as a visit to the region to see the Border first-hand and to meet the communities there. From speaking to some officials from local statutory agencies, the representatives of businesses and other local public representatives the Minister met yesterday, I know they were very glad to have the opportunity to have that exchange with him, and were reassured that he was there to reiterate support for and commitment to the Irish positions that have yet to be finalised in the context of the British withdrawal from the European Union.

Over the years Malta has had a strong friendship and relationship with Britain. Despite our difficulties with Britain it was, in many respects, a very close ally in the European Union. As Deputy Barrett said, we will both be losing a close ally and colleague in the European Council and the other institutions when Britain leaves. I am also conscious that there are substantial Irish business interests in Malta which provide worthwhile employment and investment, which we are happy about.

I refer to the difficulties in north Africa back in 2011, and particularly the evacuation of Irish citizens from Libya. Malta played a critical role in ensuring that our people were transported safely back to their homes. I understand that the Irish Air Corps had some aircraft based in Malta at that time. We appreciate the support provided for our people at that time, when they were facing particular difficulties.

As all members have said, we are delighted the Minister has had the opportunity to engage with us. He has had a very demanding schedule since arriving here. We wish him every success in the remainder of the talks and discussions he will have with our parliamentary colleagues and staff from the Department. I thank the Minister and his delegation.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.17 p.m. and adjourned at 5.23 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5 March 2019.