Who needs the Far Right, anyway, when we have PN/PL?

In a sense, then, this next election could almost be regarded as a straight ‘referendum’ between those two conflicting world-visions… which in turn suggests that the ‘victory’ of one side, would also translate into a direct ‘rejection’ of the other

At a time when fascism seems to rearing its ugly head again, all over Europe – sparked mainly by ‘anti-immigration sentiment’, of the kind that seems to have suddenly flared up again here, too – has anyone ever paused to consider why the same political forces have never really made any similar incursions, into the Maltese political mainstream?

Reason I ask is that… it’s happened everywhere else in Europe, you know. Just look at Italy, for instance. The latest polls suggest that Giorgia Meloni’s ‘Fratelli D’Italia’ party – whose main ideological traits are defined as “radical conservatism, nationalism, nativism, and opposition to immigration” – is poised to emerge victorious in next month’s Parliamentary elections. If so, Meloni would become Italy’s next Prime Minister, in a coalition government that that includes other, equally far-right parties (such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord).

Now: it’s not as though we don’t have our own, homegrown equivalents of Italy’s FDI and LN – not to mention France’s Marine Le Pen, Holland’s Geert Wilders, and so on and so forth. Norman Lowell’s Imperium Europa, for example, is arguably much farther to the extreme right of the spectrum, than any of its European counterparts.

Elsewhere, parties like Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, Partit Popolari, and ABBA fill up pretty much all the remaining slots in between.  Their electoral manifestos may vary, in the detail; but they all propose their own variations of the same “radical conservatism, nationalism, nativism, and opposition to immigration” motifs, that we collectively identify under the label of ‘Hard Right’.

Yet when is the last time any of those parties came even remotely close to getting itself elected to Parliament (still less, winning an election, and ending up as part of a ruling coalition?)

The short answer, I suppose, is: never. Not even once… and least of all, at the last election: where the combined votes of both Partit Populari and ABBA failed to surpass even the humble tally of Arnold Cassola; let alone, outperform both the Nationalist and (especially) Labour Party, to cause the same sort of political ‘upset’ that Italy is currently bracing itself for…

.. even if – on paper, at least – Malta has been exposed to precisely the sort of immigration pressures that have clearly fuelled the success of the Far Right: not just in Italy, but also in France, Greece, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

So to return to the original question: why, exactly, has Malta NOT produced the equivalent of a ‘Matteo Salvini’, or a ‘Giorgia Meloni’, at any point in the last 20 years? And while I’m at it: why have Malta’s ‘far right sympathisers’ – who appear to be rather plentiful; at least, judging by their social media presence – never quite progressed from ‘openly agreeing’ with those far-right parties… to actually voting for them, in a General Election?

Well, of all the ironic things to happen this week… those very questions were ‘answered’ (albeit inadvertently) by former exponents of none other than the two dominant mainstream parties themselves.

In an analysis piece by James Debono, former (Nationalist) Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, and former (Labour) Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo, both chipped in their own personal reflections about the Far Right’s imminent victory in Italy… a state of affairs which Mifsud Bonnici, in particular, attributes to the “disappearance of the centre-right.”

Evarist Bartolo, we are told, “also shares this sentiment”… adding that: “If Matteo Salvini becomes Interior Minister, Italy will take a tougher line on immigration.”

Taken together, I would argue that both those points already account for the complete absence of any self-avowed ‘hard right’ parties, anywhere in Malta’s mainstream political establishment. But it would be a lot easier to explain why, if we dissected them one by one.

So let’s start with Evarist Bartolo’s observation, that Italy’s newly-elected, right-wing government ‘will take a tougher line on immigration’.

Erm… ‘tougher’ than what, exactly? Than the line Matteo Salvini himself had taken, the last time when he was Italy’s Minister for Home Affairs (i.e., between 2018 and 2019)? Or ‘tougher’ than the line that every single Maltese government – both Nationalist and Labour - has always taken, between the early 2000s and today?

For let’s face it, folks: if Matteo Salvini is (rightly) considered a Fascist, because he ‘closed his country’s harbours to immigrant vessels’… or ‘criminalised rescue NGOs’… or ‘refused to assist vessels in distress’… or ‘turned Lampedusa into a concentration camp, for African asylum-seekers’…

… what are we to call both the Nationalist and Labour governments of Malta: which, between them, have not only implemented exactly the same sort of policies, over the years… but have actually been guilty of far, FAR worse, than anything that’s ever been attributed to a ‘far-right Italian party’ (at least, not since the days of Mussolini himself)?

For instance: as I recall, it was the 1998-2004 Nationalist administration that first introduced a policy of ‘mandatory, arbitrary and INDEFINITE detention’, for all undocumented asylum-seekers arriving in Malta.

That is, quite literally, the equivalent of “lock ‘em up, and throw away the key”… so I need hardly add that it was also an extremely popular measure, at the time. In fact, it had to take mounting pressure from the Council of Europe’s ‘Committee for the Prevention of Torture and degrading Treatment’ to convince the Nationalist government to eventually remove it… in 2008.

All the same, however: the CPT did not manage to prevent what is arguably the single largest atrocity ever committed by any Maltese government: i.e., when, in 2002, the same Nationalist government forcibly repatriated over 220 Eritreans… despite international warnings that they might face ‘torture and execution’ in their home country (and guess what? Some of them were, in fact, ‘tortured and executed’)…

Now: not to stick up for the likes of Salvini, of course; but as far as I’m aware, he’s never been accused of anything quite so outrageously reprehensible, as… THAT. (Seriously, though: has he?)

Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s track record hasn’t been all that very ‘rosy’, either. To cite but one example: as recently as 2020, The Guardian reported that our government’s (unofficial) ‘push-back policy’ had caused the deaths of 12 migrants at sea; and also, that “the survivors taken back to Libya have been placed again in arbitrary detention in inhuman conditions […], where male refugees are often tortured in underground cells for months…’’

Anyway: I could go on, of course; but I reckon the point has been made. However ‘tough’ the incoming Italian government’s approach to immigration is likely to be… it cannot realistically be any ‘tougher’, or ‘more hard-line’, than the one taken by successive Maltese governments in recent years.     

But this only brings me to Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici’s observation – with which I wholeheartedly agree, by the way – concerning ‘the disappearance of the centre-right’ in Italy.

Let us return, for a moment, to the political uncertainties hovering over our nearest European neighbour. Why IS the Far Right enjoying such a resurgence in Italy (and so many other European countries) right now, anyway?

At the risk of over-simplification: Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is not the only one to argue that the ‘rise of the Extreme Right’ - in Italy, and elsewhere - also corresponds to a ‘decline of the political centre’. And from this perspective: it is not so much that Far Right parties are necessarily ‘growing in popularity’… it is more that the ‘centrist’ parties themselves have clearly failed: not just in the sense that some of them (like Draghi’s administration) failed to ‘survive a confidence vote in Parliament’; but because none of them has ever succeeded in providing a viable, political alternative, to the appeal of their opponents’ ‘populist’ narrative.

But to be fair to Draghi, Renzi, Letta and all the other ‘centrist’ Italian leaders, in recent years… it wasn’t for lack of actually ‘trying’, you know. For better or worse, all those short-lived centrist governments DID try to adopt a different – and more humane – approach to issues such as immigration.

In fact, James Debono’s article goes on to note that: “underlying the dispute between Malta and Italy was [Salvini’s] insistence that Malta should take in all immigrants rescued in its search and rescue area. This policy was reversed by Enrico Letta’s centre-left administration, which embarked on ‘Operazione Mare Nostrum’ with Italy taking responsibility over migration…”

Sadly, however, the polls also show that – just as our government’s ‘hard-line’ approach proved so popular, among the Maltese – Letta’s more moderate approach (which was continued, up to a point, by both Renzi and Draghi) seems to have ‘bombed’ with the Italian electorate.

In a sense, then, this next election could almost be regarded as a straight ‘referendum’ between those two conflicting world-visions… which in turn suggests that the ‘victory’ of one side, would also translate into a direct ‘rejection’ of the other.