What’s ‘love’ got to do with (Malta’s plummeting EU relations?)

There: not so ‘melodramatic’ after all, is it now...?

File photo
File photo

Judging by how some local newspapers (looking at you, Times of Malta!) report on matters concerning Malta’s relations with the EU: anyone would think we were living in one of those South American ‘telenovelas’, that my grandmother loved watching on Italian TV in the 1980s: stuff like ‘Sentieri’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Tempesta D’Amore’, or ‘Quanda Si Ama’...

Now: in those days, I used to have lunch with my grandmother around five or six times a week; and because she had a portable TV in the kitchen... for almost an entire decade, my daily lunchtime sound-track sounded a little like:

‘Saremo insieme per sempre! Nessuno ci potra mai condividere, NESSUNO!’

‘Come hai potuto tradirmi, dope tutto cio’ che abbiamo vissuto insieme?’

‘NO! Non mi devi lasciare! Come potro’ vivere, senza di te?’

‘Non posso supportare piu’ questo dolore! La devo amazzare! Anzi... DEVO AMMAZZARE TUTTI!! (Dove’ il mio fucile, cazzo? Ah, eccolo qui!) ADESSO, FACCIAMO UN MACELLO!!! BANZAAAIIII!!!!’

Honestly, though. And then they tell us that cartoons like ‘Goldrake’, or ‘Jeeg Robot D’Acciaio’, were bad for children ‘because they promote gender stereotypes, and encourage violent, aggressive behaviour...’

But that was just an aside. Point is, I spent around 20% of my entire life exposed to a permanent backdrop of ‘Argentinian-soaps-dubbed-into-Italian’, for around an hour every single day. And trust me: after that long, you learn to start recognising the basic ‘soap opera’ formula, pretty much everywhere you look.

So back to the example I started out with: Malta’s press coverage, of the country’s evolving relations with the European Union.

Last week, The Times reported on the latest Eurobarometer Survey (September 12), under the headline ‘Maltese trust in EU direction drops by 40%’.

“In total, only 26% of Maltese say that things are going in the right direction in the EU today. This figure stood at 65% in a similar Eurobarometer survey held in the summer of 2022.”

The Times also adds: “Malta’s confidence in the EU’s direction was previously drastically higher than that of any other EU member State”... but stops short of specifying that, back in 2016, local support for the EU had stood at a staggering 84% (implying that ‘Maltese trust in EU direction’ has actually dropped by almost 60% – not 40% – over the last seven years.)

Another thing the article omits to mention (understandably enough, I suppose) is that while Malta’s faith in the EU has ‘reached the EU average’... it is still a heck of a lot higher than most other EU member states.

In Cyprus, for instance ‘trust in the EU’ stands at a mere 16%.... and it’s only one percentage point higher in France: one of the founding members of the Union. The second-lowest are Greece, Austria, and Belgium [!], with only 19%; while Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Italy, Latvia and (unsurprisingly) Hungary, all languish somewhere between 20 and 25%.

Simply put: ‘trust in the EU’s direction’ has plummeted across the board, of late; and not just here in Malta. But of course, you’d never guess that just from reading any of the press reports (and even less, by following Ursula von Der Leyen’s ‘State of the Union’ speech last week).

Because rather than just reporting the facts, strictly as they emerge: most newspapers always tend to colour their own articles, with a gushing shade of Barbie-pink... ‘Amore!’

The Times’ next report, for instance, was entitled: ‘Why is Malta falling out of love with the EU?’

And while I can easily imagine someone singing those lyrics, to the tune of Elvis Presley’s ‘Fallin’ In Love’ [Note: you’d be surprised how well they actually scan]... let’s just say it was another song that started playing in my head, when I read that headline.

Sorry, but – as the legendary Tina Turner once sang - “What’s love got to do with it, anyway?” (Being, after all, just a ‘second-hand emotion’?) And what on earth makes The Times think that Malta was ever even ‘in love’ with the EU, to begin with: when, in actual fact, we were arguably the single most ‘reluctant’ of the new members, to join in the 2004 enlargement?

As I recall, Malta joined the EU on the strength of a 2004 referendum, which gave the ‘Yes’ a majority of just 52%. In other words, a staggering 48% – by far the highest percentage in Europe – actually voted NOT to join, 20 years ago.

And there was certainly ‘no love lost’ between the two sides, during that campaign. A few members of the General Workers’ Union, for instance, had decided to make a public show of their true feelings for the European Union... by setting EU flags on fire, while wearing balaclavas! (Which – let’s face it – could have caused ‘Al Qaeda’ problems, at the time...)

THAT, I suppose, is an indicator of just how ‘in love with Europe’ this country really was, in 2004... and yet, it is evident that some people out there – including not the just The Times, and other ‘pro-EU’ papers; but also, the 26% who still believe in that institution, in spite of everything – who genuinely interpreted that referendum result as a case of:

“We will be together forever! Nobody will ever come between us! NOBODY!”

And of course, if you start out on that (manifestly flawed) premise... it follows (illogically) that any ‘decline’, in that sentiment of ‘True Love’, will be interpreted as a case of... betrayal, no less!

‘But how you could you leave me, after all we’ve been through together? (And after all the billions of euros that the EU invested, to ensure our eternal, undying ‘love and gratitude’... FOREVER?)

And yet, and yet... there is nothing remotely ‘romantic’ – or even ‘melodramatic’ – about the reality of Malta’s changing attitudes towards the EU. This, by the way, emerges even from the rest of the same Eurobarometer survey (which asked a few other questions, you know, apart from ‘Do you love the EU? Or do you love her not?’)

For instance: when asked whether they trusted the EU, as a bastion of ‘Social Equality and Welfare’... 61% of Maltese respondents said ‘Yes’. Likewise, 63% believe the EU embodies ‘Respect for fundamental rights’; 60% see it as a purveyor of ‘Tolerance, and openness to others’... and weirdly, 51% even trust the EU when it comes to ‘showing solidarity with other countries’ (despite the fact that Malta has been complaining about the lack of EU solidarity on migration, for literally decades).

In other words: the majority of Maltese citizens still ‘trust’ (if not exactly ‘love’) the EU, for all the ‘fundamental values’ that it is supposed to embrace. And there certainly doesn’t seem to be any problem, with the EU’s ‘direction’ on any of those areas.

The question therefore becomes: why, then, does such a large majority openly disagree with the EU’s ‘general’ (not ‘specific’) direction?

By exclusion, there are only one or two factors left to even consider. Very clearly, the real problem concerns the European Union’s current POLITICAL direction: as reiterated by the European Commission President, with her commitment – in last week’s SOTEU address – to forge ahead with plans for ‘further political integration’.

And the problem itself is quite simple, really. The European Union wasn’t actually on that directional path, yet, when we joined back in 2004. There was no talk, at the time – beyond vague allusions to a ‘European project’ – of ‘all 27 member states merging into a single entity, governed by a Brussels-based European Commission’.

In other words: Malta never actually signed up to the EU’s current ambitions, of turning itself into some kind of ‘United States of Europe’ (and nor did any of the other 27 member states, quite frankly).  And it is only now – i.e., over the past seven or so years – that the European Union has decided to forge ahead with those unpopular ‘integration’ plans, regardless.

This, in turn, explains why the ‘souring’ of our EU-relations, happens to coincide with the Commission’s recent drive to finalise those plans, once and for all... including, by the way, ‘tax-harmonisation’ across the entire EU (which would severely impact Malta’s ability to compete, in future).

There are, of course, a few other factors. One of them is that the EU is now manifestly lagging behind other countries – especially China – when it comes to implementing its own ‘Green Deal’; and rather than stepping up its own production of e-vehicles and batteries... it has opted to start a trade-war with China (which, in the long run, would merely make e-vehicles more expensive for European consumers).

Add to this the fact that Malta’s Labour-voting population – the 48% who didn’t want to join in 2004, remember? – have meanwhile been given plenty of reasons to feel ‘betrayed’ by the EU, themselves: having sat back and watched, bewildered, while the European Union (in their eyes, anyway) practically ‘declared war’ on their cherished Labour government...  even after Labour itself had performed the mother of all U-turns: transforming itself from an openly ‘EU-sceptic’ party before 2008, to a passionately ‘pro-EU party’ afterwards...

Once again, the timing is significant. It cannot escape notice that this ‘decline in trust’ started to be felt specifically from 2017, onwards. (And we all know what happened in Malta that year; and in the years that followed...)

All in all, then: far from ‘falling out of love with Europe’... Malta has merely caught up with the rest of Europe, in seriously questioning whether that institution – under its current leadership - even knows what frigging ‘direction’ it’s going in, itself!

There: not so ‘melodramatic’ after all, is it now...?