Should Malta join NATO?


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an organization made up of 30 member states whose “essential and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means”. Amongst its 30 members, one finds EU member states such as Belgium, Germany, Italy and France as well as non-European states such as the USA, Turkey, Canada and Iceland. NATO was founded back in 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the heightening tensions from the ensuing Cold War which lasted up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, despite the fact that the Soviet threat was overcome by its downfall, NATO and its members persisted in their pursuit of “securing peace in Europe”, and it has evolved in such a way to take into account new threats which face the member states and actively mitigate and prevent the escalation of these threats.


The benefits of being part of such an organisation vary according to each nation state’s interests. Being an organisation focused on security, its constituent founding treaty under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty allows the possibility of collective defence of its members, if and when peaceful resolution of disputes fail. An attack on one NATO member is considered as an attack on all NATO members. In and of itself, NATO membership is also a means of deterrence, cooperation, as well as sharing of resources and intelligence between members.

On the flip side, NATO membership also comes with strings attached. All member states are expected to fork out around 2% of their national GDP. However, different states have made different contributions, with states such as Canada and Spain spending under the 1% GDP mark, and the USA contributing over 3.6% GDP. In addition, one can also argue that the organisation is heavily dependent on the United States. This reliance on the US can have an implication on the diplomatic and international relations of its constituent member states.

For smaller nation states, NATO membership can be more alluring. Given NATO’s open-door policy, there are no limitations on prospective member states, and all states can initiate the process to accession. Leading International Relations scholars agree that small states, to varying degrees, rely on other states or international organizations. On an international level, one can also argue that membership in other organisations such as the EU, which in itself is not an international organisation based on security but rather economic considerations, also affords small states a ‘softer’ security shelter which can be invoked when deemed necessary.


The Maltese situation

Malta is a “democratic republic founded on work and on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual” and a “neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress amongst all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment”. Malta’s neutrality declaration prevents Malta’s participation “in any military alliance”. Many believe that this is a legal remnant of the Cold War era, while others argue for its applicability in our modern times. Malta joined the EU in 2004, and the general impression of the Maltese public toward the European Union is amongst the highest among its 27 Member States. Even though the EU leaves security and defence policy to its respective states, it also has a common security and defence policy, a mutual assistance clause as well as a solidarity clause enshrined in its treaties. As of yet, this has remained an area within intergovernmental participation between its member states, yet various efforts have been undertaken to consolidate such remits, which led to the EU global strategy in June 2016. However, it is interesting to note that the Treaty on European Union (TEU) incorporates NATO within the EU’s structures, whereby the “policy of the [European] Union in accordance with this Section shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States and shall respect the obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), ... and be compatible with the common security and defence policy established within that framework”.

Even though Malta is not a full member of NATO, it has nonetheless been a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme since 1995, 9 years before Malta’s accession to the EU. Malta is also a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), which is a diplomatic forum focusing on the Euro-Atlantic area. Malta is also a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which addresses a range of security concerns such as arms control, confidence and security-building measures.

All of this may lead one to two specific, if connected junctures: the conducive framework for both NATO and the EU to co-exist, as well as Malta’s stance, or lack thereof, in being more proactive in safeguarding its national interests by considering full membership within NATO.

As for the former, one can argue that due to the fact that both NATO and EU have the same interests, namely of upholding peace within Europe and the commitment towards diplomatic resolution of dispute, NATO and the EU are not to be interpreted as exclusive of each other but rather holistically complement each other from within their respective remits as independent international organisations. This is reflected in the fact that from the EU's 27 member states, 21 of them are full members of NATO whereas Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Malta are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Cyprus, the only EU member state which is not a member of NATO nor part of the Partnership for Peace program, nonetheless still participates in official NATO-EU meetings. This continues to highlight the fact that membership within the European Union, to one extent or another, will also entail a varying degree of cooperation and collaboration with NATO.

Another question which stands out in this discourse is, to what extent can one declare that Malta’s constitutional neutrality is being upheld? Do EU membership and NATO partnership, as opposed to membership, adhere to Malta’s neutrality? To what extent can one argue that Malta’s membership to the EU does not ‘exceed’ the neutrality threshold, when indirectly, or rather directly, the EU and its legal framework envisage a relationship of cooperation between its respective member states and NATO member states? According to Malta’s constitution, Malta shall not “participate in any military alliance”. Therefore, if one were to consider NATO as incompatible with Malta’s neutrality, it can also be rebutted that Malta’s neutrality is incompatible with the current EU framework which ‘endorses’ NATO’s common security and defence policy. Thus, here we would not be speaking about ‘direct incompatibility’ but rather ‘indirect incompatibility’, at least by implication.

Irrespective of whether this is an issue or not, is it time for Malta to forge ahead with a long overdue constitutional convention and update the current constitutional framework to truly reflect Malta’s current international stance and avoid any such misinterpretations? Is Malta’s constitutional neutrality keeping it back from embracing or considering NATO membership? Should Malta consider complementing its current participation within NATO and contemplate a full membership bid? Is Malta adequately equipped to meet the current and ever-evolving security threats, such as the rise in cyberwarfare and proxy wars by budding Advanced Persistent Threats (APT)?

If NATO is an international organisation based upon a “desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments” and Malta is a “neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations”, what is the stumbling block keeping Malta away from full NATO membership?

It is high time that Malta’s political class discuss topics such as national security and consider what the best course of action would be for the safeguarding of Malta’s national interests.



Sources

[1] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_68144.htm

[2] https://www.nato.int/nato-welcome/index.html

[3] Washington Treaty, Article 5

[4] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_67655.htm

[5] Such as R. O. Keohane, Carsten Holbraad and Baldur Thorhallsson amongst others

[6] ‘Do Small States need Alliance Shelter? Scotland and the Nordic Nations’, Baldur Thorhallsson and Alyson J.K. Bailes

[7] Constitution of Malta, Art 1

[8] Ibid. Art 1 (3)

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/positive-image-of-eu-is-highest-in-malta.867154

[11] Lisbon Treaty

[12] https://www.osce.org/whatistheosce

[13] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49217.htm

[14] Washington Treaty, 1949

[15] Constitution of Malta