Should Labour’s motion succeed?
Regarded by many as one of the main minds behind successive Nationalist governments, Malta’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Richard Cachia Caruana, is facing a Labour Party motion censuring him over negotiations in 2004 related to Partnership for Peace. But should he be forced to resign? Christian Peregin reports.
What is Partnership for Peace?
Partnership for Peace is a programme of ‘practical’ cooperation between Euro-Atlantic countries and Nato.
Proposed by the US to improve relations with Europe and the former Soviet Union, PfP was launched in 1994 and allowed countries to tailor their ‘partnership’ with Nato.
“The purpose is to increase stability, diminish threats to peace and build strengthened security relationships between individual Euro-Atlantic partners and Nato, as well as among partner countries,” the PfP website states.
Membership gives Malta access to security documents and strategic discussions between Nato and the EU. It also gives members of the Armed Forces training opportunities abroad, without obliging the island to participate in military intervention.
How did Malta get involved?
Malta first joined PfP in 1995, following a heated debate in Parliament. Labour leader Alfred Sant opposed membership, claiming it breached neutrality and non-alignment clauses in the Constitution, which were included on the insistence of ex-Labour leader Dom Mintoff in the run-up to the 1987 election.
As promised during the 1996 election campaign, Dr Sant withdrew Malta from PfP within a week of being elected to government.
Although Dr Sant’s government only lasted 22 months, the Nationalist government that replaced him focused its energy on EU membership, not PfP membership.
Malta only rejoined PfP in 2008, after Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi led the PN to a narrow victory at the polls.
With the party weakened after Dr Sant’s resignation as leader, Labour’s objection was relatively muted.
But the government’s surprise announcement sparked anger from various quarters, mainly because the issue was not discussed in Parliament nor cited in the PN’s election campaign.
Today, Labour does not object to PfP membership. Last year a party spokesman said the programme had developed differently than originally envisaged.
He said: “Time has shown that a neutral country like Malta, as long as it has total control of the participation programme, can take part in PfP.”
How does Wikileaks come into it?
Wikileaks, the international organisation that last year exposed more than 250,000 confidential cables sent to the US from its global embassies, purports to shed light on Malta’s dealings with the US on PfP.
Cables from Malta claim Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi told the US ambassador about his intentions to rejoin PfP in January 2008, while keeping it secret from the public.
However, the cables involving Mr Cachia Caruana that Labour is flagging – eight months after they were published – date back to 2004 and have little to do with Malta actually rejoining PfP in 2008.
What do the cables reveal about Cachia Caruana’s negotiations?
In 2004, Malta and other PfP non-members were being repeatedly blocked from EU-Nato “strategic discussions”.
According to the Wikileaks cables, Mr Cachia Caruana came up with a “solution” for the island to take part in these discussions without having to rejoin the programme – which the cables note would have been politically divisive.
It was suggested that if Malta had simply ceased active participation in PfP but not formally withdrawn from the agreements, it might be possible for Malta to reaffirm its agreements remained in force.
If this legal interpretation were accepted, the Maltese government could argue it “never withdrew from, or renounced the security agreement they had entered into with Nato as part of their PfP membership”.
“This would spare the Maltese government from requesting a divisive Parliamentary vote to join PfP and could set the stage for Malta to participate in EU-Nato strategic discussions,” the cable continues.
Mr Cachia Caruana was “advocating precisely such an approach to Valletta,” according to the cable.
Is this why Labour wants Cachia Caruana to resign?
Not quite. In a motion presented by former Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella and MP Luciano Busuttil, the Labour Party says Mr Cachia Caruana should resign because he encouraged the government to rejoin Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme without first seeking parliamentary approval, undermining democratic principles and national sovereignty.
Dr Vella had said the motion was being moved following a Wikileak which showed how Mr Cachia Caruana had “colluded” with the US ambassador in Brussels to bypass Parliament for the reactivation of Malta’s membership in the Partnership for Peace.
“This is manipulation and goes against democratic principles as it places the interests of a foreign country above ours,” Dr Vella had said.
He said that Labour had always had doubts about the reactivation of Malta’s membership of the PFP and Wikileaks was proving it right.
The government says Labour has misunderstood the Wikileaks cables and the 2004 proposal had nothing to do with Malta’s eventual rejoining in 2008 – as Labour is claiming.
The cables were largely ignored by Labour last year, when leader Joseph Muscat made a point to say his party would not withdraw from PfP if elected. They came to the fore recently when Nationalist MP Franco Debono was critical of Mr Cachia Caruana.
What does Franco Debono have to do with it?
Dr Debono has long been criticising key members of the government.
In March, he took public aim Mr Cachia Caruana, using his Facebook page as his main platform to criticise the EU ambassador.
Labour’s motion presents Dr Debono with an opportunity to bring down Mr Cachia Caruana. Though the backbencher has not given any indication how he would vote, he has never called for Mr Cachia Caruana’s resignation.
Is Labour just being opportunistic?
The timing suggests so, though Labour says it filed the motion after it gave the government enough time to react to the reports about Wikileaks.
“The lack of a denial further confirmed the need for action to ensure accountability,” a party spokesman told The Sunday Times, adding the latest report was published in April.
In reality, no new Wikileaks cables were published last month but a report in Malta Today quoted the cables referring to Mr Cachia Caruana.
Malta Today’s article, which quoted extensively from the Wikileaks cable, implied a link between Malta’s support of Turkey’s EU bid and PfP.
How does Turkey come into all this?
Turkey, a Nato member that is seeking to join the EU, was the main objector to non-PfP countries such as Malta being present at the strategic discussions.
In some cables it is suggested that if Malta agrees to the legal solution proposed by Mr Cachia Caruana, it would help Turkey’s EU bid.
Mr Cachia Caruana is quoted as saying those who argue a resolution to the Maltese problem would harm Turkey’s EU prospects “don’t understand what is going on within the EU”.
The US cable states: “Cachia Caruana also reported that the Turkish EU Ambassador had visited him on the morning of November 17 (2004) to express Ankara’s support for a resolution to the Malta problem. Turkey, according to the Maltese Ambassador, was ‘fully available’ for any solution.
“According to our contacts, Turkey sees this as a way to solidify Malta’s positive vote for accession and demonstrate flexibility and a positive will to other member states.”
Incidentally, Dr Gonzi last month told Turkey’s EU negotiator that Malta supported its EU bid, prompting MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, a critic of Mr Cachia Caruana, to state he would object to Turkey’s membership.
Ultimately, did Mr Cachia Caruana do anything wrong?
The government insists Mr Cachia Caruana worked under the direction of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and also says its intentions were not, as stated by Wikileaks, to join PfP without having to face Parliament, but to gain access to Nato documents as quickly as possible without joining PfP.
It also says seeking access to these discussions and documents was in line with governmental policy to achieve “full and equal participation in decision-making in every aspect of EU policy”.
Most importantly, the government says all its attempts to explore the different solutions “failed”.
Since the government did not proceed with any of the proposed solutions, it is unsurprising that it failed to inform Parliament and it also supports the contention that the issue was distinct from PfP membership – contrary to what Labour is claiming.
The solution probably failed because it only helped Malta’s position and did nothing to solve the issue for countries such as Cyprus.
The Wikileaks cable explains: “Malta is proposing a procedural band-aid that meets its own political constraints. Solving Malta’s problem alone will do nothing unless a path for Cypriot participation opens as well.”
So what happens next?
As proposed by the government, Mr Cachia Caruana will face a grilling by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee.
Labour immediately accepted this, as long as a vote would also be held in Parliament.
A deal reached last week will see Mr Cachia Caruana face the House Business Committee on May 14.
Depending on how many sessions are required, a vote in Parliament has been tentatively scheduled for June 18.
Unless the opposition agrees to its postponement, the government cannot further delay the vote.
Although the public questioning may prove challenging for Mr Cachia Caruana, who likes to keep a low public profile, he is likely to be able to hold his ground.