That the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, would base most of his State of the Union address last week on the long-drawn issues of immigration and Brexit was predictable. What was not, was the generally positive reactions to his speech at a time when the EU is facing an existentialist threat from sources within and without it.

In what was his last State of the Union address, Juncker did not beat about the bush and quickly acknowledged both thorny issues are at the top of the EU agenda and are destined to remain so for the foreseeable future. Sticky issues which will only become stickier if not addressed pronto!

The advent of populist and EU-sceptical political forces on the continent have shifted the poles of discussion. What was initially meant to be a combined 28-nation effort to tackle the phenomenon of immigration through fair and positive means has, in the past year, been turned into a dire dilemma now quickly burning a hole in the pristine texture of Europe.

It has long been realised that throwing money at the problem of immigration is no solution, as we have seen in the desperate situation that places like Spain, Greece and Malta have found themselves in. I have always maintained that immigration is a symptom not a cause – and the cause may vary from poor economic situations to conflict and persecution. I have also always maintained that in cases of poverty and lack of opportunities, particularly African countries , the solution was to support these countries by giving them a future in their own country. It is therefore satisfying to hear Juncker state that he wants a new partnership – investment and trade alliance with Africa. This alliance would create 10 million jobs in the next five years. That’s 10 million Africans who would not need to leave their countries; 10 million people who do not risk being buried in the Mediterranean cemetery; 10 million people with a decent future.

However, the new political scenario rests on an equally new political psyche. Traditional parties that have, for decades, supported organized immigration, mid-sea search and rescue operations, and the adequate provision of solidarity and asylum to deserving cases, are now paying a political price. Voters have, in most cases, turned against them as people’s minds have been re-switched to the old policies of protectionism, fear and utter jingoism. These mind games on massive segments of the population in Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and elsewhere across the European continent have proved to be most effective, inexorably putting the whole EU set-up on a defensive footing.

For one of the world’s top news magazines, “Time”, to project the face of Italy’s outspoken anti-immigration deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and caption it as “the new face of Europe” is a reflection of the sad situation that President Juncker inevitably had to address in his speech.

In truth, the speech included several high-resolution proposals aimed at curtailing the snowball effect of the immigration crisis. Many expressed hope, some played them down, but there is indeed the lingering hope of a new approach that could satisfy all political channels that feed the colossus that the EU has become. It is not because ideological ravines have been bridged overnight, but more because there is the realization by those who genuinely seek a compromise that, after all, Europe’s problems can only be solved by, you’ve guessed it, Europe itself.

The better protection of Europe’s sea and land frontiers is one measure that immediately received the support it needs to eventually become a major source of immigration control. In doing so, however, there is the bigger need for Europe not to lose its soul in the process. The brain tells you European economies already depend heavily on the influx of legal immigrants, particularly in the agricultural, fishing and construction sectors. Without them, present-day levels cannot be kept up, let alone improved. The brawn appeals for ordered consolidation.

As for Brexit, the issue continues to haunt both sides. The EU has seen the sense of making sure it is in a state of readiness for the financial and economic impact of the day the UK finally takes the route out of the Union as per its people’s democratic decision. No one has dared utter a single word against this reality, but the onus is also on the British Government to obtain a farewell package that is based on EU principles that have marked the foundations of the Union since its very inception.

It has rightly been declared from the outset Brexit could not be an a’ la carte option for the Brits at the parting of ways. Negotiations so far have shown that there are bigger challenges than ever visualised and a no deal conclusion would widen the rifts rather than narrowing them.

Malta has been quite clear on both issues. On immigration, the Maltese Government has been steadfast in its adherence to European and international rules and is committed to maintaining this stance. We are a small nation but still determined to take our fair and proportional share of the responsibilities that all EU member states are expected to accept. The recent spats with Italy’s new administration are mere hiccups when compared to what is really going on all over Europe and what could be happening if or when the immigration conundrum takes new dimensions.

Brexit is, for us, no less a problem that needs to be tackled. Malta’s long-standing relationship with the UK and its Commonwealth status offer enough justification for the concern that the Maltese Government has shown all along. Our tourism still depends heavily on British visitors, many of whom are returnees who are the best possible ambassadors for the industry. The same goes for Anglo-Maltese economic and educational ties that were cemented over the decades since independence in 1964.

Thousands of Maltese also work in the UK and their future, as that of millions of other EU workers in the British Isles, is rightly a cause for concern. There have been assurances from the British Government with regard to their present-day plight, but it is not easy to give them outright credit, particularly in the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit.

There is still a long way to go on both issues. The months ahead will show whether President Juncker’s speech was the herald of better things to come or merely another pause for some more soul-searching. Time will tell.

The Malta Independent 27.09.18