Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat looks relieved. 'There is life after the EU presidency', he assures us. 'Or rather: one comes back to life.' Shirts sleeved with black suspenders, Muscat (43) looks back on the past six months, in which his island ran the EU, with satisfaction. 'It was the first time for Malta. We'd prepared as well as we could have, but it was still a leap in the dark.'
Size doesn't matter, Muscat concludes in his office, a room in the 18th century Auberge de Castille, more or less Malta's version of the White House. 'When push comes to shove, it doesn't matter if you're the smallest or the largest member state. Large countries get things done by using their weight, small countries because they're seen as honest mediators who aren't as self-serving.' His performance during the EU-presidency did not go unnoticed. Several heads of state asked if he would be interested in a EU top job in 2019, when a new European Commission and EU president take office.
Despite the praise there was virtually no one in the European Parliament when you reported on the presidency.
(laughing) 'For me that was good news, it means that we didn't make any huge mistakes. I'm rather suspicious of large rooms full of politicians, they put me off. Seriously: I was a member of the European Parliament and I know that unless some big shot walks in, it's very difficult to fill the plenary chamber on a Tuesday morning, at 9.
You didn't take it as a lack of respect? President Juncker of the European Commission berated the members of parliament, he called them 'ridiculous'.
'Juncker was indeed very clear. But the Parliament has its own priorities and the outgoing EU president's final report isn't one of them. I don't take that personally, I don't view it as a lack of respect. As a member of the European Parliament, I myself didn't attend every presidential debate. So I'm the last person to point the finger.'
During your presidency EU president Tusk was re-elected, a politically sensitive issue you had do deal with. What has this taught you about the dynamics of the EU summits?
'That it's not about party politics. Of course there's ideology and there are differences in values: free market versus protectionism. But that's not a matter of left and right, it's one of mentality. In Brussels, the Dutch prime minister, regardless of who's in government, will always be more liberal than a Mediterranean counterpart. Although Malta's the exception to that rule. Realism and personal relationships are what matter in the Council. I've learned a lot about that in the past six months.'
How do you mean, no party politics: the Polish prime minister boycotted the re-election of her compatriot Tusk.
'In other political forums the coyotes come out when someone gets 'branded'. Ready to tear up the weakened among them. There was only one prime minister who rejected Tusk: Poland's. But others, who may have had a personal bill to settle with Donald, or socialists wanting to restore the balance of power in Brussels, they didn't seize on that opportunity. They didn't come out to tear apart Tusk's second mandate.
In Brussels, we, the leaders, do not choose for the battlefield and decimate each other, but take the rational approach for what's best for Europe. I find it heartwarming that the Council [meeting of EU leaders] isn't some cold, cynical institution.'
What's the leaders secret at their Brussels' table?
'The awareness that they're the top politicians. The way they approach politics is of a higher level than the squabbling that occurs nationally. You can be yourself more. As a member of the European Parliament, I advocated that all EU summits should be public. None of that secretive business. Now I realise that that would be disastrous. We couldn't strike any of the compromises we make now. If everyone is watching, politicians will no longer disregard their own interests. Of course, even now spicy details and clashes are leaked, but a lot of them aren't. I've witnessed some explosive confrontations between leaders, intense debates, some of them nearly crossing the line. But they always realised that this wasn't the way forward. Fighting like cats and dogs isn't going to help Europe. That has been one of the most fantastic experiences in my life, that sense of camaraderie, of brotherhood in Brussels.'
Could you give an example?
'When we saved Greece in 2015. It was a marathon debate, leaders walked in and out, it was dragging on to everyone's increasing annoyance. Until one of us said: 'that's enough, this is it, we quit!' Everyone fell silent, shocked. Because we knew that person wasn't bluffing, that it wasn't a strategic move. It was real. Greece was at the edge of the eurozone, ready to be pushed out.'
I assume it was Merkel who said that. Her finance minister Schäuble had suggested some days before that Greece should be 'temporarily' suspended from the euro zone.
'I can't tell you that but I assure you: it was serious, very serious. Everyone at the table knew that Greece's future was at stake, and not just Greece's. The wellbeing of millions of citizens was at stake. And then again, there was the desire to come together. I know, this sounds romantic, but I am romantic about the Council, about that table in Brussels that I've come to appreciate so much.'
In parliament, you spoke harshly about immigration policy. You said we should all be ashamed. Why is that?
'Some countries simply refuse to share part of the migration burden. Not because they don't have the funds or the infrastructure. Just because they believe it shouldn't happen. Because they're afraid the presence of Muslims will dilute their culture. That's why it's futile to think we can solve this problem in the EU with some extra money. It's not about money or rules, it's about values.'
But why should we all be ashamed if it's the Eastern European member states who are blocking?
'Because we are all to blame. The unity in values that still existed a few years ago is disappearing. That separation of minds is happening now, we're all witness to it. That schism is not the end of the EU, but it does necessitate new structures and methods. It's about the choice between being open and being closed, liberal or national. That's the great divide that's manifesting itself. I'm a liberal and that doesn't mean that I'm saying: open the borders. It means safe external borders, knowing who's coming and who's going. But it also means that everyone takes part of the burden.'
After the Slovak presidency, all hopes were set on Malta breaking the impasse in the migration debate. Why has that failed to happen?
'I didn't want some watered down deal. Malta was an honest mediator for an honest deal. Not one of the lowest denominator. Because we couldn't overcome the deadlock, migration is now linked to other issues. Some are saying, if you consistently refuse to take in refugees, your subsidies will be cut. It's horse-trading, and makes it even harder to find a solution. But unfortunately that's the direction we're headed in. So let's call a spade a spade and try to avoid this.'
A week after your hard words in the Parliament, Italy called on other member states to open their ports to disembark migrants. No one said 'yes', including Malta.
'Our ports have been open long enough. Now we stick to the rules of operation Triton (an EU search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, mp). We help the Italians. I fully support the Italian plea for a code of conduct for ngo rescue boats. I'll not get very popular by saying this but the ngo's should stop serving as ferries for migrants.'
Italy asked for solidarity, the others said no, including Malta.
'It can't just be Malta, we're not the sacrificial lamb. All countries should open their ports.'
Why is Italy picking up all migrants from the Maltese search and rescue zone?
'We're responsible for our own search and rescue zone, but most migrants only pass by it. If they don't ask for help and they're not in danger, we can't rescue them. If they are rescued, they're taken to Italian ports. That's the agreement.'
And why is that the agreement?
'That was the result of negotiations.'
It's said in Brussels that Italy will be granted access to Malta's gas supplies in exchange for taking in migrants. Gas for migrants, is that solidarity?
'No deals have been made about our gas supplies. There are, however, conflicts between Italy and Malta about those gas supplies and we want to resolve those conflicts.'
Earlier this year, you and Chancellor Merkel advocated setting up 'humanitarian corridors' in Africa for large refugee centres where asylum procedures take place. Is that the future of the European asylum policy?
'I agree! We need camps in non EU countries. I won't say which countries, that will only lead to annoyance and resistance. But either they guard their borders, or they establish refugee centres from where we can choose the people. Of course there are politicians and organizations that scream: Fortress Europe! Where's the solidarity? But you can't give solidarity when it doesn't exist.
Malta has practically full employment, we need migrants and take them from other EU countries. But we do so in a legal and controlled manner. The outcry starts when people feel like there's an invasion. When wave after wave of immigrants arrive and their government seems to have lost control. It's not about the numbers, but the method. If you know how many are coming and who they are, it doesn't matter anymore whether it's 40, 60 or 80 thousand. That's why humanitarian corridors are so important.'
You called Brexit 'a disastrous creature'. Why? It's what the British people want.
'The will of the people can have disastrous consequences, history teaches us. I could name some examples, but they're so horrendous they'd raise the wrath of my British friends. But for the first time I'm starting to believe that Brexit won't actually happen. I see encouraging signs that the tide is turning. I'm not saying the Brits have made a mistake, but the mood is changing. People see that their fundamentally valid vote has been given an answer that does not offer a solution. The referendum was democratic, but has resulted in a situation in which everyone loses. Doubt is creeping in. It would be good if a political leader in the UK would stand who's courageous enough to seize this momentum and say: let's submit the final Brexit deal again to the people.'
Is the British prime minister May handling the Brexit negotiations well?
'She's well prepared. People who say the British have no clue what they're doing are wrong. I've lived in Britain, I know the British mentality. There's no such thing as an unprepared British civil servant. It's not that London is ill-prepared, but that the EU is extremely well prepared. That much became clear when Michael Barnier [Brexit negotiator for the EU] asked me: do you know how many cats and dogs travel from Dover to Calais every year? Do you know what's to be done with the animal passport? Such detail! That's when I knew: the EU is excellently prepared.'
You warned there would be more 'exits'. Whose?
'We must be vigilant, we can't trust the polls. No one predicted Trump's victory, Corbyn's comeback, Brexit. Brexit isn't a product of the past two years, it's developed over two generations. We're all partly to blame for that too. We never acknowledged what a dim view the Brits take of the EU. We thought they wouldn't dare to make this leap in the dark. But they did.
I don't foresee any new exits, despite what all the doomsayers have said in the past year. But the EU must change. The existing format doesn't work anymore.'
What needs to change in the EU?
'That's clear: the current one size fits all method. That was designed for a much smaller Union. We have to strive for a multi-speed Europe. Leading groups of member states that want to work together more closely, existing side by side. Like the Schengen Area and the euro zone. Mind you, I'm talking about leading groups, not exclusive clubs: elective, not selective! Every country should be able to participate if it wants to and meets the criteria. The only exception is the internal market, it's impractical to have differing rules there. But for a European defence, European pensions and a European public prosecutor, lets's start with the multispeed Europe. Let's not wait for every last member state to agree.
You're presenting yourself now as a European romantic. In 2003 you campaigned against EU membership for Malta. Why?
'Because I thought Malta would be overwhelmed by Brussels' bureaucracy. I feared a loss of jobs and our independence. That's why I empathize with the Brexiteers. They use the same arguments I used to. But Malta voted 'yes'. A year later I was elected in the European Parliament. I didn't join a Eurosceptic group, I chose the European socialists instead. It was like a journey. I learned that being critical of the EU doesn't mean you have to be anti-European. It's not that black and white.'
Was there a specific moment when you saw the EU blue light?
(Laughing) 'I was no Saul on the road to Damascus! I saw that my country wasn't crushed, that the Maltese weren't affected by Brussels' one size fits all model. What I hadn't understood was that, for many Maltese, EU membership was the gateway to the outside world. They chose for an open society, I was stuck in a statistical, bureaucratic perspective.'
How could you have missed that at the time, on an island?
'Sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees.'
It appears that the EU is recovering from a depression. Do you notice this speaking to your colleagues in Brussels?
'Certainly! You can feel it. Even colleagues from whom you'd least expect it are saying: we were too pessimistic. The 'eureka moment' was Trump's election. That's when the leaders realized: now it's the time for the EU. The US are withdrawing, we have to do more on our own. Trump's presidency has led to a united Europe. It shows how much can change in twelve months. And I'm not going to spoil that party!'