The massive neutrality debate is back

Will this archaic attitude drag Joseph Muscat and George Vella down and hinder the needed change in the wording of Malta’s neutrality clause when there is obviously a bipartisan agreement on what this neutrality entails

The rise of the Islamic State: Does our neutral status oblige us to be neutral in the face of the struggle between good and evil?
The rise of the Islamic State: Does our neutral status oblige us to be neutral in the face of the struggle between good and evil?

The massive debate about Malta’s neutrality is back with a vengeance. Actually it is just about the neutrality clause in the Constitution that was rammed down the country’s throat as a face saver for Mintoff at the end of his ignominious 1981-87 administration.

In an article that appeared in ‘The Times’ on September 15, well known Vittoriosa aficionado Lino Bugeja rambled into the neutrality issue and insisted that ‘neutrality needs revision’, basing his arguments on his assessment of the dangers to Malta’s security in 2014, insisting that: ‘Those who play down the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis or Isil) insurgents’ long-term threat to our island are living in fantasy-land, oblivious of this fanatical group’s intentions to convert pseudo Christian Europe to militant Islam.’

Last Sunday, the editorial of the GWU’s weekly ‘it-Torca’ vehemently attacked anyone who dares think of the possibility of removing Malta’s neutrality clause from the Constitution. The editorial was written with an attitude reminiscent of Malta before it became ‘taghna lkoll’, which is not so long ago, and in a style reminiscent of anti-west cold war rhetoric, which is even more outdated, of course.

It insisted that there are still superpowers around with the USA, NATO and their pet love, the European Union, on one side and Russia and China on the other. In fact, it went on, all the problems in Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Iraq were provoked by the west. That’s hardly a neutral stance, of course.

According to this editorial, Malta’s security is guaranteed if we show that we are not on the side of those who are accomplices in the murder of innocent people and by actively striving for pacific stability in our region. On the other hand, argued the editorial, Malta would be endangering its security if we are nearer those who are the target of terroristic attacks or those whose citizens are kidnapped and beheaded! If ‘they’ see us hobnobbing with these countries ‘they’ consider us as one of them. Obviously this hackneyed diatribe leads one to ask once again whether our neutral status obliges us to be neutral when faced with the eternal struggle between good and evil – a quandary that the ‘it-Torca’ editorial conveniently avoids. Much unlike Lino Bugeja, of course.

As if this was not enough, last Tuesday an article on ‘Our neutrality clauses’ – signed by Michael Grech and Charles Miceli – appeared in ‘The Times’ in response to Lino Bugeja’s contribution.

The two authors thought it fit to point out that they ‘are members of a group that opposes the elimination or neutralisation of the neutrality clauses from the Constitution.’

Here the spectre of Malta neutralising its neutrality is raised for the first time. I suppose they must mean that our neutrality should not be neutralised or, perhaps, neutered. This is, of course, a very intriguing and interesting suggestion – at least in terms of communication skills. It does seem, however, that there are some who consider the wording of the neutrality clause(s) as some sacred cow, to be revered in its original form and left untouched!

The arguments of the representatives of this hitherto unannounced and secret group are in line with those of the ‘it-Torca’ editorial, which is the sort of uncanny coincidence that frequently occurs in Malta. They maintain that the neutrality clauses are ‘not rendered obsolete by the fact that today there is one superpower/official military block rather than two. The disappearance (at least for the time being) of the second superpower does not entail that what the neutrality clauses enjoin no longer holds. The world is still a conflict between different parties, competing ideologies and rival economic blocks.’

Nice one. If only another superpower appears on the horizon, our neutrality clause(s) would be perfect – I almost hear them saying…

All this is theory. In practice, this week, we had the Ministry for Foreign Affairs categorically denying that Malta has signed an agreement to join the anti-Islamic State coalition. This is not to be discarded as some inane plea begging IS to ignore us but was a reaction to a report that said that the US State Department had listed (erroneously) Malta as being in the anti-IS coalition.

I think that the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a sober assessment on how Malta’s neutrality impinges on its position on this issue by stating unequivocally that ‘Malta has strongly condemned, in international fora, the violence perpetuated by the Islamic State and offered its political and moral support in the fight against barbarism and terrorism.’ It added that: ‘Malta’s neutrality has the goal to achieve peace and therefore cannot remain neutral or passive in such circumstances’ and that ‘Malta also recognised its moral obligation that the humanitarian situation be addressed.’ 

This is in direct contradiction of the implications of Malta’s neutrality according to the ‘it-Torca’ editorial and the article by Michael Grech and Charles Miceli. I am with George Vella on this one. Will the editor of ‘it-Torca’ now react and challenge the Foreign Minister or will this issue keep seething in the nether regions of the Labour Party rank and file?

Malta can pursue its neutrality, even as a member of the EU that was portrayed by the ‘it-Torca’ editorial as the pet love (mahbuba) of the USA and NATO. Indeed Austria and Ireland are also EU member states that pursue their neutrality without fear or favour. But the archaic mindset of what must be considered only as ‘old Labour’ cannot understand this. Will this attitude drag Joseph Muscat and George Vella down and hinder the needed change in the wording of Malta’s neutrality clause when there is obviously a bipartisan agreement on what this neutrality entails?

Incidentally – or not so incidentally - the other week ‘The Today Public Policy Institute’ (TPPI) issued a report entitled: ‘A review of the Constitution of Malta at fifty: Rectification or Redesign?’ The report written by Michael Frendo and Martin Scicluna, after work on it was instigated and started by the late Peter Serracino Inglott, makes a brief reference to the need of a change in the Constitution’s wording on neutrality viz:

‘Article 1 (3) of the Constitution on neutrality and non-alignment, as currently worded, is anachronistic and out-dated given the collapse of the Superpower duopoly in world affairs. It is for consideration that if Malta is to retain neutrality the clause should be amended to reflect present realities, while still retaining Malta’s position as a neutral country within the European Union supporting the EU’s Common and Foreign Security policy.’

This makes much sense and I bought it, notwithstanding the fact that the constant repetition of the frivolous clause ‘It is for consideration’ in bold letters throughout the TPPI report gave me the jitters.

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