“If you have fixed ideas about how the world should go, then you should be a politician or a priest – but not a diplomat,” says Ambassador Victor Camilleri. It’s an idea that’s almost antithetical in our opinion- and ego-driven modern age, but if anyone can say what a diplomat should be like, it is he. Currently serving as Advisor within the Ministry for European Affairs in Malta, President of the Board of Administrators for the non-profit DiploFoundation, and non-resident Ambassador to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Ambassador Camilleri has occupied numerous senior administrative and diplomatic posts throughout his career which spans 45 years – only 10 of which were spent in Malta. These positions included Permanent Secretary, twice High Commissioner in London, Ambassador in Brussels – forming part of the Maltese team which negotiated Malta’s membership of the EU – and Chef de Cabinet to Malta’s Foreign Minister (and later President) Prof. Guido de Marco during his Presidency of the 45th Session of the UN General Assembly.
“To be a useful diplomat you have to come without a pronounced ideology,” Ambassador Camilleri continues. “You have to be receptive. Essentially, you have to represent somebody else’s ideas and views, in a convincing and genuine way. You have to be able to pick up positions, not as somebody else’s, but as yours – without them necessarily being yours. Over the years I’ve had to represent many things which were contradictory to each other, because people change, times change, and governments change.”
One of the starkest examples of this is when Malta had a volte-face about joining the European Union in 1998. “I went to Brussels in 1996 when there was a change of government. The Labour Party's Alfred Sant, whom I knew because we had joined the Foreign Service together, had just become Prime Minister, and he asked me to go to Brussels. Of course Malta's policy then was not to pursue membership of the European Union, but a close relationship with it – Sant used to call Malta ‘Switzerland in the Mediterranean’.” After two years of this, there was a change in government, and the Nationalist Party rose to power, with a vastly different agenda – and Ambassador Camilleri found himself totally changing tacks.
“I had to do something which was completely different to what I was doing before. Independently of what it meant to me personally, as a job to do, it was quite a task, even psychologically. To shift from doing one thing, to doing quite the opposite, and to do it convincingly, both to the people back home and the people within the EU – I have always considered it to be my biggest challenge. But as I said, from my experience, to be a diplomat – to be a useful diplomat – you have to be a tabula rasa, and allow yourself to be written on.”
He pauses, thoughtfully, digesting the implications of what he has said. “Does that mean that you have to do everything that they tell you to do? No, I don't think so. But whatever we think about our own internal way of doing things in Malta, we are essentially a very democratic society. The different views are strong, and sometimes they are very powerful, but they are within the limits of acceptability. There have been difficult moments – and the situation in Malta is what it is – but I’ve personally never reached a stage where I had to say, ‘no, I cannot do this’.”
It has been 14 years since Malta became a member of the European Union, and looking back on its influence, Ambassador Camilleri highlights three pillars where membership truly helped the island, starting with the economy. “Becoming part of the EU strengthened our economy, because it integrated us into a much larger economy. Having the Euro as our currency helped us. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have done well in a different context, in our own way, but I think being a member state of the Union gave us a big boost.”
The EU also helped Malta with its infrastructure, in more than one sense. “It gave us what we needed – in terms of regional funds, structural funds, and cohesion funds – to build ourselves into a modern economy, both in terms of physical infrastructure, and in terms of how we conduct business, and how we regard our relationships to other countries. With that input, Malta has been able to move ahead and progress much faster than it would have done on its own.”
Finally, the EU gave a tremendous hand to Malta’s young people. “The way the EU has opened up the world and increased the number of opportunities for our young people, is nothing short of exceptional. We haven't yet achieved all that we can achieve – far too many of our young people leave school early, and much of the middle-aged generation ends up lacking higher education qualifications – we still have far to go. But we certainly have accomplished a lot in many areas,” Ambassador Camilleri says, fervently. “I believe that the positive impact that the EU has had on Malta shows in the way that the EU is regarded in Malta, compared to everywhere else.” Indeed, a survey carried out by the European Parliament published last October showed that around 89 per cent of Maltese people believe that the country's decision to join the EU has paid off.
Ambassador Camilleri is far from a European federalist though, and says plainly that there are risks involved in being part of a bloc of countries which has its own objectives, and its own finalité. “There has been debate about where the Union is going, and I am one of those who believe that integration is not the solution for the EU. Many bureaucrats in Brussels are of course convinced that it is, but it goes against popular sentiments – just look at Brexit, and the political currents in countries such as France, Italy and Austria. Some of the undercurrents have not yet come to the surface – but if they keep pushing to this effect, they will cause fractures, doing the opposite of what the EU hopes to accomplish.”
“The future does not lie in being a unified entity, because the people of Europe – including the Maltese – cherish their own national identity too much. There must be a middle way where we can work together as countries, without becoming one. In terms of wealth and population, it can match China and the US, but it cannot become a China or a US in terms of strength, because it is not a one, and it cannot be so. Those who think it can be so are dreaming too far beyond reality. We cannot become a United States of Europe.” He adds that in terms of safeguarding Malta’s interests, “allowing ourselves to be integrated might hurt us quite badly. So far, being small has helped us negotiate in a way which is advantageous to us.”
In 2017, Ambassador Camilleri was appointed head of the political pillar of Malta’s tenure as President of the Council of the EU. “We were responsible for helping the legislative machine move forward for six months. During those six months, you have to put aside national interest – without keeping it out of sight, of course – to make sure that legislation is moving ahead in an objective way. Without the rotating Presidency, the Union would find it much more difficult to move ahead, and in our time there, I believe we performed our role quite well. We had a good team of people – they all have a strong sense of commitment and discipline.”
I ask if he has seen any particularly striking changes in diplomatic life throughout his career, and he replies in the affirmative. “Diplomatic life has changed completely. In Malta, we started out as a small office within the Office of the Prime Minister and now there are two ministries handling Malta’s diplomatic strategy – Foreign Affairs and European Affairs. And nowadays, in the younger teams there are more women than there are men – in my day, there was only one woman on the entire team. Of course, there certainly still needs to be more attention paid to the number of women at top ambassador levels, which is still lacking. People my age always say that the past was better, but I don't necessarily agree.”
IT as a tool of diplomacy is an area of particular interest to Ambassador Camilleri, who for some years served as Chairman of the Working Group on Informatics at the United Nations in New York. However, he does think that it can be unhealthy when taken to illogical extremes. “I’m not a great believer in the use of Facebook and Twitter for diplomacy. I think diplomacy, a lot of it, has to remain private, and behind closed doors – not because it’s secret, but because things have to mature before they come out into the open. Even a baby takes nine months until it’s ready to be born. Of course, President Trump is teaching us an entirely different way of doing things – if it works, I am ready to learn,” he quips about the infamously Twitter-happy US President.
He also comments on Blockchain, an area where Malta is going to great lengths to position itself as the regulatory trailblazer. “The way I see Blockchain technology is as a repository of information in a secure way; the next step is to analyse it in a secure way. We’re still at the beginning of that, and it's an exciting thing. Of course, if you put that analysis into the hands of machines exclusively, you’re going to run into problems. But as a tool for us to think more comprehensively about what we're doing, it's certainly an asset.”
When it comes down to it, however, the job itself has not changed all that much. “Most diplomats aren't ambassadors. Most of the time, you’re somewhere in the middle, not at the top. You don't meet important people every waking moment, you don’t have the chance to change the world – you’re just trying to do the best for your country, and being directed by political leadership, which defines what the objectives are. Those tasks have not changed tremendously. In many ways, being a diplomat is like any other job – sitting at your desktop, in your office, doing what you’re supposed to do. The tools have changed, but the objectives haven't – we’re still doing the best we can for Malta.”
He rounds off the interview with some sage words of advice for young people – whether they want to pursue a diplomatic career or not. “Make sure you like what you’re doing; otherwise do something else. You have to like what you're doing, otherwise it’s not worthwhile. Yes, there are bad days in every line of work, but the positive has to outweigh the negative. If that's not the case, you have to look for other options. And there are always options – even if some are more difficult than others. Things are changing very fast. Listening to us old people, and the way we did things – it’s always good to know, but not necessarily to copy. You have to be very attentive, and understand what is happening at this point in history, in time – right now.”
This interview originally appeared in Business Agenda