Dr Lawrence GonziDr Lawrence Gonzi outlines the challenges facing the Commonwealth and the European Union.

The Round Table Lecture by Dr Lawrence Gonzi, former Prime Minister of Malta delivered on 27th November, 2015

Ladies and Gentleman,

Allow me first of all to express my appreciation to the Round Table for inviting me to deliver this speech on the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which this year is being held in Malta. I understand that the Round Table has, in recent years, developed a particular focus on the biannual Commonwealth summit and has taken upon itself the task of organising a lecture which offers an opportunity for a discussion on aspects that delve into the core, the values, the spirit, the challenges that this “family of nations” faces today and in the future.

A “family of nations” whose signature truly represents the adage of “unity in diversity” – diversity of cultures, diversity of economic power, diversity of development, diversity of traditions, that nonetheless come together to seek common ground, to seek common interests, to seek what can be done to make this world a better place for our families and for our children.

I also wish to thank the University of Malta for hosting this event in a building which is itself a symbol of how the people of these islands chose to respond to challenges which – at times – seemed insurmountable.

This five hundred year old University of Malta represents an important part of our answer to the challenge of being a small island state constantly surrounded by turmoil throughout the ages, whether political, economic, social or cultural. An island that is one of the most densely populated states in the world, that has no natural resources whatsoever but that has learnt some tough lessons including the fact that the best resource is not an oil well that eventually, one day, will run dry.

Our best resource is our human capital because it consistently and continuously gives us a return on educational investment which surpasses any other form of investment.

If nothing else, the history of these islands and its people prove that size may be relevant when calculating economies of scale, but it is irrelevant when calculating wealth of ideas, strength of values, and sense of righteousness.

It is with these thoughts in mind, that I intend to shape my speech this evening around the concept of a Commonwealth that has enormous potential to influence events of a global nature as long as its component parts – specifically each one of its member states – are prepared to embrace this potential and do something with it.

This goes hand in hand with this year’s theme for CHOGM : “Adding Global Value” – a theme which is described in the official website as one that deals with using the Commonwealth’s strengths in international politics to influence and eventually effect change on important global issues.

Oh – I too can sense the sceptics already preparing themselves to shoot down this admittedly ambitious call for action by the Malta CHOGM 2015. To influence and eventually effect change on important global issues is indeed a difficult and ambitious task for any organisation, let alone one that meets on a biannual basis for a couple of days at most.

But I count myself amongst those who feel strongly that the realities of todays’ globalised world mean that we are all facing common challenges – ones that cross borders between nations and indeed between continents, between different and diverse cultures and religions, between developed and developing, between rich and poor – all of which demands from us the responsibility to share a common political agenda that is orientated towards practical on the ground solutions that are understood and embraced by our citizens.

Exactly two weeks ago today – Friday the 13th – the whole world was once again shocked by another horrific act of murder perpetrated by terrorists against hundreds of innocent human beings who were living their normal lives in the centre of Paris. A few days earlier, a Russian plane – also with innocent human beings, was brought down in the Sinai desert after taking on passengers who were returning from their holidays in Sharm El-Sheikh. Both horrific acts that took place while the world’s attention was focused on the thousands of refugees escaping from the horrors of war in Syria seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and – of course – Europe.

I repeat what I have already said : the realities of todays’ globalised world mean that we are all facing common challenges. They also mean that our values are being put to the ultimate test : one where we need to prove to ourselves that we are prepared to practise what we preach.

Therefore I am ready to look the sceptics in the eye and tell them that whether it is us in Malta, or us in the European Union, or us in the Commonwealth of nations – we must do something about this because it is our shared responsibility to do so!

Of course this is not easy. There are a number of conditions that need to be put in place if an organization such as the Commonwealth intends to be truly placed in a position where it can effectively influence global events in the best interests of all concerned. These are the best interests especially of those amongst our citizens who face an uncertain future and who question the relevance of political institutions that often feel and sound distant from the day to day realities and challenges that are faced by our families, by our youth, by those who are the most vulnerable and weak in our society.

But first of all, we must re-state the obvious and remind ourselves about the significance of the event that is today taking place in I want to emphasise the enormous significance of an organization that manages to bring together the Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers of Foreign Affairs who represent one fourth of the countries in the United Nations, that has four Members on the UN Security Council (Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, UK); that has three members in the European Union (Cyprus, Malta, UK); has two members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Malaysia, Singapore) and that has five countries represented in the G20 (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, UK).

Clearly, unequivocally, this gathering of 53 nation states represents a powerful voice which – of its very nature – must carry weight amongst the international community.  But it carries weight precisely because it is and has always been a voice for reason, it is a call for fairness amongst nations, it represents advocacy for those who are most vulnerable, it is a message that is borne out of the common values that make up its DNA.

Re-discovering the spirit that inspires the Commonwealth is vital if we are to recognise the opportunities, the challenges – indeed the responsibility that is shouldered by the political leaders forming part of this organisation when faced with the extremely difficult and complex problems of a modern globalised world that continues to witness the desperation of millions of refugees escaping, war, hunger and persecution.

To re-discover this spirit we need to remind ourselves of the core values that so far have managed to merge the diversity of the Commonwealth into a unified group that is able to speak with one voice on those issues of common concern.

Two years ago – on the 11th of March 2013 – Commonwealth Day – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially signed the charter that sets out the core values of the Commonwealth of Nations.

When re-reading them one immediately senses the relevance, the urgency and indeed the heavy responsibility they place on each one of the member states and their citizens:

Democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health, education, food and shelter, gender equality, importance of young people in the Commonwealth, recognition of the needs of the small states, recognition of the needs of the vulnerable states, and lastly, the role of civil society.

Understanding and embracing the significance of all this – the high moral ground that these values give to the Commonwealth – means that the organization has a responsibility to translate them into concrete initiatives that will eventually make a difference in the events that shape our citizens’ daily lives.

I do not say this lightly. I know and realise that there is scepticism about the real effective political and economic clout that this organization can put forward when making its case, when sounding its voice. But this scepticism can and must be defeated – and I intend to try to do so by first looking back to some experiences which I personally went through during my term of office as Prime Minister of Malta and secondly by putting to you some suggestions which I believe can continue to bring forth the potential of the Commonwealth to influence global events and to be relevant to some of the most urgent challenges of the times we are living in.

Let me start by drawing your attention to one specific issue which has attracted a lot of debate in recent months – mostly in the UK. It is the debate that deals with the linkages that should exist between the Commonwealth and the European Union.

I have chosen this European institution in particular for a number of reasons. Whilst I could speak about the link that the Commonwealth has or should have with other international organisations, the EU has particular relevance firstly because Malta has been an active member of the EU since the 1st of May 2004 and a member of the Eurozone since the 1st of January 2008. This means that we have experienced what some British personalities have described as “riding the two horses” and making the most of it.

Secondly, the fact that three members of the Commonwealth (UK, Cyprus and Malta) are also members of the European Union presents both organisations with an opportunity to identify those areas where both can contribute to each other’s success.

I have recently come across a report of the outcomes of a Conference organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2013 which dealt with the topic of “Europe and the Commonwealth” of course seen from a UK perspective and very much influenced by the debate as to whether Britain should remain in the EU or not. There are two conclusions mentioned in the published report which stand

  • The first highlighted the fact that the fastest growing economies are in the Commonwealth, which means that it would benefit the European Union itself if measures were taken to facilitate trade between the EU and the Commonwealth.
  • The second stated that there is a general need to understand which regulations impede trade, and accordingly to identify the required structural changes to facilitate trade between the EU and the Commonwealth countries.

In essence this requires from all the Commonwealth structures a strategic decision to infuse more energy, more focus into developing this line of action.

A few weeks ago, “The Round Table : The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs” published a Special Issue titled “The Commonwealth and the European Union : Norms, Partnerships, Circulations” the authors concluded their extremely interesting contribution by making the following statement :

“The opportunities offered by the EU–Commonwealth nexus remain largely untapped, despite punctual partnerships and diffuse circulations.…more strategic dialogue between the Commonwealth and the EU would be a valuable asset for both international organisations, as well as their member states and their citizens. Malta’s CHOGM will, hopefully, give concrete evidence of this.”

I fully endorse this statement especially because of some real life experiences which I and my colleagues went through during my term of office as Prime Minister of Malta.

I have had the privilege to be the first Prime Minister of Malta to lead these islands after we joined the European Union on the 1st of May 2004, obtaining a second mandate after having introduced the Euro on the 1st of January 2008 – a feat which I understand is unique in.

From the very start of my first term of office which covered the period between 2004 and 2008, I came to the conclusion that joining the Eurozone was in Malta’s best interests. I will not bore you with the details, except for the fact that this decision was based on the following main considerations : firstly our local currency was strong but extremely vulnerable to market fluctuations especially when considering the minuscule size of our internal market; secondly our import and export markets had a strong presence on the European continent; thirdly our main trading partners used the Euro as their currency which meant that the cost to exchange our currency was undermining our competitiveness in the key pillars of our economy and fourthly the Maastricht criteria were themselves golden rules for good governance.

This was the backdrop of my first months as Prime Minister. During those same months I had the additional privilege and responsibility of chairing the 2005 CHOGM which was held in Malta. In a sense this was a unique event for a number of valid reasons including the fact that for the first time the Commonwealth was meeting with three of its members being also members of the European Union.

Additionally, CHOGM in November 2005 meant that that biannual event was taking place during the United Kingdom’s six month presidency of the European Council which lasted until December of that year : a very fortunate coincidence which will repeat itself during the six month presidency starting on 1st January 2017 when Malta will itself assume the task of presiding the European Council.

The consensus at the time was that the 2005 Malta CHOGM was considered to be a major success for the Commonwealth as a whole and for its members.

There were specific reasons for this. The political outcome – as laid out in the statements that were issued at the end of the Malta Meeting – addressed some major challenges that member states identified as key challenges for all concerned.

Ten years ago, the Malta CHOGM spoke about the issue of Migration and the challenges and opportunities that migration presents to countries of origin, destination and transit. It mentioned Human Trafficking which deprives people of their human dignity. It mentioned Multilateral Trade, the strengthening of the financial systems, sustainable development and Climate Change and the vulnerabilities of Small Island States and Small Island Developing States.

Does not all this sound familiar? Isn’t this an impressive list of challenges which the world faced post 2005 and which – in some cases – today represent what I can safely describe as nightmare scenarios?

Irregular migration is today top of the list of challenges not only for Europe and Africa, but also for North and South America, for Asia and the Pacific.

We meet at a time when the world economy is recuperating from the worst financial and economic crisis since the First World War.

Seen in this context, CHOGM’s 2005 call for the strengthening of financial systems seems to have foretold the collapse of the financial institutions which happened four years later.

Its call for Multilateral Trade and for barriers to be removed remains relevant to this very day especially because achieving the Millennium Development Goals requires more open economies, more removal of barriers, more fairness with small countries in particular those that are still heavily dependent on agriculture as their main source of

The 2005 CHOGM appeal for action to be taken to address the effects of Climate Change and to have the courage to do so in a fair manner which does not disadvantage developing countries is another strong indication of the ability of the Commonwealth to identify the challenges and to propose solutions “in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and adaptation, including capacity building, and [sees] a role for the Commonwealth in progressing this agenda”.

Let us all hope that the Climate Change Conference which will be held in Paris in two days’ time, will achieve this ambitious objective which we all know is vital for our planet’s survival.

So the Commonwealth can be relevant. It can be focused. It can deliver on issues that are of a global nature and of common concern.

But there is more that can and needs to be done.

The record of proceedings of the Conference organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2013 which I have already quoted, includes points raised by Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Former Foreign Secretary) who argued that:

“The EU and Commonwealth are two utterly different creatures, and they’re meant to be different. The Commonwealth is a body of countries with certain shared backgrounds, a common language, common values, and it seeks to reach common positions via discussion on issues of interest. However, the Commonwealth doesn’t aspire to go much beyond discussion, while the EU is concerned more with power”,

“The Commonwealth doesn’t aspire to go much beyond discussion” is a statement which needs to be carefully analysed and in my opinion, challenged. I am not advocating that the Commonwealth becomes anything like the existing organisations that have executive powers over member states, but I am advocating a more proactive Commonwealth that is able to follow up on the conclusions reached by consensus and be able to exert political, moral and persuasive powers to push the point home and make it count.

In this context, one particular experience which I went through during the 2005 CHOGM deserves mention because it highlights the growing potential – and indeed the responsibility – of the Commonwealth to interact with international and European organisations and to exercise its innate powers of persuasion and political clout.

I remember chairing the afternoon session of the Retreat when I was informed that the European Union had just issued an announcement of reform to its sugar regime. The enormous negative impact of this decision on a number of vulnerable small Commonwealth countries in terms of impact on employment, incomes and export earnings caused uproar during the meeting.

The room where the Retreat was taking place included three prime ministers representing countries that were also members of the European Union – Malta which was Commonwealth Chair in Office, Cyprus and Britain which, as I have already stated, at the time held the six month Presidency of the EU Council.

Myself as Chair of CHOGM and Tony Blair as Prime Minister of the UK and President of the EU Council (of course with the full support of Cyprus) immediately committed ourselves to raise the matter within the European Union institutions but we also agreed to include a specific reference to this issue in what was later titled the “Valletta Statement on Multilateral Trade”. Please allow me to quote the relevant paragraph from this statement because it underlines the interface that can and does exist between the two organisations notwithstanding their different characteristics:

The Valletta statement declared inter alia that the Heads of Government “recognise the adverse implications of the European Union’s recent announcement of reform to its sugar regime” and urged “the European Union to provide transitional financial arrangements in which there is symmetry between compensation provided to these Commonwealth sugar producers on one hand and EU producers on the other”. The statement then urged the EU to take into account the fact that vulnerable small states are less capable of adjustment in the envisaged reform timetable and that compensation should be delivered in an efficient and timely fashion.

This does not mean that we were successful in our subsequent endeavours to get the European Union to respond adequately. But it does mean that there is the opportunity and the capacity to influence the decision taking and decision making process within the European Union itself.

And that latent capacity needs to be brought to the fore.

Let me now turn my attention to some specific challenges which should be considered as priority items on the Commonwealth’s The European Union is an economic giant with an internal market of 500 million people but with an economic reach that covers the whole globe. That economic strength recognizes the political reality of a globalised world where the interconnections between states from different continents is a reality that cannot and should not be underestimated.

It is urgent that the Commonwealth understands this fact and acts.

Let us take the issue of irregular migration. The truth of the matter has finally dawned on every single EU member state : mass irregular migration into Europe is not and cannot be treated as a matter which is of exclusive interest to frontier states like Malta, Italy, Spain and Greece. On the contrary, it is a matter of common responsibility which needs to be shared. But it is also a challenge that can only be addressed if there is international cooperation with and amongst countries of origin, destination and transit.

This point is not relevant only to Europe and North Africa. It is relevant to countries such as Australia in its increasingly challenging reality where irregular migration is concerned. It is relevant to South Africa, to the Caribbean, to Canada and to so many other countries whether they are members of the Commonwealth or not.  I am therefore suggesting that the Commonwealth should take this matter on board and address it with all the vigour and expertise that it can muster.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Commonwealth can enter into a constructive dialogue with the European Union and, for that matter, with other member or non-member states regarding the various aspects of this multifaceted nightmare.

I have in mind, the treatment of refugees in refugee camps, the process to identify nationalities of individuals who do not hold a passport, the process to identify resettlement options, the process to repatriate individuals who have no right to refugee or humanitarian status, the process to channel development aid to those areas that are the root causes of mass migration.

But there must be the will and the commitment to do so.

There is another aspect to this argument – one where the Commonwealth’s appetite for political risk will be tested in order to decide whether the latent potential of the organization to influence global events can indeed be taken to what I consider to be its natural vocation.

Humankind is shocked with the atrocities which – as I speak – are taking place in different parts of the world. We are shocked when watching videos on YouTube exposing the sheer cruelty in the killing of young and innocent children, human beings who are judged by extremists as “guilty” of embracing different religions and who were then tortured and murdered in a most brutal and inhumane manner.

We are then doubly shocked when we hear the blasphemy that tries to justify this cruelty in the name of a religion that preaches the very opposite.

What does this have to do with the Commonwealth? Should we just stand and watch the goings on, trusting that someone else will tackle this nightmare? As member states of an organisation that embraces what I consider to be universal values I believe we should ask ourselves whether we have anything to contribute to this sad, tragic and inhumane state of affairs?

I believe we can and should act. The Commonwealth’s assets are there for all to see. It encompasses a wealth of cultures, religions, societies, traditions that voluntarily come together and identify common ground based on common values.

It is an organisation that has, for more than 60 years shown that it can bring unity whilst respecting the diversity of beliefs, of religions, of cultures.

It is an organisation that does not seek power for itself but is prepared and has always been prepared to stand up to be counted when its core values are being challenged by events in countries, regions or continents.

It is for these and other reasons that a Commonwealth initiative, including a strong united Commonwealth stand on this issue carries credibility within the international community and certainly amongst the religious leaders of the world.

I would submit, therefore, that the Commonwealth is extremely well placed to offer a common platform for different cultures and different religions to come together and to transmit a powerful unified message that does not stop at condemning these atrocities but starts to do something about it.

Why not bring the religious leaders together and ask them to unite in a message of tolerance, respect and reconciliation amongst peoples?

Why not share the Commonwealth’s precious values with leaders of civil society who are prepared to cooperate and who share with us the deep sense of indignation at the atrocities that are perpetrated by murderers and criminals who hide behind a false cause? Why not use our Youth forums to ignite an enthusiastic but constructive response which only young people can manage to deliver when faced with what is undermining their present and their future.

My suggestion is based on the recognition that all these horrible events concern us directly. They create political instability, they give rise to extremist views, they undermine our economies, they eat into the very core of our beliefs and values.

The economic impact of all this is there for all to see. The European states are under enormous pressures and are striving to find practical solutions. Billions of Euros are being poured into trying to find solutions. But the reality is that solutions can only be found when the whole international community decides that it needs to do something about this.

There is a role for the Commonwealth here – it is a role that is inspired by the very values which I quoted earlier in this speech.

But it depends on whether we are all prepared to shoulder our responsibilities or whether we prefer to remain within our comfort zones, choosing to play safe – in the meanwhile risking to become irrelevant and ineffective.

I know which road I would take.

Lawrence Gonzi