It’s all coming home now...

What? Football? Me? Don’t be daft. I was talking about the brutal truth about one’s past actions returning to haunt one’s present. That all ‘comes home’ in the end, too...

What? Football? Me? Don’t be daft. I was talking about the brutal truth about one’s past actions returning to haunt one’s present. That all ‘comes home’ in the end, too...

Take former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, for instance. Last Thursday he was one of around 200 people who attended a candle-lit vigil in Marsamxett, to pay tribute to all those who have died crossing the Mediterranean in recent weeks and months.

On camera, he told a Times reporter: “When I was prime minister [...] our position was very clear. We always stood by those values which I have always considered to be part of the Maltese beliefs and Maltese culture, that the value of the lives of people who are escaping from terrible horrors, puts on us the responsibility to do our utmost to save lives. We have a responsibility – a moral and ethical responsibility. I can talk about a legal responsibility as well, which there is. But that is perhaps secondary to the moral and ethical commitment. And therefore [I believe] our first responsibility is to go out and save people: especially when amongst those groups of people who are escaping, there are extremely vulnerable people, and children. The circumstances we are going through now in Malta are extremely worrying, and [it] makes me very sad.”

Aw, shucks: the man who was prime minister from 2004 to 2013 is feeling ‘very sad’ about Malta’s current immigration policies. Well, that makes me ‘very sad’, too. I happen to belong to a tiny minority which suffers from a rare affliction known as ‘empathy’... and I just can’t bear the idea of unhappiness in others.

So, tell you what: I’ll do my best to cheer Lawrence Gonzi up, by reminding him that... well, the ‘circumstances’ that seem to upset him so much today, are not all that very different from the circumstances throughout the nine years he himself was prime minister.

Let’s start with the ‘moral and ethical commitment’ to save lives... especially ‘vulnerable people and children’. As far as I am aware, Gonzi never enacted a policy to stop NGO rescue vessels/aeroplanes from entering or leaving Malta... like our current Prime Minister Joseph Muscat did last week. But that may have something to do with the fact that... erm... there weren’t any NGO rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean in his time. (The first one was MOAS, which started in summer 2013.)

Judging by his administration’s record in other departments, there is no reason to suppose Gonzi would have reacted any differently. That ‘moral and ethical commitment’ doesn’t stop with the search and rescue operation, you know. There is also the question of what you do with those people once you’ve saved their lives. Where (and in what conditions) you keep them, and how you safeguard their fundamental human rights: which include the right to be treated with dignity.

This is from a Human Rights Watch report published in 2013: the last year of Gonzi’s government: “Since 2002, approximately 15,000 migrants have landed by boat on the tiny European island nation of Malta, arriving in the country without permission, or ‘irregularly.’ [...] Malta has detained virtually all of these migrants without regard to age. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are detained for up to 12 months, and migrants who do not apply for asylum (or who are rejected) can be detained for up to 18 months. Even the most vulnerable migrants – such as families with children, elderly people, and people with mental or physical disabilities – are taken to detention.”

I’m tempted to retype that last sentence for emphasis... but it would be easier if you just read it again. In any case, however: to be fair to Gonzi, he wasn’t the architect of Malta’s indiscriminate detention policy. No, that would be former Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg: who was deputy PM between 2008 and 2012.

Nonetheless, Gonzi upheld the above policy for the full nine years of his two terms in office. And I am sure it will lift his spirits no end to be reminded that the European Court of Human Rights eventually ruled it to have violated human rights on multiple counts.

In July 2013 the ECHR ruled (in two separate cases, both spanning several years) that Malta’s detention policy was illegal and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights: one, because “it is a blanket policy that does not undertake an individual assessment of each person, as required by the Convention and EU law”; two, because “there is no possibility for the individual to question or challenge his or her detention”; and three, because it violates Article 13 of the Convention, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment”.

And that’s just the ECHR. Separately, the European Court of Justice in 2016 also ruled that “non-EU migrants who have illegally entered an EU member state should not face detention on those grounds.” So, I guess Gonzi was right: there are legal responsibilities, over and above moral and ethical commitments.

I could, of course, go on: how many suicide/attempted suicides took place within Malta’s closed detention centres between 2004 and 2013? In 2005, former AD chairman Harry Vassallo called a press conference after visiting the Safi Barracks. He described the conditions as ‘inhuman’, ‘shameful’ and a ‘recipe for insanity’ (but then again, he’s just a Green, so what does he know?)

But for a change, I’d like to move beyond merely illustrating double standards for its own sake. I wasn’t entirely joking when I wrote, above, that Gonzi’s sadness makes me sad, too. It does... partly because I have good reason to suspect that Gonzi was actually being sincere, when he declaimed his anguish for all to hear on the rocky shores of Ta’ Xbiex.

It may surprise some people to know that I have met and spoken with the former prime minister on various occasions. He never struck me as racist, still less as a mindless neo-fascist thug. I somehow suspect, then, that the Lawrence Gonzi we saw last Thursday is a whole lot closer to ‘the real Lawrence Gonzi’ than the one who presided over Malta’s ‘inhuman’ and ‘degrading’ immigration policies for nine whole years. And I reckon he is, in truth, ‘very sad’ today... because of the present circumstances, no doubt; but also because he knows (or must know) that the entire situation is itself part of his own legacy, too.

But this only raises an inevitable paradox. How can both polar extremities co-exist within the same person? One possible answer comes from the rest of what Gonzi said that day:

“I can understand the political difficulties, the pressures, the realities that the whole of Europe is facing, and the whole of the world is facing. But for heaven’s sake: stopping an aeroplane going out to save people? And creating a situation which is even worse than what we are facing today? I think that is simply not justifiable.’

OK, so Gonzi seems to understand those ‘political pressures’ considerably better when applied to himself, than to Joseph Muscat or any other Labour prime minister. But, a) I’ve made that point already, and; b) it doesn’t mean that Gonzi isn’t also 100% right.

Yes indeed, those pressures certainly do exist; already we have seen them toppling Matteo Renzi’s government in Italy, and severely weakening Angela Merkel’s coalition (therefore, by extension, the balance of the entire Cosmos) in Germany. There can be no doubt that even the best-intentioned of European prime ministers will sooner or later be pressured into adopting the most extreme policies on immigration: be they blanket indiscriminate detention of the young and the vulnerable, or stopping NGO rescue vessels at sea. This is inevitable, because – ironically – it is the force of democracy itself that pushes centrists and moderates ever closer to the extreme right. Recent history has proved this time and time again.

This not only saddens me, but also frightens me a very good deal (Note: apart from being an incurable empath, I’m also a wimp... in case you hadn’t already noticed). It suggests a priori that no politician – not even one who, like Gonzi, sprouts angels’ wings and a little halo so soon after stepping down – is even capable of resisting this populist gravitation pull. No matter what they one day write in their memoirs, or say before any given election: once in power, they will be straitjacketed into precisely the same hardline stance we have all seen since... forever.

It is, of course, too late for Gonzi to do anything about it; but not too late for Joseph Muscat, or any other future prime minister. And let’s face it: who could possibly endure the sight of an eternally cheerful politician like Muscat, descending into the same sadness that afflicted Gonzi last Thursday... the sadness of a man who knows he could have done better, but no longer can?

So even if it’s just to spare incurable empaths like myself from having to share his own future despondency... Joseph Muscat should really take his cue from Gonzi now, and avoid that ghastly, belated realisation while he’s still in time. His policy on NGO vessels really is indefensible; the priority really should be to save lives at sea; and ‘political pressure’ – no matter how fierce or seemingly insurmountable – should not be an excuse to lose sight of those fundamentals.

Meanwhile, to keep our collective spirits up in this dark age of moral and ethical despair.... let’s all sing a happy song. All together now: ‘IT’S COMING HOME!’)

More in Blogs