VALLETTA, Malta — It is a ritual of the European Union, rich in symbolism even if many Europeans are not paying close attention: Every six months, the presidency of the 28-nation bloc rotates among its member countries, giving small nations a chance to help set an agenda that is usually dominated by larger countries like Germany and France.
This time, it is Malta’s turn, and the tiny country, made up of an archipelago of islands in the Mediterranean, is trying to meet the challenge with a sense of urgency.
“There is a huge disconnect right now between political classes around the world and the lives of normal people,” Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, said at a news conference on Wednesday at the Auberge de Castille, an 18th-century Baroque building in Valletta, the capital.
If anything, his prognosis may be an understatement.
The European Union, an economic and political alliance without an exact parallel in the world or in history, faces existential challenges. A surge of migration from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia has strained the bloc’s unity and cohesion. Voters in Britain narrowly decided in a June referendum to leave the bloc — the first country to do so. Populist parties will try to gain power in national elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, partly by portraying the European Union as elitist and out of touch.
“Does Malta have the political weight or the legitimacy to do this?” asked Mujtaba Rahman, the Europe director for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. Probably not, he said, describing the rotating presidency as an archaic distraction that should probably be scrapped.
Gatherings of top European officials like the one now being held on Malta “are supposed to show continuity of the European project but risk coming off as empty rituals because nobody trusts Brussels to deal with core national concerns like terrorism, migration and economic revitalization,” said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy, a research group in Brussels.
“The image of an orchestra continuing to play on the sinking Titanic is not so far-fetched,” Mr. Lee-Makiyama said, referring to officials holding discussions on Malta that are unlikely to do much to ease the bloc’s multiple unresolved crises.
In fairness, the Maltese seem aware of the scope of the problem.
Mr. Muscat, a Socialist, said that migration and border control — two related and contentious topics that have roiled countries nervous about terrorism and cultural change — were essential agenda items. Getting “everyone together to secure our borders” is essential, he said.
It is also a poignant issue for Malta, which is on the dangerous sea route that many African migrants have used to try to reach Europe.
Slovakia, which previously held the rotating presidency, staunchly rejected immigration by Muslims and emphasizes national interests over trans-European ones.
Malta, a more pluralistic country that has been a historical crossroads of religions and cultures, advocates what Mr. Muscat called a more “pragmatic” approach.
The Maltese are far more pro-European than many other countries mostly because their economy has surged over the past decade. The country is even importing labor, partly to handle a construction boom.
“We need to discuss the positive aspects of migration, but we have to put ourselves in the place” of Europeans “who feel they are being disenfranchised,” Mr. Muscat said.
Asked about the bloc’s most pressing challenge — the looming start of negotiations with Britain over its withdrawal from the European Union — Mr. Muscat rejected any effort to essentially give Britain a way to reap the economic benefits of membership while letting it withdraw on paper.
Any deal for Britain “needs to be inferior to membership,” Mr. Muscat said. He added that he had rarely been at a discussion on any other subject where the vast majority of member states “have basically the same position.” The withdrawal process is supposed to take two years, but because it has never been used before, almost anything could happen.
“I can’t speak at the future and say whether one country or another will then break that sort of unity,” Mr. Muscat said. “I simply don’t see it happening now.”
Germany plays the critical role in determining the decisions the European Union makes these days, and that has contributed to a less important role for the rotating presidency. Even so, Malta will have the opportunity to push the rest of the bloc to manage migration, though the numbers of migrants reaching Malta have been very low since Italy and other countries stepped up patrols closer to the North African coastline.
Malta will also be expected to set the agenda and broker delicate compromises at fractious ministerial meetings.
Mr. Muscat will share the spotlight at official gatherings with Jean-Claude Juncker, who leads the European Commission, the executive arm of the bloc, and with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the body representing national leaders, and with whoever replaces Martin Schulz, who recently stepped down as the president of the European Parliament.
“We are very much on the same lines, swimming in the same channels, swimming in the same direction,” Mr. Juncker said at the news conference at which Mr. Muscat spoke, adding that he was optimistic about plans to make the bloc’s borders on the Mediterranean more secure.
The byzantine system of governance has evolved to allow a balance between national and European interests. But few citizens understand the arcane procedures that undergird that system — and few care.
In a poll conducted for the European Commission in November, just over a quarter of respondents chose the word “hope” from a list of terms when asked to choose what came to mind as the bloc’s 60th year approached. The same proportion answered “nothing.” In third place, with 12 percent, was “satisfaction,” but two negative words, “worry” and “disappointment,” tied for fourth place, each at 8 percent of respondents.
Speaking to reporters in Valletta earlier on Wednesday, Louis Grech, the Maltese deputy prime minister, warned of “extreme nationalism” and “extreme xenophobia” and a surge in protectionist trade policies. “All of these contrast heavily with European values,” he said.
To underscore its determination to take a different path, Malta has selected “reunion” as the theme for its six-month turn at the helm of the ship. That means “restoring a sense of cooperation and neighborliness in these increasingly fractious times,” the Maltese presidency for the bloc said in its published work program.
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