Political tribalism is no substitute for common courtesy

 A substantial chunk of the Maltese electorate no longer identifies with a zero-sum partisan war, whereby politicians from the opposite side are considered ‘enemies’

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s insistence on not congratulating Roberta Metsola on her appointment as first Vice President of EU parliament - a first for any Maltese politician - is puzzling, to say the least.

Apart from the sheer lack of courtesy and sportsmanship, it also seems to contradict his party’s emphasis on ‘national unity’ over the years - even before 2013, Labour had supported Tonio Borg’s appointment as EU commissioner – not to mention the fact that Abela himself has repeatedly criticized the PN for being ‘divisive’.

Abela has justified his snub by flagging his political disagreement with Metsola: accusing her of undermining the government’s IIP programme.  But political disagreement is no reason to dispense with common courtesy. Moreover, Metsola is fully entitled to her views on the IIP: which are incidentally shared by a majority of MEPs from all European groups, including the Socialist family; just as Abela himself is entitled to his views on the programme’s benefits for the country’s coffers.

Even more problematic, however, was Abela’s reference to cancer patients benefitting from IIP monies directed to the Puttinu Cares charity. This is at best devious, as it suggests that funds for vulnerable and sick people depend exclusively on IIP money.

On the contrary, it is the government’s prerogative to decide which money, from whatever fund or source, is used to assist charities. Maltese governments somehow always managed to assist those sectors, even before the IIP scheme was launched.

Ironically, in this episode, it fell to  Glenn Bedingfield - the hawkish Labour MP and whip - to assume the role of ‘good cop’: congratulating Metsola, whilst also auguring that she would not work against the national interest.

On that subject, Abela could also have availed of the opportunity to call on Metsola to push harder for mandatory burden sharing agreement with regards to EU migration policies: something on which there is common ground between the PN and the PL.

In her role as Vice President, Metsola may be more influential in raising the topic at EU level: especially in view of her eloquence and knowledge about the subject.  Yet one should also keep in mind that the role Metsola now occupies is institutional, not political.

As the European Parliament’s First Vice-President, Roberta Metsola will support and replace the President of the European Parliament, the Italian David Sassoli (a Socialist): in the first instance, should he be absent or unavailable to discharge his duties, including chairing plenary sittings or representing Parliament at specific ceremonies.

These are hardly areas where Metsola can ‘undermine’ or ‘uphold’ the national interest.

Abela must also be aware that his failure to congratulate Metsola has backfired among middle-of-the-road voters. His actions have only one possible political explanation: that of appeasing his party’s more partisan elements. who associate Metsola with the ‘Busuttil faction’: and even more so, with her highly symbolic refusal of a handshake with Joseph Muscat during the December political crisis.

These elements may be feeling disoriented after Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were taken in for questioning last week.

Moreover, Abela is gearing up for a Cabinet reshuffle which may not go down well with the party’s old guard.  Even on Sunday, the Prime Minister was very keen on emphasising that he is leading a different government from the one he inherited in January.

In this way, Abela’s lack of courtesy towards Metsola may have a logic to it: that of placating the party’s grass roots on an inconsequential matter, while taking decisions which have, to a considerable extent, broken ranks with the impunity of the Muscat years.

But while Abela’s pique may have gone down well with some of his party’s most fervent supporters, impoliteness never impresses the majority of voters: especially floating voters, and moderates on both sides.

Abela would do well to remember that one of Simon Busuttil’s greatest mistakes was to refer to Deborah Schembri as ‘having a Nationalist face’ during a pre-2013 electoral debate. A substantial chunk of the Maltese electorate no longer identifies with a zero-sum partisan war, whereby politicians from the opposite side are considered ‘enemies’.

Abela should, of course, be credited with restoring political normality: by taking steps which ensured the resignation of a number of politicians and officials tied to inaction, or obstruction of justice, with regard to the Panama Papers scandal, or the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.

But he needs to show the same courage in confronting political polarization heads on.  In this case, he did the very opposite.