Why all the fuss?

While Malta may really be small and insignificant in the bigger European picture... we’re not entirely ‘powerless’, you know

I think I’ve finally figured out why the European Parliament seems to be so utterly obsessed with Malta... why, for instance, it keeps dispatching committees upon committees to analyse and dissect every last bowel movement of ours as a nation... but never seems to hear or smell any of the ‘great expectorations’ coming from other, more powerful and influential EU member states.

At first, I thought it was just a case of lazy type-casting: Malta is a small Mediterranean island state... Mediterranean countries are (let’s face it) notorious for corruption, nepotism, and a general laissez-faire attitude when it comes to law enforcement... therefore, the Maltese people are inherently lawless and corrupt, Q.E.D.

But while you do undeniably get that impression from the way our country gets talked about sometimes... you also quickly realise that it cannot really account for the emphasis on Malta in particular. Because if ‘to be Mediterranean’ is, by definition, ‘to be a Mafia state’... well, what about Sicily? The rest of Italy? What about Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus? Surely there would (as indeed there probably should) be EP debates on the rule of law in all those countries... all the bloody time.

Elsewhere, you often hear the argument that they like picking on us because we’re so small and relatively powerless: which gives the EP the perfect opportunity to give the impression that it is ‘doing something’ about Europe-wide corruption... when, in actual fact, it is simply limiting its criticism only to a ‘safe’ target, which – unlike much larger and equally corrupt member states – does not wield any real strength at Commission or Council level (where strength really counts).

I’ll admit it might sound convincing at first; but that’s probably because – like everyone else in this country – I, too, was dipped in the national cauldron of self-deprecation as a newborn baby. As such, it is an argument that tells us more about our own sense of national insecurity, than about the true balance of power in the European Union, and where we actually fit into it.

For while Malta may really be small and insignificant in the bigger European picture... we’re not entirely ‘powerless’, you know. Like every other member state, we take our place among the Council of Ministers: where, as things stand today – though this may very well change soon – we still have a right of veto. So, if the EU needs unanimity to go ahead with any proposal... it still needs tiny Malta to give the green light along with all the rest; otherwise, everything goes back to the drawing board.

On the flipside, we probably really are too small and weak to ever really avail of any of that power in any realpolitik situation. But that, in itself, doesn’t mean the power doesn’t exist. It just means that we haven’t fully understood our own strength yet.... which is perhaps ironic, because the real power-brokers of the European Union – which, I may as well add, do not include the European Parliament – seem to understand it very well. You never hear the same level of dismissive criticism coming from the European Commission, or (even less) the Council of Ministers, do you? On the contrary, it is usually the Commission that tries to somehow defuse or tone down the criticism.

But it is ironic for another reason: Malta might never use its strength, or even know that it exists... and this is why we have developed a national tendency to underestimate and devalue ourselves at every opportunity. The European Parliament, on the other hand, doesn’t have any strength to speak of at all. In fact, none of the ‘relentless pressure’ it claims to have exerted on Malta has so far resulted in a single tangible effect – not even one – that can be identified or in any measured. Going only on the outcome of all this EP attention... to be brutally honest, it may as well not be happening at all.

For instance: in 2014, the EP passed a near-unanimous resolution ‘condemning’ Malta’s ‘Golden Passport’ scheme... which was duly given the same local media prominence as if the words had been uttered by God Almighty Himself. Four years later, the same scheme is not only still in place – but now enjoys the seal of approval by the European Commission, which it didn’t before. And... um... where is that EP resolution now? Flapping about in the wind, I suspect... like the useless piece of paper it turned out to be, after all the fuss we made about it at the time.

More recently still, the ‘Rule of Law’ committee that came to Malta last year issued a strongly-worded resolution, urging very specific action to be taken – within the police, judiciary, at political level, etc. – with immediate effect. A year later, all the people it singled out for resignation or removal are still in the same positions; not a single one of the EP’s recommendations was implemented (which is hardly surprising, seeing as some of them were factually incorrect anyway). And now... oh, look: they’re back again. So, I expect, we’ll very soon have a whole new set of EP recommendations to simply ignore at our leisure. After which, the same committee will no doubt pay us another visit, and another, so on ad infinitum.

Heck, if it comes to it... the European Parliament couldn’t even block the nomination of Leo Brincat to the European Court of Auditors. I mean... Leo Brincat. No offence or anything, but his first name isn’t exactly short for ‘Sugar Ray Leonard’. Yet even unassuming old Leo Brincat somehow managed to floor the entire European Parliament with a single, well-timed sucker punch...   

All things told, then: if the experience of the last few years has taught us anything at all about Europe’s power structures, it is that ‘tiny Malta’ actually wields far more clout within the EU than the combined 750 MEPs that make up its Parliament. But then again, the lesson doesn’t seem to have filtered through. Once again, our reactions to the latest wave of EP criticism suggest that we still widely regard that institution with an entirely undeserved awe... whether we’re howling in indignation, or applauding in approval, we still behave as though a ‘European Parliament condemnation or resolution’ actually means a damn thing.

And this, of course, is the moment where a small ‘doink’ is heard in the background. Um... yeah, of course the European Parliament would take so much interest in this little country of ours... seeing as we’re the only one out of 28 member states to give that institution any form of importance whatsoever.

Looking at it from their perspective... why, it must make a pleasant change from being routinely ignored and sidelined by all the rest of Europe’s media and political circuits. It must give those MEPs a much-needed ego-boost, each time their every utterance – no matter how inconsequential – automatically makes it to the front pages in at least one EU member state. And it must be reassuring to know that there is a single, solitary European country where the voter turnout for EP elections is always so unreasonably high... instead of always hovering around 30% or 40%, as is the case for the home countries of all but six of the current 750 MEPs.

Yes, indeed. If we ourselves choose to allocate such disproportionate importance to such a weak and ineffectual institution... to build it up into something bigger than it really is... well, we can only expect it to return the compliment. So perhaps we should really be asking ourselves WHY we attach so much importance to the EP in the first place... and why, for that matter, we are the only EU member state to do so.

Is it because we genuinely misunderstand the balance of power within the EU? Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s a complete answer. I suspect it could also be that this misplaced aura of importance serves another, more local political purpose: it provides yet another platform upon which to fight out our endless Punch and Judy wars; it drums up more misplaced enthusiasm and frenetic support, for a political system that is otherwise desperately casting about for a reason to justify its own existence.

The answer will no doubt become clearer in the coming months, when we are all once again immersed into yet another entirely disproportionate brouhaha about the forthcoming European elections. And when we invariably go on to interpret the result solely on the basis of the Labour/PN divide... without any concern at all for the wider European platform.... well, that is when the illusion tends to become most glaringly visible.

For let’s be honest here. It’s not just the EP that assuages its own insecurity by picking on us from time to time. We, too, experience that small thrill of elation, whenever our own particular brand of political meaninglessness is given its undue importance by a lofty-sounding European institution. It legitimises our own political biases; it makes us feel that ‘tiny Malta’ – with its even smaller political mindset – is nonetheless ‘big enough’ to be discussed at international level.

Look beyond the illusion, and you will see that it is actually the other way round. It is the importance we attach to unimportant things that makes us weaker and more insignificant than we really are. Think of that, next time we all make a fuss about the Eurovisio... I mean, the European Parliament...

More in Blogs