Italy announces that it is merely considering signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China for its Belt and Road infrastructure investment scheme, and all hell has broken loose across Europe.
But what appears to have escaped the majority of the European Union is that Malta signed an exact same MOU some four months ago, and another one back in 2014 just a little over a year from coming into office.
And since then, China’s interests in Malta have grown enormously. It has bought about a third of Enemalta, it has imported Huawei technologies and all that comes with it to Malta, it is supplying electricity, it has set up a joint renewable energy project with Malta, and there is even talk about possible Chinese involvement in the Gozo connectivity project.
Normally, such memorandum are a dime a dozen. They are usually superficial cooperation agreements that result in very little. But the way in which the government had packaged it, and considering other Chinese interests in Malta, it speaks volumes.
And once that surface is scratched, however, some answers begin to appear.
The first answer is the most obvious: with Malta partnering up with China, Chinese interests could be at least partially represented around the EU table, where unanimity among the EU’s member states is required for such decisions.
China also stands to gain considerably through the setting up of a joint venture on renewable energy which, through a clever sleight of hand, China will be able to sell its solar panels to the EU, through Malta, and in the process circumvent the bitter trade dispute on solar energy products that is still raging between China and the EU.
Similarly, China will also be able to hub its energy services and products through Malta virtually uninhibited because it is European-owned, technically speaking.
But there could very well be more than meets the eye to the deals and there could also be the issue of China looking to purchase support around the EU’s negotiating table.
Malta’s relationship with China has grown by leaps and bounds, albeit slowly and more or less under the radar. There is always much more than meets the eye when it comes to governments engaging in horse trading, and one should always look these kinds of gift horses in the mouth.
Back in November, Malta and China had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the One Belt One Road initiative.
At the time, it was said that the agreement would ‘provide the basis for projects, investment, and cooperation in the trade, financial services and tourism sectors to be carried out between the two countries’.
It was reported at the time that Malta was among the first European countries with which China has signed such an agreement.
But while Malta has been signing agreements and openly courting China on so many levels, especially since 2013, no one has batted an eyelid. But the moment Italy suggests in may sign a similar MOU, Europe goes into a tailspin.
There are clearly two weights and two measures being applied here between Italy, a powerhouse of Europe, and Malta, a mere minnow.
And that brings us to the question of whether the EU is looking out for the bloc as a whole, as well as its individual member states. By the different reactions to Maltese and Italian MOUs, it seems it more a case of the former rather than the latter, and that is a shame for Malta, which risks being swallowed up by Chinese economic interests in the long run if we are not careful.