How Malta’s presidency in 2017 could affect negotiations?

Next year, Malta takes up the mantle of the Council of the European Union presidency at a crucial point for the EU.

If Theresa May sticks to her timetable, the UK will enact Article 50 under the Mediterranean island’s watch. So Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been busy touring European capitals in the last few weeks to build support for his agenda ahead of formal negotiations.

With Malta only boasting three out of the total 352 votes on the council, its six-month presidency offers the tiny island nation a rare chance to shape the EU agenda. And it will try to make its mark felt.

Speaking to the BBC last month about the tone of the debate in the UK, Muscat made the thinly veiled threat that Britain should not be surprised when Brussels ‘bashes back.’

Malta will be vocal on the trade-off between freedom of movement and access to the single market – the ‘having cake and eating it’ debate.

Muscat is adamant that the noise coming from across the Channel that Britain has to choose between restricting freedom of movement and access to the single market is ‘not bluffing’. It is, he says, not a starting point in negotiations and something to be chipped away at after endless back and forth, but their actual position, from which they won’t budge.

This is, of course, exactly what he’d say if he was bluffing, but it nonetheless demonstrates a level of obstinance and coordination from European leaders that Downing Street trying to sweet talk supposedly sympathetic countries simply won’t cut it. Even other suggested allies – Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands – see this balance as a red line.

If coordination is what the UK can expect from other Member States, then the EU will surely expect Britain to be clear about what it wants from talks. If the recent fuss over UK and EU citizens’ right to remain taught us one thing, it’s that, to the EU, nothing is off the table.

In terms of the Maltese presidency, Muscat has criticised Britain for attempting to cherry pick before negotiations even begin – single market here, sovereignty there and financial passporting somewhere in the middle.

European leaders think Britain will attempt to win incremental victories on individual issues until May can notify the country of success. However, in Brussels they’re set on negotiating an agreement with the UK in its entirety. We’re unlikely to see May bending Juncker, Barnier, Tusk et all to her will; the other way round is far more likely.

One issue which is very much on the table is the UK’s border with Ireland, which Muscat claimed there is a ‘political willingness’ to resolve before negotiations begin. The Maltese PM admitting this doesn’t give David Davis anything to exploit in talks however – surely Britain will be the first in line to confirm the status of its only land border.

A Maltese presidency next year may not change anything dramatically as Britain meanders its way towards leaving the EU. The remaining members will stick to their guns on the exchange of freedom of movement for single market access, try and crowd out any perceived political grandstanding on individual issues, and keep the Irish border top of the agenda.

But Muscat’s comments on his tour of European capitals – he’s since met with Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel – signal an intransigent EU in no mood to play games, desperate for a sign of Downing Street’s intentions and steadfast in their belief that whatever deal Britain gets will have to be worse than membership of the bloc.

Brussels bashing may be popular in the British press, but it’s starting to look like Brussels will now bash back.

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