Conflicting signals are flying around as to whether, if at all, there is any sign yet of Malta and the US being close to concluding an agreement on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The presence in Malta of US Defence Secretary Mark Esper is indicative that discussions are ongoing and moreover that they are at a very critical stage. Officially no one knows much more than that, except, that is, for those having a finger in the pie!
As a result of a news blackout on the matter, it is natural that a lot of ongoing speculation as to what is actually being discussed is developing.
A SOFA agreement with Malta has been on the US wish-list for ages: requests being repeatedly declined by successive Maltese governments. Indications point towards a linkage between the US insistence for a SOFA agreement and the developing Moneyval test on complying with money laundering standards. Both the US and the Maltese government representatives flatly deny such a linkage. In the absence of detailed information from both sides, whether such a linkage exists or not will only be clear as matters develop over the coming weeks and months. The possibility of a quid pro quo would only be evident on a diplomatic level, as happens continuously in the games states play globally.
In international politics, states do not have friends, they only have interests: diplomacy seeks to achieve and service these interests. In pursuing a SOFA agreement, the US is seeking its interests. This is the nature of international politics.
It is known that Malta has requested US assistance in the forthcoming Moneyval test. The rumour mill is of the opinion that such assistance will be forthcoming at a price: a SOFA agreement with Malta which has been yearned for by the US for a long time. It seems that this is an opportunity which is not to be missed by the US.
A SOFA is an agreement that generally establishes the framework under which U.S. military personnel operate in a foreign country and spells out how domestic laws of the foreign jurisdiction apply toward U.S. personnel in that country. Exceptions and concessions are normally sought and negotiated.
This begs a basic question: is the Maltese government considering a US proposal to have US military personnel operating on Maltese territory or in Maltese territorial waters? I would not hesitate to state that few Maltese would agree with such a proposal. It is reasonable to state that over the years a consensus has developed on these islands that there is no room for foreign troops on Maltese soil or in Maltese waters.
Should we then conclude that the Maltese government is being blackmailed: a SOFA in return for Moneyval support? Unfortunately, it is difficult to arrive at an alternative conclusion.
Earlier this week Alternattiva Demokratika and the Democratic Party (which will be shortly merging into one party) called for the draft of any Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the USA to be made public immediately. This is necessary for public scrutiny. It is a basic democratic duty.
I would dare say that the very idea of a SOFA agreement is objectionable in principle as it goes flatly against the principles enshrined in Malta’s Constitution: no foreign troops on Maltese soil (or in Maltese waters). The possible details of a SOFA agreement are just as worrying: these could include the presence of elements of a nuclear powered Sixth Fleet which will be opposed tooth and nail by civil society.
Rejecting a SOFA agreement would potentially leave the Moneyval grey-listing possibilities unresolved. But then Robert Abela must seek to disentangle Malta from the suffocating problems created by his predecessor and his kitchen Cabinet without seeking US help!
US help comes at a hefty price which Malta should not pay. Our sovereignty is not for sale.
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 4 October 2020