Remarks by President Donald Tusk at the opening ceremony of the Maltese presidency

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

It is good fortune that the Maltese Presidency comes at this extraordinary time, a time full of new challenges and dramatic upheavals. In these six months, in Rome we will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty, and the Brexit procedure will formally be launched. The spring will also be a demanding test for the whole of the EU with regard to migration, especially on the Central Mediterranean Route. Such a sequence of events requires leadership which is competent, experienced and sensitive.

We were indeed lucky that this difficult role fell upon Malta. Few have a better understanding of Italians, who will host the Rome celebrations, and few have a better understanding of the British, who we will begin to divorce. And, as we know, divorces – without mutual understanding of the partners involved – can turn their lives into a nightmare. Finally, few have a better understanding of the essence of the migration tragedy in the Mediterranean.

But Malta is not only a guarantee of a competent and understanding leadership. For Europe, Malta is also a symbol of our cultural identity. If you want to see a history of European culture through a lens – take a close look at this remarkable island.

According to some, it is here in Malta, that Calypso, the nymph from Homer’s Odyssey, hosted Odysseus. Although, given the seven years he was held captive by her, the word ‘hosted’ is perhaps a slight understatement. For art lovers, Malta is the island of Caravaggio, while for the lovers of archaeology, it is the site of the oldest free-standing structures on Earth. It is no coincidence that la Valetta will be a European capital of culture in 2018.

It is precisely culture that anchors us, Europeans, in time and space, giving us a sense of identity. Culture is that territory we want to and should defend. We all have our roots in the Mediterranean, in Greece and in Rome, in Christianity, which was born at this crossroads of cultures. If today we are looking for anchors that will stabilise our continent, Malta is that kind of symbolic anchor. Zygmunt Bauman, the brilliant Polish philosopher and social thinker who died only two days ago, wrote that Europe has a particularly important role to play in revitalising our understanding of culture, precisely because Europe, with its great diversity of peoples, languages and histories, is the space where the Other is always one’s neighbour and where every one of us is constantly called upon to learn from everyone else.

Apart from competence, patience and empathy will no doubt be the main strengths of the Maltese Presidency. My confidence in this comes from the knowledge of certain events dating back to the beginning of our era.

According to the Bible, the apostle Paul was en route to Rome where he was to be tried as a political rebel. However, the ship carrying him and hundreds of others was caught in a fierce storm. Two weeks later the ship crashed on the Maltese coast, and all the people on board swam safely to land. The welcome given to the survivors is described in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter Twenty Eight, by Saint Luke: ‘And later we learned that the island was called Malta. And the people who lived there showed us great kindness, and they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves.’

Two thousand years have passed, and you continue to welcome guests and survivors, calling them to warm themselves by a common fire, of which today’s ceremony is another beautiful example.

Thank you.