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Malta takes over EU Presidency in ceremony at Mediterranean Conference Centre

'Let us identify the questions people want us to answer' - Joseph Muscat

Updated 7pm - Malta will be EU President next March when the union celebrates the 60th anniversary since establishing the first iteration of the Single Market, through the 1957 Treaty of Rome, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said this evening.

Speaking at the ceremonial opening of Malta’s EU presidency, Dr Muscat noted that the country holding the Presidency of the European Union during this historic moment was not even independent 60 years ago.

“I am not speaking poetically. I'm saying this in order for everyone to put the context of the Maltese Presidency into perspective. The context of a pragmatic country that does not have delusions of grandeur. And this realism shall define this presidency,” Dr Muscat said.

He said that the challenge of this presidency and the rest of the European institutions was in being realistic and pragmatic while offering seemingly minor solutions to bigger problems.

“We are not under the illusion that we will solve all of them in the next six months, year, two years or even five years.

The work we are putting in has to go on for another 10, 15 and even 20 years.

Dr Muscat warned against the rebirth of the far right movement, where politicians were giving wrong, populist, xenophobic, homophobic or sexist answers to peoples’ questions. They were, however, addressing the peoples’ concerns and offering answers.

“Therefore, our first task should not be a revolutionary one, but a relatively obvious one: identifying the questions people want us to answer…

“If we are able to achieve this, I believe that our answers, if based on the European Union's values of solidarity between nations and peoples, and rooted in the potential for continued growth and a distribution of wealth where it is most needed, could be the right answers,” he said.

At the beginning of his speech, Dr Muscat also paid tribute to President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami and former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi who he said had a crucial role in ensuring that Malta arrived to this day.

The ceremony was opened with the national anthem, followed by an address by Parliamentary Secretary Ian Borg. Dr Borg’s address was followed with another by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who sarcastically said that Dr Borg’s speech was excellent.

“Your speech was excellent... I’m sorry I missed it because the technology did not work,” he quibbed.

Other speeches were given by European Parliament president Donald Tusk and EU Minister Louis Grech.

Prior to this evening's ceremony, EU commissioners had meetings with Malta's ministers throughout the day.

They arrived overnight and called on President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca before heading for the various ministries where the talks were held.

The commissioners are led by Mr Juncker, who had talks with Dr Muscat. They later addressed a joint press conference (see separate report). 

Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the palace in Valletta this morning. Photo DOI Jason Borg.Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the palace in Valletta this morning. Photo DOI Jason Borg.

This is the first time that Malta, the EU's smallest member state, is taking over the presidency, enabling it to influence the agenda of the various ministerial meetings of the bloc.

It comes at a tough time for the EU, with the UK expected to activate its exit process within the coming months. The EU is also facing the problems of migration, pressures on the euro and growing populism that is challenging the political status quo.

Malta has said that its priorities will include Mediterranean issues such as migration, job creation, strengthening the single market, 'reconnecting' with the people by making the EU more relevant in their eyes, and improving the rights of minority groups.  

President Coleiro Preca in welcoming Mr Juncker, called for a more social Europe based on solidarity, peace and tolerance. 

"We need a European Union for the people," the President remarked. Europe must be socially conscious, strongly democratic, embedded in solidarity and one in which the individual's wellbeing is given priority, she added. 

Dr Coleiro Preca spoke in favour of safeguarding universal human dignity, rights and freedoms.

"At a time when different interpretations of the European project and its future are being proposed, with voices calling for walls to be built, for borders to be reinforced, and for divisions to be reasserted, we cannot be silent or complicit when so much it at stake and must remind ourselves of the important gains we have made," she remarked.

The President said that without a Union which prioritises the emotional, psychological, physical and cultural wellbeing of its citizens "there can be no positive change towards greater equity, peace and prosperity."

"We cannot allow certain individuals and communities to go on being systematically excluded even if they are not the majority, from full and equitable participation in the life of our Union. This will only create environments of hostility, which will result in potential extremism and violence," the President warned.

Mr Juncker said that Malta has a strong role to play to strengthen relations with North African countries. Touching on migration, he said that the challenge cannot be left to individual states to hande like Malta, Greece and Italy. He also expressed concern that the EU's relocation mechanism has not been yet fully implemented even though it is supposed to be completed by the end of this year.

The EU Commission chief congratulated Malta for the level of preparation ahead of its six-month presidency.

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