Those incredible, shape-shifting politicians...

It is disconcerting, to say the least, that two supposedly antithetical political parties can get so hopelessly lost in their respective need to automatically counterpoise each other... incessantly, irrationally, over everything under the sun... that they actually forget which party is which

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (left) and Opposition leader Adrian Delia
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (left) and Opposition leader Adrian Delia

Tell you what: let’s play a little game. I’ll quote from a random newspaper article I read last Thursday, 28 June 2018 – with a few details blacked out – and you try and fill in all the missing blanks. Ready? Here goes:

“European Union interior ministers yesterday approved the text on a migration and asylum pact [...] The Maltese delegation was led by XXXX [...who...] said that the pact will serve as an important tool to direct the European Commission and member states to work better in matters related to migration and asylum. [...]

“[However] the pact was shot down by the XXXX, which [...] said the wording of the pact includes the following: ‘for those Member States which are faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on their national asylum systems’ [there should be] ‘on a voluntary and co-ordinated basis, better relocation of beneficiaries of international protection from such Member States to others’.

“Giving its reasons why it was not happy with the pact, the XXXX said the system created in the pact is voluntary, it did not oblige other EU countries to take part...”

There. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? We all know that the Maltese delegation was led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat; and also that the pact in question was shot down by Opposition leader Adrian Delia, for all the reasons outlined above. We also know that the Nationalist Party spokesman for migration issues is [former Interior Minister] Carm Mifsud Bonnici: and that, together with Nationalist MP David Stellini, he issued a press statement this week claiming that “it was disappointing that EU leaders failed to agree on making the distribution of the immigration burden between member states compulsory.”

So there: that just about wraps it up for all the missing blanks, doesn’t it? Until you realise that... um... no, actually, it doesn’t. Those answers are all wrong...

Noticed the catch yet? I said it was an article I read last Thursday; not one that was written for publication last Thursday, or any other day this week. In reality, those are excerpts from an article published in The Malta Independent on 26 September 2008... almost ten whole years ago. And who, pray tell, led the Maltese delegation to Brussels in 2008? Why, it was... wait for it... Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, of course. Who else? And remind me now: who was Opposition leader at the time? Yes, you guessed correctly. It was... drums rolling... Joseph Muscat...

Now: fill in all those blanks again – with the correct answers, this time – and see where it takes us. Ten years ago, Carm Mifsud Bonnici signed an agreement which was more or less identical to the one signed by Joseph Muscat last Wednesday.  Both pacts included a ‘burden sharing’ clause which was equally ‘voluntary’; and both Muscat and Mifsud Bonnici reacted to the two agreements in the exact same way... almost down to the exact same wording, in fact... with only one, teenie-weenie difference.

Somehow, they simply switched sides while we weren’t looking. Without the bat of an eyelid, without the tiniest of embarrassed coughs or nervous giggles, they calmly and casually just slipped into each other’s shoes: contradicting everything they had said a few years earlier, while appropriating the very arguments that had previously been levelled against themselves. By each other. I mean... it’s just... well...

Beautiful. That’s what it is: a stunningly beautiful, monstrously grotesque, deliciously cynical paradox of the most absurd variety imaginable... the kind that would be laughed off as ‘too far-fetched’ even in a Marvel Comic Superhero movie.

But then again, movies and comics are entitled to be outrageously daft or inconsistent, because – unlike politics – the results of their inconsistencies don’t actually impact anybody’s life in the real world (though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, seeing how some people react to movie disappointments online...)

This, on the other hand, is slightly different. It is disconcerting, to say the least, that two supposedly antithetical political parties can get so hopelessly lost in their respective need to automatically counterpoise each other... incessantly, irrationally, over everything under the sun... that they actually forget which party is which, and what it is they’re supposed to be ‘criticising’ or ‘praising’ at any given moment.

Take Mifsud Bonnici, for instance. How can he possibly account for the curious fact that a ‘voluntary burden-sharing agreement’ can be an excellent thing, when negotiated and signed by himself... yet the same agreement can also suddenly transform into a ‘disappointing failure’, just because it was negotiated and signed by someone else?

I wouldn’t blame him for not answering, because the question turns out to be trickier than even I originally intended. There is more than just gloriously barefaced double-standards involved here. For let’s face it: the agreement signed on Wednesday is a disappointment: no two ways about it. It is nothing but a repeat of the same half-hearted approach that didn’t work in 2008, and has precious little hope of working today.

So, you can add a dose of overwhelming irony to the mix: Mifsud Bonnici is right in 2018, about something he was wrong about in 2010... just as Muscat was right in 2010, and wrong today. The 2008 pact was supposed to result in other EU member states assuming part of the immigration ‘burden’ themselves (horrible word, I know; but horrible only because it is apt). Yet in practice, only eight countries respected the quotas suggested by that agreement: and there were clear imbalances even between those eight volunteers.

It also illustrates the artful, elegant and magnificently surreal way those two political parties just keep morphing into each other, after every election, without anyone seeming to ever even notice

Between 2008 and 2012, for instance, Sweden took in more than three times its allotted quota; while Belgium, Greece and Austria took twice their share. Germany, Denmark and the UK each under-fulfilled their own quotas, while Malta met its target more or less exactly. Nearly all the remaining 20 EU countries, however, assumed no part of the ‘burden’ at all. And as we can all see from the recent stand-offs, and the complaints raised by Italy (and echoed by Malta) ... the same basic issues that the earlier 2008 agreement was supposed to address are all still there, firmly in place, 10 years later.

This forces us to turn our attention to the other half of this remarkable political shape-shifting spectacle. The same question I asked of Mifsud Bonnici can be redirected to Joseph Muscat: why would the Labour government be satisfied by something that had so utterly disappointed the same Labour party (under the same leadership) when in opposition?

Same goes for the implicit irony. With hindsight, Muscat’s 2008 criticism now seems prophetic, for all the reasons outlined above. Given a choice in the matter, we all know that most European countries will very simply ignore any burden-sharing commitment: no matter how much pomp, ceremony or fanfare went into its announcement. Yet the Muscat administration’s reaction to criticism today – Muscat’s own criticism, please note, now levelled at his own government instead of Gonzi’s – suggests that it has meanwhile forgotten all its own previous arguments.

This is from another article, this time about the week’s events. “In a reaction, the Labour Party (PL) said the PN was choosing to be negative at the end of a week where Muscat ‘took a leadership role on a European level, which led to the distribution of the burden of migrants that were coming to Malta shared’. It stressed that the achievement was ‘something no other European Union country managed to do’.”

As you’d expect, it was a carefully (and cleverly) worded response: for it is true that some eight EU countries eventually accepted to ‘share out’ the 234 Lifeline passengers between them, after days of intense negotiations behind the scenes.

But it is also a disingenuous reply, because that agreement was not the result of any pact signed by EU leaders on Wednesday. On the contrary: it preceded that pact, and was in any case only a temporary, ad hoc arrangement hammered out to address one, single dilemma – what to do with those 234 people – and as such has no bearing on any future repeat of similar circumstances.

Those two agreements, in fact, have nothing to do with each other at all... other than a common ingredient called ‘burden-sharing’. It is as though Muscat responded to criticism of one agreement, by boasting about another, completely different one instead.

Meanwhile, he may even be right that it was an ‘unprecedented’ achievement, and as far as I am concerned he can take as much credit for it as he likes. It was, after all, a very welcome conclusion to an otherwise very ugly episode. But – again, with an overwhelming dose of irony – it also illustrates just how useless this second ‘agreement’ is likely to prove.

Ultimately, it was diplomatic channels between different countries that resulted in a breakthrough in the Lifeline case... and not any concerted action by the EU as a whole. Those channels have always existed, and we have always availed of them in the past... long, long before we ever became members of the EU. Indeed, if the events of the week have illustrated anything at all, it is precisely that we do not need an EU-wide agreement or pact to achieve burden-sharing in practice. We managed quite well, without any EU summits, by simply turning the clock back to a time before we even joined the club... in other words, by negotiating with other countries the good old-fashioned way.

Oh, and in case I haven’t already made this point painstakingly clear enough: it also illustrates the artful, elegant and magnificently surreal way those two political parties just keep morphing into each other, after every election, without anyone seeming to ever even notice. But then again: it’s not as though I haven’t made that same point literally hundreds of times before...

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