Ashamed to be Maltese; proud to support Bulgaria

All the ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ people like Bernard Grech and Roberta Metsola claim to feel about their own nationality evaporates in a puff of smoke, when dealing with foreign countries governed by their political allies

Nationalist MEPs Roberta Metsola and David Casa (left); EPP group chairman Manfred Weber with his close ally, Bulgarian PM Boris Borissov
Nationalist MEPs Roberta Metsola and David Casa (left); EPP group chairman Manfred Weber with his close ally, Bulgarian PM Boris Borissov

It may seem far removed from everything that’s happening in Malta right now; but way back in 2003 – in the build-up to the Iraq war – American country band The Dixie Chicks managed to torpedo their entire career in the space of a single second.

“We do not want this war, this violence,” lead singer Natalie Maines famously said at a concert in London, to wild applause from the crowd. Then she added – to even wilder applause – “And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas…”

Ka-BOOM! Within days, American radio started dropping The Dixie Chicks from their playlists; within weeks, their records were being burnt in public conflagrations across the country… and to cut a long story short, the backlash was so severe that the band itself never really recovered in the end.

There is even a documentary about the whole affair, aptly entitled ‘Shut up and Sing’. The title alone comes across as a cautionary tale about that elusive concept called ‘freedom of expression’. Put simply, it can be summed up as: “Yes, you are free to speak your mind… but that doesn’t mean you are also immune to the consequences of what you actually say.”

And of course, it doesn’t apply only to the microcosm of Country & Western music. Sticking to the same part of the world for now: some of you may be aware that there is a US Presidential election going on as we speak… and (albeit for different reasons) the underlying tensions are every bit as severe as they were back in the time of the Iraq war.

Can you imagine the consequences, then, if Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden were to address the nation on live TV, and casually declare himself… “ashamed to be American”?

Even if he stopped there, it would almost certainly be enough to scuttle any realistic hope of defeating Donald Trump later this month (or indeed, ever). But if he were to also add: “In fact, I’m so ashamed to be American, that when I travel to other countries… I lie about my nationality, and claim to be Canadian instead…”

Yikes! Never mind a ‘backlash’: something like that would probably jump-start a full-blown second American Civil War. And OK, I know what you’re probably thinking. That’s because we’re talking about the United States of America: a country that (let’s face it) tends to take ‘patriotism’ to extremes…

But I reckon it would be an instant suicide note for European politicians, too. Take Angela Merkel, for instance: would she get away with telling reporters that she uses, say, an Austrian alias when travelling, to avoid letting on that she’s actually German? I somehow doubt it (and the same goes for Emmanuel Macron pretending to be Belgian; Boris Johnson pretending to be Irish; or – dare I say it – Bulgaria’s Boris Borissov, hiding behind a fake Russian passport…)

Yet here in Malta – a country that has somehow managed to turn ‘self-loathing’ into an instant political virtue – we have a newly-elected Opposition leader (no less) who seems to think it is perfectly acceptable to publicly disparage his own nationality… and with it, the identity of the very country he hopes to one day lead as Prime Minister.

And of course, this raises a few questions concerning his future career in politics. For instance: if Bernard Grech prefers to identify as ‘Greek’ while on holiday, to avoid the embarrassment of putting up with criticism of his real home-country… then:

a) how does he intend to protect Malta’s reputation in international political fora (as, after all, both Opposition leaders and Prime Ministers are occasionally expected to do)?;

b) where would he stand, if Malta’s interests were to one day collide with those of Greece (as indeed can already be said to be happening, in the case of immigration)? And – last but not least…

c) why the heck doesn’t Bernard Grech just apply for Greek nationality through that country’s ‘Golden Passport’ scheme, and get it over with? That way, the next time he is asked by foreigners about his nationality… he’d be in a position to spare himself all the embarrassment, without having to also resort to a bald, barefaced lie.

Ah, but wait, let me guess: you didn’t know that countries like Greece – and Austria; and Spain; and Portugal, etc. – also have their own equivalent of Malta’s much-maligned ‘Individual Investor Programme’, did you?

Well, I can assure you they do. And this brings me to another small problem with Bernard Grech’s open disavowal of his own nationality. For starters, it’s not as though the things that make him ‘ashamed to be Maltese’ are in any way unique to Malta. After all, we are not just talking about ‘selling passports’ here… but also rampant corruption; repeated international condemnation of our rule-of-law situation; political impunity; a level of criminality that is embedded into our institutional system; complaints about the judicial process, freedom of the press, etc., etc. –

No offence to any Greek readers of this column, of course, but… last I looked, that sort of thing was not exactly alien to countries like Greece, either. In fact, I seem to vaguely remember a certain financial crisis that erupted there just a few years ago… caused, as it happens, precisely by decades of governmental corruption, mismanagement and maladministration…

But that was just an aside. The real problem, I fear, is a good deal more insidious than that: for while Bernard Grech himself is busy hiding his true nationality behind a fake one… the party he leads is equally busy defending another European member state – this time, Bulgaria – from precisely the same accusations levelled at Malta on the rule-of-law front.

By now you will surely have read reports about the latest European Parliamentary resolution regarding Bulgaria; and you will no doubt also have spotted certain similarities with the EP’s analogous (repeated) condemnations of Malta over the past four or so years.

You will also be aware, then, that all two of the Nationalist Party’s MEPs voted against the Bulgarian resolution – and therefore, by extension, in favour of the beleaguered (EPP) Bulgarian government; and also that Roberta Metsola in particular – that’s right, the same MEP who had insisted so vehemently on references to Malta, even in resolutions that did not originally mention our country by name – tried to soften the impact, by watering down the final document through a number of ‘amendments’.

This, for instance, is the first paragraph of the original draft (and also the final version, as Metsola’s amendments were all rejected):

“[The European Parliament] deeply regrets the fact that the developments in Bulgaria have led to a significant deterioration in respect for the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the fight against corruption and freedom of the media…”

And this – incredibly, it must be said – was how Metsola (unsuccessfully) tried to ‘amend’ it:

“[The European Parliament] notes that there is an increasingly deteriorating political climate marked by ongoing polarisation within Bulgarian society and between the main political actors and decreasing trust in public institutions; welcomes the news, as observed by the Commission, that Bulgaria has provided public access to the property and interest declarations of senior public office holders; welcomes Bulgaria’s legal framework to combat conflicts of interest….”

Likewise, the paragraph which ended up as: “[The EP] is deeply concerned by the fact that some systemic issues in the judiciary system identified by the European Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission remain unresolved…” would actually have read as follows, if the Nationalist MEP’s amendments were accepted:

“[The EP] welcomes the proposal for constitutional amendments, which aim to address some systemic issues in the judiciary system identified by the European Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission…”

And on it goes: every single time the European Parliament expressed ‘concern’ over corruption and maladministration in Bulgaria, Roberta Metsola tried to somehow turn it into a statement of ‘praise’ for the Bulgarian government.

Even more bizarrely, however: the same Roberta Metsola who so lovingly quoted every last detail of the Venice Commission’s critical reports about Malta, now seems more keen on deleting – or ‘censoring’, if you prefer – every single reference to the same Venice Commission’s negative findings about Bulgaria.

Does she even realise, I wonder, that in so doing, she has also openly cast doubt on the validity of the Venice Commission’s Malta findings… if not the entire Venice Commission itself? (For let’s face it: if its conclusions about Bulgaria were worthless enough to be discarded altogether… why should we attach any importance to its recommendations about any other country: including our own?)

But then again… well, that’s the whole point, right there: things like the ‘Venice Commission’ only have any value, insofar as they can be used as political weapons against the Maltese government… and even then, only when the Maltese governments happens to be occupied by a political party that is not the PN, or any other member of the European People’s Party.

And by exactly the same token: all the ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ people like Bernard Grech and Roberta Metsola claim to feel about their own nationality… all of it suddenly evaporates in a puff of smoke, when dealing with foreign countries (no matter how corrupt or otherwise indefensible) which are governed by their own political allies.

All things considered, then… yes, I’d say there a quite a few things these people should be ashamed of right now. But ‘being Maltese’ isn’t one of them…