Sovereignty is as sovereignty does...

The EU quite frankly doesn’t care about our problems... still less about solving them for us

Sovereignty is as sovereignty does...
Sovereignty is as sovereignty does...

I have no actual memory of Malta as a colonial outpost of the British Empire... having been born some seven years after Independence... but from the little I’ve read around the subject, it doesn’t seem to have been all that very different from Malta as a 21st century EU member state.

Then as now, Malta had its own local government (well, at least from 1921 onwards) operating within the framework of a much larger and more complex international structure. And in both cases, there were clearly defined limits to the local government’s ability to actually govern.

The limits themselves were perhaps a little different: as was the nature of the relationship between Malta and the international power-bloc it formed part of. Until Independence in 1964, Malta’s ‘self-government’ was responsible for all sectors apart from defence and the treasury. At a time when around 90% of the workforce was employed in or around the shipyards – a military facility, back then – that translated into precious little ‘power’ at all. And even within that narrow sphere of autonomy... Malta’s decisions could always be (and indeed were, all the time) overruled.

Between 1921 and 1964, Malta’s Constitution was withdrawn and re-granted on countless occasions. The precise circumstances varied, but in all cases the promise of ‘self-rule’ would be dangled before us like a parent or teacher might dangle a ‘reward’ for good behaviour... accompanied by the threat of taking that reward away if (or when) we were naughty: “Promise to be really good boys and girls, and we’ll give you your Constitution back...otherwise, it’s off to bed without any supper!” And much as I hate to say it – because it doesn’t reflect at all well on the former Maltese politicos we have since re-invented and lionised – it was a strategy that always worked out spectacularly well in the end... for the colonial rulers. It certainly succeeded in inculcating a sense of schoolyard inferiority, deep, deep within our entire political infrastructure, that can still be felt today.

But while it is tempting to draw facile comparisons between the EU and the pre-1964 British Colonial establishment... in truth, the parallel can’t really be made to hold for very long. Today, Malta remains a sovereign state even within the structures of the EU (though whether we always behave like one is a very different story). And while Maltese governments still have their powers circumscribed by European treaties and charters, they are undeniably empowered to take decisions affecting all sectors of local governance... so long as we stick to parameters that are (or are supposed to be) equally applicable in all member states.

Gone, too, is the idea of a permanent threat to our continued ability to govern ourselves... although some people would clearly still like to see it restored to its former glory: like the ones who constantly advocate the implementation of Article 7 against Malta; which would severely undermine our sovereignty on the international stage.

It is in this respect that some things have simply not changed at all since colonial times. The root cause of our increasingly troubled relationship with the EU does not necessarily arise from any particular systemic flaw within the EU itself – though such flaws do exist, and in great quantities. No, the malaise seems to stem directly from our intrinsically obsequious rapport with our ‘foreign masters’... a rapport which, in practice, is indistinguishable from our ingrained subservience to good old Great Britain, way back when.

Before fast-forwarding to the present, allow me one small example from yesteryear. Earlier this month we commemorated the event now remembered as ‘Sette Giugno’, in which four Maltese men were shot and killed during bread riots in 1919 (huge over-simplification, I know... but hey, this is a newspaper article, not a PhD thesis). Well, some years back, I wrote an article about a little-known side to this historical event... quoting from a (then unpublished) letter by the owner of one of Malta’s only flourmills at the time.

It transpires that Malta’s millers – who naturally foresaw the possible repercussions of tripling the price of bread in rapid succession, at a time of poverty, recession, etc. – had approached the outgoing Governor some time earlier to demand a subsidy on imported grain.

They explained that Malta relied exclusively on grain imports to feed its population; and that the cost of insuring shipments had skyrocketed owing to the danger of unexploded mines following World War One. Inevitably, this led to steep price hikes, over a very short period of time, affecting a crucial necessity without which we would have all, quite simply, starved to death. They also clearly warned the colonial government that, unless something was done to lower the price of the bread, there may well be bloodshed.

The Governor’s response, according to the author of that letter, was ‘to laugh them out of the room’. Certainly, no subsidy was forthcoming... and, with equally certainty, bloodshed ensued.

There are parallels to be made with Dom Mintoff’s later appeals to the colonial government – when still a minister in Boffa’s administration, circa 1946  – to help fund post-war reconstruction. But let’s not get too lost in history.

The more pressing issue is that there are also parallels to be made today, with the ongoing wrangles over migrants rescued at sea... and, in a word, with European policy on migration in general. How long has Malta’s government – under different parties – been demanding a ‘European solution’ to the immigration ‘crisis’ (for want of a better word)? I’d say, ever since immigration first began to be an issue around 2005... which is roughly the same as saying, ‘ever since we’ve been an EU member state’.

At this point, there is an obvious question to ask: what has Europe’s response always been to our demands? Haven’t they repeatedly just ‘laughed us out of the room’... like Lord Methuen did in 1917, or Lord Whoever in 1946?

But like I said: that’s the obvious question, and I’m getting a little tired of this national tendency of ours to always take the easy way out. Let’s see if we can make the question just a little harder. What’s the difference between our attitude towards the EU today – as a supposedly sovereign nation – and our past attitudes towards our colonial masters, when we were just a little ‘military hothouse’ wielding zero sovereign power of our own?

I’ll be damned if I can see any myself. This week, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat wrote an article in this newspaper calling on the EU to ‘step up and show solidarity’: “Europe is yet again facing uncertain times not because of too much Europe but because of too little of it... [...] Our position has always been consistent, advocating a European solution with both humanitarian and security facets...” He concluded by pointing out that the stalemate over rescue ships such as Aquarius and Lifeline “further highlights the failure of Europe to act.”

At a stretch, we can all even agree with Muscat on these points; after all, they’ve been made before by past (and present) Nationalist Party leaders, and even by NGOs and the media in general. But even if we share that viewpoint... what does it actually tell us about Malta’s sovereignty and self-rule?

What it tells me, for starters, is that we’re a nation that always goes running to the EU to solve all its problems, much like a child would go running to hide in the folds of its mother’s dress. And – as Muscat also perceptively observed in that article – ‘this is not simply about migration’. We do this in all matters, all the time. As MEP elections loom on the horizon, candidates like Roberta Metsola and David Casa are busy boasting about all the times they’ve ‘reported’ our naughty government to the European Commission... as though the European Commission doubled up as some kind of glorified ‘headmaster’, at some kind of glorified boarding school for particularly unruly, delinquent European governments.

Let’s face it: it’s embarrassing, really. It would be embarrassing even if the EU really did have some kind of power to administer schoolyard discipline, in response to some sneaky prefect’s report. But as we have all repeatedly seen... and as practically everybody now complains... the EU quite frankly doesn’t care about our problems... still less about solving them for us. It doesn’t care that we’re ‘too small’ to cope with thousands of asylum seekers; and it has even told us as much to our faces for all the 15 or so years we’ve been consistently crying about it.

And I’m beginning to see its point, too. There are currently around 234 people currently stuck in limbo on the high seas, some 40 nautical miles off Malta. Even if we concede that a) Malta did not bring this situation about, and; b) ideally, the rest of Europe should care... well, what are we going to do, now that Europe has made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t? Are we going to keep stamping our feet, and crying out: ‘It wasn’t me, it was Salvini’? Or are we going to pull our socks up and take a decision regarding those 234 people... as sovereign countries are after all expected to do in such circumstances?

Because that, ultimately, is the whole point of sovereignty: it’s what we do, as a nation, that makes us sovereign; not what we complain that others are not doing in our place.

More in Blogs