Ten key takeaways from Muscat’s interview with the Economist

Malta’s prime minister is a centrist with progressive inspiration, who sees  ‘aspiration’ as the key to his party’s programme

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Matthew Vella
1 April 2016, 8:40am
Joseph Muscat. Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat. Photo: Ray Attard
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was interviewed by the Economist newspaper in February, to discuss the state of Europe’s social democrats (the subject of a briefing in this week’s issue), the future of the centre-left and his party’s record in office.

1. Aspiration is central to Labour’s political thought

‘It has nothing to do with whether you are working-class, middle-class, blue-collar, white-collar. There is a category, which transcends class, of people who want to forge ahead.’

2. … and class is no longer a big idea for the centre-left…

‘Whether you live on €1,000 or less per month or €10,000 per month, it is the drive to do more, for social mobility basically, which can keep us together. Why should we classify people according to their income? I think it is as short-sighted as classifying people according to the colour of their skin.’

3. His political inspirations are…

‘Internationally, I relate a lot to the ideas of Robert Kennedy. I think he was probably the best president America never had. Also from the States, FDR is an icon. And closer to here and now, obviously Clinton, Blair and Schröder. I wouldn’t underestimate Schröder.’

4. Muscat believes in rolling back government…

‘I see a future where it comes to the involvement of the private sector in public utilities and the way we regulate. What I think can be the big difference between social democrats and centre-right parties is not whether we let the private sector in or not, but the way we regulate it.’

5. And he sees a future in more civil liberties…

‘I think that is a direction in which very few political forces have the courage to venture. I see a future in children’s rights and increasing the rights and responsibilities of parents. I see a future in issues regarding disabilities. I think there are frontiers to challenge on that… I see a future in policies for elderly people. I think they are a part of society that is totally neglected. In many ways the grey vote can be the new youth vote.’

6. Communications and PR is key

‘You can have the best product in the world but unless it is communicated to people, no-one will buy it… people are surprised when you listen (and I am not limiting this to myself). Here we organise meetings, where people come and can say anything they want. And the minister and prime minister are there and take the flack, answer and react.’

7. You can ‘hate’ Europe, but the markets will always be chasing you…

‘Just thinking “we are fed up and have to change everything” is not on. We have to live with this situation. We kid ourselves if we go out there and tell people: spending reviews and curbs are a thing of the past, we will do what we want. I think, even if we change all the rules in the world there is one that we will not defy: that of the market, of a global market with immediate information. Even if Europe tomorrow changes its rules suddenly, the markets will kill us.’ 

8. He thinks his pushback ploy in 2013 was a valid move…

‘When we were having landings in 2013 and Europe was not taking notice of us, I threatened to push back migrants. That got Europe’s attention. And they said: “look, let’s see what can be done.” Maybe I’m not the normal social democrat who would say: “we need to live with this.” No, we need to manage this. Each country’s experience is different to that of another. The moment you tell people “I understand your concerns”, and not “if you’re concerned about migration you are a xenophobe, a loony right-winger”, they get it.’

9. He says the centre-left has to acknowledge the cultural fears of immigration

‘We are not even at the stage of saying: “There are problems at our cities’ peripheries. We are disengaging with the reality that people are living.” And then they find refuge with far-right exponents who repeat a skewed version of facts but are the only people connecting with them. So I think listening, and acknowledging the issues, would go a long way.’

10. He leads a ‘broad church’ of interests

I think one should also get more used to minorities and majorities within the same party. It is a coalition. But I think that there will be more intra-party coalitions rather than coalitions between social democrats and other parties… not everyone thinks the same, that there are various experiences and histories that need to be reckoned with.’

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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.