An eventful, if unhappy, year

This year we have seen a dramatic escalation of tension and conflict in various parts of the world. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

2014 has been a very eventful year, but the events it ushered in were rarely pleasant.

This year we have seen a dramatic escalation of tension and conflict in various parts of the world. The rapid expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has further destabilised an already volatile region, and exported those conflicts to other parts of the Arab world. This threat can be felt in Malta, which is viewing the unfolding situation in nearby Libya with anxiety.

We have seen hostilities flaring up again in other parts of the Middle East: not least, a grim and bloody war of attrition in Gaza that unfolded on our television screens throughout the long, hot summer of 2014.

Elsewhere, Europe was and still is beset by internal and external challenges. The eurozone crisis and the resulting austerity measures have left a trail of popular unrest in their wake, not to mention unemployment and financial hardship for the worst-hit countries. And on the borders, tension mounts over the deepening Ukraine question: which has also reawakened latent hostilities that have slumbered since the Cold War.  

There have been demonstrations and months of uncertainty in Hong Kong. Riots have raged in the American Midwest over police shootings suspected to have been racially motivated. And as the year closes, there has been a worsening of relations between the USA and North Korea over claims and counter-claims of cyber warfare. 

There is, in brief, a sensation of brooding menace that can be felt in practically all parts of the world.

Closer to home, 2014 also brought with it new waves of large-scale loss of life in the seas around our islands: fruit of a mass migration that in itself illustrates so much of the failure of global policy to address issues such as poverty and conflict in Africa. Add to this the Ebola outbreak and ensuing mass hysteria, and one cannot really conclude that 2014 was as ‘happy’ as we all wished it to be almost exactly 365 days ago.

But there have been rare moments of consolation in this otherwise bleak picture. A recent thawing of relations between America and Cuba, for instance, made for a welcome note of optimism among all this doom and gloom. In some cases, the events of 2014 were neither joyful nor tragic, but interesting and thought-provoking. The Scottish independence referendum forced the UK – and other parts of Europe – to question their own political realities in a way that hasn’t happened in most people’s lifetimes.

In Malta, too, 2014 has been an eventful year: not quite as dark and foreboding as elsewhere, but not always reassuring either.

The year began (and now ends) with political controversy: it was a year ago that the European Parliament debated Malta’s contentious IP ‘cash-for-citizenship’ scheme: with bruising (albeit ultimately inconsequential) results. As with the Scottish question, this debate also forced Malta to ask questions that had never really been asked before in the context of the legal definition of citizenship. What does it really mean to ‘be Maltese’? Can a national identity be purchased? etc. etc.

But the same discussion also brought to the fore our latent political divide, re-intensifying the political tempo just a year after a long drawn-out election campaign. This heightened tempo sustained itself for much of 2014, too: Malta was thrust into election mode once more with the European election last June; and in the last month alone the political establishment was shaken by an earthquake that cost the government one of its foremost Cabinet ministers.

Less political but equally contentious was the debate that surfaced after the closure of the autumn hunting season, as the country inches towards a referendum of spring hunting…

The Manuel Mallia resignation episode was arguably the most emblematic of the year’s events, in that it both reminded the country of its recent troubled past, and also indicated precisely how much we have changed since then. Certainly, it single-handedly raised the bar on such issues as political responsibility and accountability. Both government and Opposition have now set high standards for themselves; failure to deliver will not go unnoticed.

There have also been a number of positive developments over the last 12 months. The European election returned a majority of female MEPs, which might indicate a lowering of the glass ceiling that has traditionally dominated Maltese politics. Malta’s economic performance has been stable (even if opinions differ as to the economic direction), and the economic outlook for the near future is mostly goof. 

From a civil rights point of view, 2014 brought a number of important developments: the legal recognition of same-sex unions, to be followed by a gender identity bill, was a significant stride forward.

But the same year also exposed the limits of the present government’s ability to deliver on its ambitious electoral programme of reform. Its energy plans have had to be revised, perhaps denting an aura of invincibility that somehow still clung to Prime Minister Joseph after his March 2013 victory.

All the same, Malta has so far been spared the worst of a year that has had devastating effects in other parts of the world. May this bring hope for 2015.

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