President of Malta

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 24 September 1998

Noblesse oblige: the phrase was coined in an age of aristocracy, but the concept is part of the European philosophy of life. Better endowment entails heavier duties. The imperative is not meant to urge solely the individual conscience, it applies to families, groups, nations and even to institutions. Neither is it aimed merely at the possession of the privileges bestowed by wealth or inheritance. It extends into the realm of knowledge and wisdom. Philanthropy is not merely facultative, even though it might be shown ostentatiously so to be: it is the assumed moral modus of the possession of wealth. Science and wisdom have an inner dynamism, which spurs homo europeus into making them available to others. Even experience demands to be shared.

One may object that there exists underneath all this an individualistic prompting to hold on avariciously to one’s acquired wealth or intellectual insights. One may even remark that there is a culture of favouring the option of always viewing generosity with suspicion. Electorates do not seem to be very enthusiastic about foreign aid. But, again, if it is good, image-wise, to appear an enlightened donor, one must find a key in the basic underlying acceptability of giving as a necessary corollary of having. It is better to give than to receive, as much as it is more respectable to be robbed than to take what belongs to others, and one would venture to suggest that this is not mere hubris. St Francis of Assisi, perhaps one of the best products of the European mix of genes, put it in a more profound way by saying that it is in giving that we receive.

My question to you would now be: what have we as a continent been giving and what have we received from others? The past five centuries have seen us as explorers, conquerors, missionaries, exploiters, traders and leaders. We have tried to dominate Africa in various ways. We have populated North America and contributed considerably to the population of South America, Australia and to a lesser extent South Africa. Our cultural patterns, our mode of living, our ideas have captivated the world. More than one of our languages has become world vehicles of communication. It is, in many ways, a Europeanised planet.

However, in these last months of our eventful century, what is the present state of our giving and of our receiving? After centuries of internal strife and external exchange and aggression, we have now turned somewhat inwardly to integrate and harmonise further among ourselves. A vulgarised version of our civilisation is permeating the globe, but in this present phase we seem to have suppressed the extrovert trait of giving, of sharing, of interesting ourselves in the affairs of others. We may have been bitten into becoming twice shy in so many places: we may have bitten too avidly into alien earth and tasted the sourness.

The task of further European integration, and of the reintegration into the mainstream of the countries formerly cut off in the stagnant waters of communism, can involve taxing a good proportion of our intellectual energies. On the other hand, we believe that the nations of the Council of Europe can and should do more. We should continue to look outwards in the direction of other continents, more especially towards the nearest, which is Africa. Indeed, this positive extrovert activity may augment the feeling of self-confidence about our own world view.

This is perhaps a momentary pause in what was a centuries-long engagement with the realities of Africa and Asia. This is also, maybe, a phase of self-doubt about our civilisation, our cultural premise, our tradition of values, and the transmission of all this to our neighbours. We do not doubt the superiority of the market economy. We are moving towards exacting from the whole world a nominal subscription, at least, to the concept of fundamental human rights. We are much too timid in the proclamation of the indissoluble link between human rights and the rule of law and democracy. We seem to imagine that democracy may not suit other peoples.

Having seen the waste and breakdown of former attempts at helping development by sending assistance and aid and having despaired of the problems of the accumulated debt of so many countries seen as susceptible of proper development, we have a general feeling of disengagement. We have lost patience with poverty as irredeemably permanent, with ignorance as extremely difficult to remove, with the concomitant evils of tribal strife, corruption and bad government. Yet these seemingly intractable evils were, compounded with disease, our own condition not many centuries ago. The inexorable march of European progress was still not so irreversible up to a few decades ago and our own democratic evolution has not been stopped by the process of being involved in the other continents.

A great challenge faces Europe in the present realities of Africa: great opportunities and great dangers. We cannot leave Africa to its problems. They will, in any case, not stay there, but cross over to us. One may be tempted to see the problems of these nations as mainly economic and therefore outside the terms of the Council’s remit, but the economic problems have been compounded by the inadequacy of their educational, cultural and political infrastructure. In the task of assisting the true development of Africa, we the peoples of Europe are being challenged to provide the widest possible collaboration. We fail to do so at our peril.

First of all, we should not stand off from the predominantly Arab and Muslim countries of Mediterranean Africa. The demonisation of Islam in the guise of fundamentalism is fundamentally wrong. Indeed, one should be wary of the tendency to view religious faiths as somehow contrary to the continuing evolution of human society. There is no contradiction between Islam as a creed and the scale of values which bind us together; the transcendental value of each person’s human rights, and the rule of law. Pluralistic democracy, as we know it, is not incompatible with the Muslim faith. Of all forms of government, it is surely the most compatible with human values. We have also to keep in mind that so many European Muslims are now participating actively in the democratic process.

Democracy has evolved. It was proposed and practised, it was made to retrace its steps and then it made a return. It cannot be imposed. It can be stimulated, mostly by education and the right economic conditions. It mostly grows with infinitely slow progress. At times it can take steps forward in response to events. When once tasted, it will come back sooner or later. The phenomenon of the evolution of democracy seldom occurs in the same way in different countries. One of the tragedies of Europe during this century was the wastage in human life, the human suffering and sheer loss of momentum suffered by the course of civilised evolution, which were caused by two factors: one was the rejection of parliamentary or open franchise democracy by the Marxist left, the other the suppression of the democratic process by the reactionary right. Other parts of the globe may avoid these particular, in a sense superseded, tribulations, but there may be other aberrations, and there is always the slowness and uncertainty of the maturation process. Surely the benefit, in terms of stability, of counterchecking corruption, of alternation in governance, of responding to citizens’ needs – all that democracy provides – will attract by mere example the populations that are now more exposed to the media which transmit this message.

Of course the Council of Europe is not directly involved in economic issues, but one should see the political and ultimately the security implications of economic and social non-development in the continent of Africa and what they mean not only for that continent but for ours. To put it directly, the development needs of Africa are our concern. It is in our interest to help Africa achieve economic and social progress. There are needs to be satisfied, and there are structures which have to be set up to attend to the assuaging of these needs. Europe has the potential to assist in the development of these structures.

The Committee of Wise Persons, in its interim report submitted to the Committee of Ministers in April 1998, addressed matters concerning relations with the European Union and other international institutions, particularly the OSCE. Relations with the United Nations were also considered. Perhaps one could dare suggest that the question of the possible focusing on relations with the Organisation of African States and the Arab League be listed in the agenda for inclusion in the final reports. Within the general concept of the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, which is engaging the attention of the European Union, one can embark on a more value-oriented exchange on the level of knowledge, technology, ideas and ideals. Assistance in education is by far the best investment in nurturing understanding between peoples.

There are areas of persuasion: the extension of the concept of liberty as the only state consonant with human development, and the abolition of the death penalty on the grounds that it is ultimately in contradiction with respect for human dignity, are examples. It is of course very true that laws originate out of and in a particular human habitat, but most of the men and women of my generation in Europe have seen both as being achieved within our life span with, however, long periods of denial even in countries with a long cultural tradition. The juridical formulations of the limits of individual freedom and the limitation of the rights of the state are still matters of considerable controversy, but in Europe we have at least agreed on the basic concepts, and we can extend our experience.

Within each one of our national states, we feel we have a stake in the expansion of education and in the maturity of political judgement. All of us feel safer with an internal electorate which has attained a higher level of discernment.

Again, we as nations have an interest in the level of democracy in our neighbouring nations. Democratic institutions provide for balance, for stability, for alternation in power, for change without trauma or bloodshed. A nation’s democratic status influences for the better its foreign policy. In fact, Cicero expresses this succinctly: nullum bellum suscipi a civitate optima. It enhances collaboration in so many areas including that of the fight against crime. Sound democratic structures and, eventually, traditions of stability and continuity help in the development of a country’s economy by allowing more space for enterprise and initiative. This seems to be a scenario for progress with all the variations that occur in diverse circumstances.

With a certain trepidation, I would humbly propose that we should fix as an additional objective to the Council of Europe’s research and planning unit the initiation of a plan to extend to our neighbours outside the continent, assistance and collaboration on education, culture, and the nurturing of the basic ideas of respect for human rights, the rule of law, democracy, liberty and pluralism.

May I propose the formulation of possible concrete proposals for inclusion in the Intergovernmental Programme of Activities.

Liberty has a dynamic property. Democracy is also infectious. Without any intrusion from outside, the proximity itself effects a considerable change. The vital link between economic development and personal freedom, between stability, the rule of law and democracy, has to be seen functioning to be believed. Others may imagine that there are other ways: ultimately the European experience is very indicative, and an inimitable part of our cultural acquisition.

Our country, Malta, has a very vivid consciousness of the importance of history as an active force of human development. We are great believers in the right of self-determination, indeed what we have suffered through wars and foreign domination has further heightened our pride in our nation’s achievements. We have also learnt the importance of receiving and digesting the lessons coming from abroad. We are understandably jealous for our independence, but, thankfully, we have not developed a xenophobic streak and we have realised how much we benefit from the cultural commerce with others.

We, as Maltese, pride ourselves on the richness of our cultural heritage, which owes so much to the multifarious trends of extraneous influence.

I believe we, as Europeans, have an obligation to share, and we should harbour no inhibition in giving assistance. My plea today is that the Council of Europe should take the initiative in the process of sharing our wealth in knowledge and acquired wisdom.


Thank you very much, Mr President, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you.

I remind colleagues that questions must be limited to thirty seconds. They should ask questions, not make speeches. We shall group the questions, the first of which is by Mr Hegyi on Malta’s integration in the European Union; the second is by Lord Grenfell on Malta and the European Union; and the third is by Mr Iwihski, also on Malta and the European Union. Mr Hegyi, you have the floor.

Mr HEGYI (Hungary)

As you may know, Mr President, Hungary has made an important step towards accession to the European Union. Given the crucial change in your country’s integration policy, how do you see the process of essential European enlargement to the east and the renewed issue of your country’s integration?

Lord GRENFELL (United Kingdom)

Thank you, Mr President, for your wonderfully eloquent statement.

How do you assess Malta’s chances of being given fast-track status on entry into the European Union? Do you know whether the commissioners’ favourable opinion of 1993 will still be considered valid?

Mr IWINSKI (Poland)

Which arguments turned out to be decisive in the recent change in Malta’s attitude to the European Union? The government of Mr Fenech-Adami, on which you served as Minister of Education, hoped that Malta would be the first associate country to enter the European Union. How do you see the timetable of European Union enlargement today?

Mr Mifsud-Bonnici, President of Malta

The three questions boil down to the same point. On the first question in respect of Malta’s position on enlargement to the east, we do not regard those as alternatives. The Council of Europe itself has shown that Europe must be a single European concept. We cannot view Europe as an exclusion zone, with some within an inner circle and some outside it. We regard Hungary and Poland as European as Portugal, Spain or Malta.

This is a cultural space, not merely a geographical space, which shares common ideals and other things. Indeed, the concept of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are common to all countries of Europe.

In our view, we are not in any way competing with the eastern states in our application to become a full member of the European Union.

Lord Grenfell referred to the opinion given in 1993 and asked whether it was still to be considered a statement of fact. It must be revised because three or four years have passed, but those years have not been ill- spent and advances have been made. The former government, members of which are now in opposition, have always affirmed that the application was not withdrawn, but was put on hold. The new government has reactivated an application that was still there. Time passes and one has to review what has happened in the meantime. That process must be tackled both by the Government of Malta and by the European Union, but I do not believe that it will present huge problems. It is a matter of redefining certain issues, but most of the groundwork has already been done.

The question of why there should have been a change of direction by the Government of Malta can be answered by saying that it is a matter of Maltese internal politics. I, as President of the Republic, now view the matter from an Olympian position. I can say that there is a consensus in Malta on viewing the European Union as a positive development for the whole of Europe, and in favour of intensifying links between Malta and the Union, whether as a full member or as a country that is deeply interested in the Union.

It is important to remember that the former government never excluded the possibility that, at some time, Malta would enter the Union. The former government was simply saying that there were certain responsibilities that Malta was not at that time ready to assume. There are difficulties, but the balance of advantage and disadvantage for Malta is there to be seen and it is a matter of judgment. The electorate has spoken three or four times in the past twenty years, mainly in favour of Malta’s becoming a member of the European Union. It is also a matter of objective fact.

I believe that, with a degree of good will on the part of the European Union, and with a great deal of work on the part of Malta, the matter can be resolved, in the sense that Malta is once again considered as a mature candidate for first-time admission to the Union.

Mr SCHREINER (France) (translation)

Mr President, in spite of our willingness to share the burden, we face an immigration problem in Europe, especially illegal immigration, from which all our western European countries are suffering.

Is your country also confronted with this situation? Where did the people you have been able to check come from? What was their country of origin? How many immigrants are there? What measures and police and customs checks are you carrying out to combat this problem?


As we approach the twenty-first century, there is greater discussion about the structure of European institutions involved in human rights, legal affairs and democratic development. There are overlapping jurisdictions and some people suggest that that is a waste of time and resources and that there should be a new structure. Do you believe that better co-operation is all that is needed, or do you envisage there being some new structure for European institutions in the twenty-first century?

Mr Mifsud-Bonnici, President of Malta

We are exposed to immigration because Malta is very close to the southern littoral states from which immigration has been coming. We have faced the same threat from Tunisia and other nearby states, because, when the Mediterranean is calm, it is easy to approach our shores. The shores of Italy are exposed, as are those of Lampedusa.

We have strict laws in this respect – in fact, some think that they are too strict. There is a balance to be struck. Sometimes the humane thing is to help these poor people who come to us on rafts. Repatriation can be difficult, because they do not have passports and it is difficult to identify where they came from. However, our country has been consistently extremely wary of people who come from those places – from the east as well as from the south.

Malta is not difficult to police because it is small. For the purpose of controlling the drugs trade and for other reasons, we maintain strict control of Malta’s shores, which can be done because of Malta’s geographical size. Occasionally, people get in, but there is strict surveillance and I can assure the people of Europe that, in this area, the Maltese are extremely vigilant. Malta’s size means that every government is aware of the problem. We do not have the resources to support a large population.

There has been a problem with refugees: we have had a number of refugees from Bosnia and Albania, and Kurds have come from Turkey. We have absorbed them in the sense that we have asked larger countries – the United States and Canada – to take them after a time. They cannot possibly stay in Malta. Malta is not an immigrant country. We have low unemployment, but we cannot possibly support a larger population. Even our geographical confines are extremely small. We have been vigilant and, in Malta, one can almost count every single person every single day.

On the question of new structures, we are sometimes uneasy about the fact that the structures of Europe – even the Council of Europe and the European Union itself – have not evolved quickly enough to adapt to the new situations. A man of my generation remembers when the first ideas were put forward, just after the war. We wondered what future lay in store. However, we sometimes have the feeling that Europe has not developed in the way envisaged by the founders of the Union.

Every generation has to rethink these structures, and as the new millennium approaches that will certainly have to be done in respect of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, which has directly reacted to recent problems. We cannot allow these structures to fossilise; they were created to deal with other problems and other situations. For instance, there have been dramatic changes in Europe since 1989-90. Any new structures will have to reflect our new circumstances in Europe.


Thank you very much for bringing a breath of fresh air to the Assembly, Mr President.