Brexit summit: Malta sightseeing soothes jangled nerves

Good-natured talks yield surprising lack of clashes over Donald Trump and migration

Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome kicked off the European project, Malta's irrepressible prime minister Joseph Muscat may have hit on the secret of keeping Europe's leaders happy – keep them moving. His guests had scarcely arrived at Valletta's 16th century Grandmaster's Palace before he marched them down to the Cathedral of St John, where they pondered the fate of St John the Baptist in Caravaggio's magnificent painting of his beheading.

Then he loaded them onto a boat for lunch at Fort St Angelo, a bastioned fort in the middle of the harbour, which was the headquarters of the Order of St John during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Malta has been occupied by everyone from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Spanish, the French and finally the British, who left in 1964, bequeathing the Maltese red telephone boxes and cars that drive on the left hand side of the road.

“There’s a big plaque up there on Fort St Angelo of the insurrection against the French in 1798,” the Taoiseach said.

"And at that very time of the insurrection against the French here, the French were landing in Killala to drive out the Redcoats. So they had different points of contact at different places within the European Union. "


Taoiseach on Trump

Over lunch at the fort, the leaders talked about Donald Trump and the Taoiseach quoted Yeats's The Second Coming, although he appeared to suggest that it was the president's supporters, rather than Trump himself, who were filled with passionate intensity. He urged the other leaders to remain calm in the face of Trump's provocations, predicting that the new administration would be tempered by the Republican majority on Capitol Hill.

Theresa May sought to reconcile her eagerness to be Trump's best friend in Europe with her expressed wish for the EU to remain strong after Britain leaves. May's words of support for the EU in Washington pleased Angela Merkel, and the two women were deep in conversation during the walk from the Grandmaster's Palace to the cathedral.

"I am pleased that Theresa May says that she wants a strong Europe. It's up to us, as the 27, to determine how strong and how good and how rigorous Europe is and how we solve our problems – and Germany wants to do its part on that," the chancellor said later.

Plain sailing

All the walking, sailing and sightseeing left the leaders in such good spirits that they finished the meeting early, without exchanging a cross word either about Trump or the fraught subject of migration, which took up most of the meeting. May, a former home secretary, was so enthusiastic a participant in the migration discussion that some of those present thought she might be wistful at the thought of giving up EU summits altogether.

On her walk to the cathedral the British prime minister passed the house where Samuel Taylor Coleridge worked when he lived in Malta from 1804 to 1806. The poet came to the island hoping to wean himself off his addiction to opium, only to discover that it was the biggest opium producer in Europe.

Among the few poems he wrote in Malta was a lament called The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-tree, which begins:

“Beneath the blaze of a tropical sun the mountain peaks are the Thrones of Frost, through the absence of objects to reflect the rays. ‘What no one with us shares, seems scarce our own.’”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times