What is the Order of Malta?
Description of the Order of Malta
The Order of Malta is a subject of international law. At its executive level, the Order is administered as a government represented diplomatically in many nations. Today the Order has diplomatic missions in 106 countries and missions to major European countries, as well as to European and international organisations. The Order remains true to its founding objectives, that is the defence of the Catholic faith and assistance to the poor and suffering, which is carried out through the voluntary work of its members in humanitarian assistance and medical and social activities in over 120 countries. Today the Order is also described as an international charity with 'neutral, impartial and non-political' objectives.
The Grand Master of the Order of Malta is elected among professed Knights of the Order, who have taken religious vows namely celibacy, obedience and poverty. He is accorded the singular title of 'His Most Eminent Highness' and receives precedence in the Roman Catholic hierarchy immediately after that of the most junior cardinal. The current Grand Master is Fra Matthew Festing of the UK, who was elected on 11 March 2008 in replacement of Fra Andrew Bertie, who died in February 2008 (after having led the Order from 1988).
The government of the Order of Malta is headed by the Grand Master, who is elected for life and is assisted by a Sovereign Council, made up of four State Ministers: Grand Commander, Grand Chancellor, Grand Hospitaller, and the Receiver of the Common Treasure. Another six members, elected from professed Knights or Knights in obedience, and elected for a term of five years, complete the Sovereign Council.
A bit of history
The full name of the Order of Malta is the following: Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. This is because the Order governed Malta for centuries, before moving to Rome. Although maintaining its Head Office in Rome, the Order has recently returned to Malta, after signing an agreement with the Maltese government, which granted the Order the exclusive use of Fort St Angelo (which used to belong to the Order as from 1530).
The Order has its origins in a hospice and confraternity in Jerusalem, founded some time before the first Crusade (1099). According to some accounts, the original Christian hospice was founded as early as 1020. It is therefore one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilisations. The original objective of the Order was to defend and care for pilgrims, travellers and the sick who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Palestine).
The Order of Malta is generally described as 'a religious Order, of military, chivalrous and noble nature'. Its 12 500 members include professed friars and others who have made vows of obedience. The other Knights and Dames are lay members, 'devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity'.
The relations between the Order of Malta and the EU
The EU has official relations with the Order of Malta, which is a sui generis subject of public international law. A representative of the Order of Malta is accredited to the EU and the Head of the EU Delegation in Rome is accredited to the Order of Malta. There is no overarching framework agreement between the EU and the Order of Malta. However, the European Commission has concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) [968 KB] with the Order of Malta on cooperation in matters of common interest, consultation and exchange of information (signed 17 February 2009).
Visit of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta to Brussels
The Grand Master of the Order, Fra Andrew Bertie paid an official visit to Brussels on 31 January 2007 where he met with President José Manuel D. Barroso and Commissioner Ján Figel'. This visit aimed at consolidating the link between the Order and the EU in other fields than the one of development and humanitarian activities. Indeed, the Order has always been willing to develop relations in all matters that relate to inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogues. Through this official trip, the Grand Master also wanted to reiterate his wish to see the EU formally establish diplomatic relations with the Order of Malta.
On 12 June 2007, the first Head of the EU Delegation in Rome, Mr Luis Ritto, was accredited to the Order of Malta, 6 months after the official visit of the Grand Master Fra Andrew Willonghby Nimian Bertie to President Barroso in Brussels. On 1 January 2012, Ambassador Laurence Argimon-Pistre was appointed as new Head of the EU Delegation to the Holy See, to the Order of Malta and to the UN Organizations in Rome. She officially presented her credentials to the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Fra Matthew Festing, on 9 February 2012.
Cooperation and projects between the Order and the EU
The relations between the EU and the Order of Malta are good and based on mutual respect and understanding. The Order has been for many years now a valuable partner of the European Commission, having helped to implement the EU programmes and projects in many parts of the world, especially in the fields of emergency relief, medical care, the fight against poverty, the response to drought and famine, and special assistance to people affected by conflicts. The Order spends around USD 1 billion per year on its activities worldwide, and has been able to receive EU financial resources for its actions, mainly from the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO).
The 2009 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the European Commission and the Order of Malta. The MoU reaffirms the cooperation in matters of common interest, especially in the following areas: post-crisis situations, migration, local economic and social development, vulnerable groups, human rights, and intercultural and interreligious dialogue.