The devil you know...

Manfred Weber is about as qualified to present the ‘perspective of the people’, as I am to talk about the social customs of the Wada Fakawi tribe of central Botswana

German MEP Manfred Weber will be the centre-right EPP's spitzenkandidat leader in the 2019 European elections
German MEP Manfred Weber will be the centre-right EPP's spitzenkandidat leader in the 2019 European elections

You’ve got to admire the guy’s chutzpah, though. For someone who’s running for an entirely unelected post at the helm of the European Commission – and who, last I looked, had absolutely no business to be representing anyone at all, outside his own constituency in Bavaria – it takes a whole lot of nerve for someone like Manfred Weber to suddenly speak out in the name of… ‘the people’.

“From the perspective of the people, citizens are sick and tired of the abuse of power and corruption they see in Malta,” the EPP candidate for Commission President told a press conference in Brussels yesterday. “This,” he added, “poses a real threat to our European way of life.”

Erm… might I ask which ‘people’, exactly, he was referring to there? The Europe Union’s 500 million citizens, perhaps? Are they all so ‘sick and tired’ of ‘corruption in Malta’, that they sent Manfred Weber a personal email, authoriding him to express his disgust at the situation on their behalf?

Personally, I see no other way to explain how Weber can possibly feel entitled to voice the combined concerns of 28 national populations like that. It’s not as though he was catapulted to the European Parliament by means of an EU-wide referendum, in which he won 100% of the vote. So unless he meant the few odd thousand German citizens who voted for him in European elections five years ago – and even then, it would be slightly presumptuous to assume that they’d even heard of Malta, still less formed such a strongly-worded opinion about it – Manfred Weber is about as qualified to present the ‘perspective of the people’, as I am to talk about the social customs of the Wada Fakawi tribe of central Botswana.

Ah, but wait: perhaps he was alluding to the ‘people of Malta’: perhaps it was from our perspective – not Weber’s – that the situation has become so ‘unbearable’ (to quote another German MEP) that it now even threatens the fabric of the European Union itself.

Hmm. If so, it would be the same ‘people’ who – just two days before that press conference in Brussels – gave the current Maltese government its highest-ever approval rating (54.4%) in a local survey. And which, in June 2017, returned the same government to power with a historically unprecedented majority… even after all the post-Panama Papers allegations (including 17 Black) had already been made public.

That’s a slightly strange way of manifesting how ‘sick and tired’ we all are, don’t you think? Perhaps the citizens of Malta were so utterly discombobulated by the situation, that they accidentally ticked off the wrong party on the ballot sheet last year. Or mistakenly replied ‘Joseph Muscat’ in a newspaper telephone survey last week, when what they really meant to say was ‘Adrian Delia’. (Hey, you never know: sleep deprivation can have precisely that sort of effect…)

But tell you what: from now on I’ll cut Manfred Weber a little slack. At least he has an excuse to shoot his mouth off about issues he clearly knows nothing about. He’s not from Malta. He hasn’t spent years and decades living through the very peculiar (and highly idiosyncratic) vicissitudes that have turned us into the profoundly cynical, disquietingly paradoxical nation we are today.

So, of course he is going to simply assume that we would all react to any given issue in the same way as he, or any other equally clueless European might under similar circumstances. And of course he’s not going to make even the tiniest effort to understand why the reality of the situation – as repeatedly illustrated by polls, surveys, election results, etc. – is so utterly different from his own, distorted perspective.

And in any case: the guy is running for European Commission President next year. If successful, he will find himself taking all sorts of decisions on behalf of national populations whose perspective he knows absolutely nothing about either (and who never actually voted for him, anyway). So we may as well all start getting used to it from now.

At this stage, however, I am more intrigued by how some other people are making the same mistake. People who – unlike Manfred Weber – do live in Malta, and do inhale its toxic political fumes with every breath they take. They, too, seem to share this bizarre delusion that ‘the people of Malta’ are shocked or disconcerted by all the corruption scandals erupting all around them; despite an abundance of evidence that… um… no, actually. They’re not.

Indeed, this is the part of the equation that I find most incomprehensible. To date, all the questions asked about 17 Black (and all its predecessors) have revolved around whether Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should resign… or be arrested, imprisoned, hanged, drawn and quartered, etc. Hardly anyone seems to be asking the most blindingly pertinent question of them all. Why is it that the government’s popularity keeps soaring inexorably, even as more (and dirtier) revelations keep coming to light? Why is there such an extraordinary inverse proportionality between the corruption associated with the present government, and its own political fortunes?

I’d say it is altogether too facile to suggest (as, again, some altogether facile MEPs have already done) that the people of Malta are in their vast majority themselves ‘corrupt’, and therefore condone and applaud corruption from their governments (after all, by that reasoning, the Nationalists should really have won the 2013 election by a landslide, instead of the other way round).

But there is undeniably a context whereby political allegiance forces one to willingly accept corruption, simply – as I mentioned earlier – because the alternative scenario is far worse. And it would by no means be unrealistic to argue that the vast majority of Maltese people are, in fact, much more concerned with their own self-preservation, than with all these grand, high-and-mighty ‘European ideals’ that always seem to translate directly into a lower quality of life for themselves.

Ah, yes. You didn’t see that last part coming, did you? This, I fear, is what really lies at the heart of the conundrum. For too long now, this whole charade has played out as a ‘battle between good and evil’ (that’s an actual 2017 electoral slogan, by the way: and you’ll never guess which party’s). You know the score: a hideous assortment of trolls and goblins on one side… and a bunch of angelic, ‘anti-corruption crusaders’, all in shining white armour, on the other.

Naturally, it does not surprise me in the least (though it probably would surprise Manfred Weber slightly) that ‘the people of Malta’ would take one look at that projected image, and – in their vast majority, anyway – laugh themselves silly. Like me, they know from personal experience that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the reality we have experienced over the last quarter century at least. They also know that the people who now wear shiny suits of anti-corruption armour, were themselves rejected (after a corruption scandal, oddly enough) at the polls less than five years ago; and if it turns out that the incoming government proved just as greedy and corrupt… well, it becomes a choice of two evils, doesn’t it? And when faced with a choice of two evils… which is the likelier evil to win? The evil that leaves you with less in your pocket; or the evil that leaves you with more?

This calculation only becomes more insidious still, when you also consider that the current controversy rages around Malta’s power infrastructure. People have dissected the Nationalist Party’s post-2008 nosedive from a wide variety of angles… but they always seem to overlook the fact that it started when government jacked up utility prices by over 100%. Conversely, Joseph Muscat’s fortunes started to rise the moment he promised to lower those prices by 25%.

Interestingly, however, while 86% of respondents in a Times poll said that ‘Mizzi and Schembri should resign’… only 6% argued that the Electrogas contract should be rescinded. OK, perhaps the format of the poll didn’t help – you could only tick off one option – but… well, what do you think the first general reaction would be, if that contract were indeed to be scrapped (as indeed it would have to be, if the corruption allegations are proven)? What would be the first question most people out there would actually ask?

I somehow doubt it would be: ‘are we less corrupt, or more?’ Actually, I’m willing to bet my entire secret offshore Panama fortune that it would be something like: ‘will my electricity bills go up, or down?’  In other words: will all this insistence on ‘correctness’, ‘honesty’, ‘cleanliness’, etc., translate into a better quality of life for me and my family? Or will it just drag us all kicking and screaming back to the mediocrity and ineptitude we all thought we voted out in 2013?

And there’d better be an answer waiting for them, when the question inevitably gets asked (and it will, any day soon). Because there isn’t any answer right now… and this, to me, is precisely why the scandals that have shocked Manfred Weber so much, have (apparently) not made so much as a dent on Joseph Muscat’s electoral outlook for the foreseeable future. People cannot be expected to willingly vote out the devil they know, in favour of another devil they have absolutely no reason under the sun to trust more. Not, at least, unless they’re given some form of reassurance that the entire country won’t just slide wholesale into chaos as a result.

Speaking only for myself: I can’t see any such reassurance right now. Can Manfred Weber, I wonder? After all, he’s the one who speaks on behalf of entire populations…

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