A game changer for Malta

Following the outcomes of Italy's national election, one can only expect relations between the two countries to be frosty, under such circumstances.

The result of Sunday’s election in Italy has been described as an earthquake for both Italian and European politics. But the outcome may also prove to be a game changer for Malta.

Political observers claim that this election may very well change the face of Italian politics. While the 5-Star Movement – founded by eurosceptic comedian Beppe Grillo – emerged as the single largest party with 32.4% of the vote, the centre-right coalition (Lega, Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia) obtained 37.3%: far from enough to form a ruling coalition. Meanwhile the centre-left coalition led by Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico only managed 22.9% of the vote with the PD being the only party in the grouping to elect seats. The result is a hung parliament.

The fact that no one party or coalition gained a majority is certainly no surprise for Italy, which has a history of political instability. If anything, it could be argued that the long spell of relative stability hitherto enjoyed by Italy was itself a temporary phase that could not be sustained long.

There is, however, a difference between today’s scenario and the political chaos of the 1980s and 1990s. The rise of the two major anti-establishment parties; 5-Star Movement and Lega, follows a Europe-wide (and arguably global) shift towards populist and nationalist parties, at the expense of mainstream politics.

So far, the Lega is the only party that has claimed the right to form a government – though whether it will be successful is another question. This also suggests that the incoming government – if any – will pursue radically different policies than the ones Italy (and its neighbours, including Malta) are so far used to.

One aspect that is likely to change considerably is Italy’s relationship with the European Union, especially where monetary policy is concerned.

Salvini’s Lega is eurosceptic, and has long been critical of the euro currency. On Monday, he said that: “We will work to modify and remove certain European parameters. I am convinced that the euro is destined to end, not because I want it to but because facts, common sense and the real economy show this. And we want to be prepared for that eventuality.”

Already there has been a (reported) ripple effect, in that fiscally stronger European member states like Germany may already be counting the cost of Italy’s new political reality on the Eurozone project. It is, however, too early to predict the long-term ramifications.

On the local front, naturally, the big issue remains: how will the election result affect Malta?

Even without a clear picture of the immediate future, the answer does not look promising. Whichever party or coalition manages to form a government, and even if another technical government is formed, Malta will automatically lose the understanding that Muscat had reached with Prime Minister Enrico Letta: after which Italy started taking all irregular immigrants intercepted in Maltese and Italian waters.

This understanding continued under Matteo Renzi and the outgoing Paolo Gentiloni. But with Lega, 5-Star, Forza Italia and PD (Democratic Party) all promising to repatriate 500,000 to 600,000 immigrants, there is absolutely no room to hope, or expect, that Italy will continue accepting Malta’s share of immigrants.

This would pose an enormous logistical challenge (as well as a political headache) to Malta, but in truth we have hitherto been rather fortunate that such an agreement even existed. Malta has good reason to argue, on the international stage, that its size and circumstances warrant an international approach to its immigration issues. But it was all along unrealistic to expect another country to simply relieve us of the issue indefinitely.

Malta should therefore start getting ready for a renewal in immigrant arrivals. And that also means fine-tuning its immigration procedures to avoid the sort of problems we experienced at the height of the mass-detention crisis.

But immigration is not the only factor that will change. The demise of the centre left in Italy also means that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been deprived of a key political ally in Europe. It is no secret that Renzi and Muscat were close: the Italian Prime Minister had even addressed a mass meeting at the granaries on the eve of the Maltese general elections in 2017.

Nor will Muscat find an interlocutor like Antonio Tajani, with whom he already has a good rapport.  Instead Muscat – along with the rest of Europe – will face the unknown.

And Maltese diplomacy may have to start building bridges with the populist forces. Any government with the involvement of the 5-Star Movement may adopt a more antagonistic approach towards the Maltese government. The Senator of the 5-Star Movement, Mario Michele Giarruso, had asked for Joseph Muscat’s government’s resignation following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.  One can only expect relations between the two countries to be frosty, under such circumstances.

As with the immigration issue, however, we must also face the reality that our former ‘special relationships’ with other countries were – and could only have been – temporary in nature. It is in the nature of the democratic game for the players to change. We must adapt to the new reality as best we can.