The new British High Commissioner to Malta, Louise Stanton speaks extensively to Charlot Zahra about the common challenges facing Malta and the UK as EU partners, the state of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, and the UK’s prospects of joining the euro zone, among other things
What was your reaction as soon as you learnt that you were being posted to Malta?
Well, quite literally, I jumped up and down; I was so delighted! This was a job that I was really interested in. I’ve just spent two years in Slovenia as a Deputy Ambassador, so I had a good experience of working in a small EU Member State with a similar number of issues.
But Malta was a country to which I had never been to, and I’ve always wanted to come to. Because of the strong relationship that already exists between the UK and Malta, I thought this would be a great place to work with the Maltese Government on a number of EU issues.
I was also really looking forward to getting to know the Maltese people and culture, which, of course, have a very strong reputation in the UK because of our historical links.
So all in all, I was excited; I was really delighted. What has been your first impression of Malta and the Maltese people as soon as you arrive to Malta?
Well, everybody has been so charming and so welcoming to me; I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome in Malta.
What’s been really nice is that this welcome was so genuine – everybody has been genuinely helpful and wanting to try and ease me in my new job here and into Maltese society more generally.
Will you be learning Maltese as well? Of course I will!... I didn’t have the opportunity to learn before I came here, but it’s certainly something which I want to do. I don’t think I’ll reach quite the standard of some of my predecessors.
My background is in other languages: I already speak French, German and Japanese, but I certainly would like to have a basic conversation in Maltese, at least.
How do you describe the state of the diplomatic relationship between Malta and the UK?
Oh, it’s excellent! I feel really fortunate that I’ve come to work on the relationship when it is already at such a high level. It’s a relationship that’s proved to be strong and durable over the years.
But there are a number of challenges that both Malta and the UK have to face together, primarily, managing migration, climate change, energy security, and so on. And I think it will really be good working with the Maltese government and the Maltese people on tackling these challenges that we face together.
Could you elaborate on the migration issue? How do you intend assisting the Maltese Government in this respect? Well, it’s a problem that we both share because many of the migrants that come to Malta actually are aiming to come to some of the more Northern European countries, so it’s a problem that we both face together.
The UK would like to do more to tackle the problem at its source and try and reduce the flow of migrants coming by tackling the causes of conflict, and also climate changes, which is a big factor in that as well.
For instance, drought produces famine, which in turn causes economic migrants. Therefore it’s a much bigger picture than just managing migration.
But what the UK would like to do is work with Malta more on Assisted Voluntary Repatriation (AVR), giving people a reason to stay in their country, helping to invest in a business or something of that nature to provide them with a livelihood and a reason to stay in their country rather than seeking to come to the EU.
Would Britain support Malta in its request of the revision of the Dublin Directive on refugees? We believe it’s important to try and tackle the causes of illegal immigration and work on a proper system of assisted voluntary returns. Just accepting more and more illegal immigrants into the EU is not going to help stop the problem.
All countries in the EU are facing the same problems as Malta in trying to cope with an increased level of migration, so you need to find a way of tackling that while supporting properly-managed migration.
With immigration in the UK, we have found that when it is properly managed, it actually supports our economy and provides a number of new jobs and skills that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
So it’s about trying to manage it in the right way.
What leverage has the British Government got with Libya in this respect? We have been working closely with a number of countries where illegal immigrants are coming from and with countries which are transit routes. However I’m afraid I cannot tell you exactly what kind of leverage we have got with the Libyan Government. I know it’s something we’ve been working with a number of countries, though, in trying to reduce the flow…
…including Libya? Yes, including Libya. I mean we’re working with the Libyans on this. We’re working with all the countries that either the illegal immigrants come from or who are transit countries.
Which are those aspects of the diplomatic relationship between Malta and the UK which you deem as positive? Gosh, all aspects are positive. I think the nature of the UK-Maltese relationship is that it is extremely multi-dimensional – it’s not just on one dimension.
We have no bilateral issues with Malta, and I think it’s one of the huge positives of the relationship, because we work so well together politically, economically our ties are very strong, and culturally the tourism industry in both sides is very strong.
Therefore I think it would hard for me to pinpoint one aspect as being positive when it’s positive in so many directions.
Which are those aspects of the diplomatic relationship between Malta and the UK which can be improved? I don’t think the relationship needs to be improved because it’s already so strong. I think it’s more a case of instead of there being bilateral issues in our relationship that needs to be resolved, we work together in the EU to try and solve the more global problems that we face today.
What are the major issues that you would like to address with the Maltese authorities?
As I have mentioned, the issues that I would like to work with the Maltese authorities on are managing migration, climate change. Those are the huge challenges that are facing us all, as is energy security.
Moreover, I would like continue work in supporting the very positive trade relationship and the consular work that exists between the two countries. We have so many tourists coming in each year in both directions.
Those are my main priorities. I do not see, however, any issues that I need to tackle with the Maltese authorities on – I think it’s about working together to tackle the bigger problems that we face in the world.
Despite the fact that there is an economic recession in the United Kingdom, how do you plan to promote British foreign direct investment in Malta, especially in sectors like financial services, iGaming and IT? Well, we do not provide support to British companies who want to invest in Malta, however we do provide a lot of support to British companies in the UK which wish to export their products and services abroad.
With the current Sterling-Euro exchange rate, it’s actually a very good time for British exporters because it makes their goods and services that bit more attractive. I think it’s more about trying to do more to support British business as a whole and we would certainly also support Maltese companies looking to invest in the UK.
The UK is the second biggest attraction for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) globally, second only to the United States, because there are so many reasons that make the UK a very attractive destination for FDI.
Therefore it’s more about FDI going direct to the UK and supporting British business generally, where the UK Government can help and support companies.
Last May, Business Today reported that the British Government closed the commercial office in Malta because, in the words of your predecessor, Nick Archer, the section stopped being used. What is your reaction to this decision? I think it’s a sign of the maturity of the trade relationship between the UK and Malta that British companies were finding it so easy to access the Maltese market and promote their products here without having to use Government services. I think it’s actually a very positive indication of how healthy the relationship is between the UK and Malta.
So it was important in this day and age of scarce resources that the UK Government makes sure that the resources that are being placed in the market where they are of most benefit to British companies. And that did mean some rebalancing of the network.
However I find that as a very positive sign that British companies find it so easy to access the Maltese market that they didn’t need government help to do it.
So you don’t interpret it, as some people did, that the closure of the commercial office was a sign that the UK had given up on FDI to Malta? Well, that’s up to the Maltese government to promote Malta as a destination for British FDI. We would, obviously, promote London or the UK more generally as a destination for Maltese FDI. That’s something which the British Government would obviously support.
Certainly we support British business back in the UK and their efforts to become stronger companies by investing overseas, however attracting British FDI to Malta is something which the Maltese Government needs to be doing, not the UK Government.
Malta in 2007 had a trade imbalance with the UK in the goods sector, but had a trade surplus in the services sector. How do you explain this phenomenon? My best guess would be that it’s inevitable that there is an imbalance because the UK has a much larger manufacturing base. I know that many Maltese go to Britain with the sole purpose of shopping in the UK, particularly at the moment, with the exchange rate being so favourable to people in the euro zone, the UK is becoming an even more attractive destination for shopping.
In terms of services, I think that may well be due to the tourism sector, because so many British tourists come here via the cruise liners and by air, and stay in the hotels and spend money in Malta.
How can the United Kingdom address this imbalance in the goods sector? I think it’s more about looking at the balance of trade overall rather than picking on individual sectors. Certainly from the UK perspective, it’s so good that we are exporting more to Malta than importing.
So maybe that should be a question you should address to the Maltese Government on what they are doing to encourage more Maltese exports. But from a UK perspective, it’s good, it’s healthy.
Is counter-trade still a viable option in view of the current economic circumstances?
I think these days it’s more about what makes economic sense and I think it’s about what products are of good value and it’s about how products are sold freely without any restrictions in the EU market. I don’t think it should be linked with Government intervention.
It should be a free market economy because a market economy is the healthiest way for the economy to expand.
Now that the UK economy is facing a recession and its economic cycle is becoming closer to the other major members of the euro zone, do you envisage the UK joining the single European currency any time soon or not? Why? That’s obviously a decision for the Prime Minister to make. I think that in the past, the exchange rate of the Sterling has been incredibly strong.
The euro zone is really doing well at the moment despite the economic downturn because of the stability that the euro provides across the whole euro zone.
I think it’s difficult for me to say if the UK is going to join the euro zone any time soon. There a huge number of economic benefits to joining the euro but there are also strong attachments to the UK by the British to the Sterling.
The Sterling is a great currency and it’s proved to be very strong over many decades. Therefore there are pros and cons to the argument of joining the euro zone.
If Britain does not plan to join the euro zone, is it not playing alone in a tough economic scenario, possibly leading to serious financial consequences like Iceland had? I don’t think that just by having the Sterling and by not joining the euro would be a sole factor in our economic recovery. There are many other factors which make the economy a very stable one.
The UK economy has had low interest rates over the past 10 years; we got the highest employment figures on record last year with 29.5 million, along with the lowest unemployment figures for the past 30 years.
Therefore the UK economy is a very strong one and one that depends on many factors, not just whether we have the pound or the euro.