[ANALYSIS] The bromance that could pull Malta and Italy apart

Malta and Italy should be natural allies to demand more ‘responsibility sharing’ on migration as frontline Mediterranean states. But Matteo Salvini’s ambition of fathering a European ‘League of leagues’ has thrown him into the embrace of illiberal leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban. Will Italy’s lurch to the right leave Muscat out in the cold?

By meeting Orban (left), Salvini upstaged his own PM – Giuseppe Conte – whose calls for burden-sharing of migrants were also rebuked by Czech PM Andrej Babiš, himself passing on the same message to Maltese PM Muscat on Tuesday
By meeting Orban (left), Salvini upstaged his own PM – Giuseppe Conte – whose calls for burden-sharing of migrants were also rebuked by Czech PM Andrej Babiš, himself passing on the same message to Maltese PM Muscat on Tuesday

Earlier last week on Tuesday, Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini met with fellow hardliner Hungarian PM Victor Orban in a highly symbolic, ‘political’ meeting which could usher a realignment at two levels: Italy moving away from the ‘more Europe’ approach to immigration to the ‘fortress Europe’ policy advocated by the Visegrad group of central European nations; and Salvini moving closer to his personal goal of constructing a pan-European alliance of right-wing parties.

Salvini noticeably refrained from criticising Orban for his refusal to take in asylum seekers. Ironically, two days earlier Salvini had criticised French President Emmanuel Macron for not taking any migrants from the Italian coastguard Diciotti rescue ship, which had been left stranded for days in the port of Catania until the Catholic Church, Albania and Ireland intervened to share the migrants between them.

Instead of proposing a European solution to the immigration problem, the two right-wing leaders ganged up on Macron, accused by Salvini of turning back migrants at France’s border with Italy, and by Orban for being pro-migration.

“He leads the European force that backs migration, he’s the leader of those parties who back migration to Europe, and on the other side there’s us who want to stop illegal migration,” said Orban.

By meeting Orban, Salvini upstaged his own PM – Giuseppe Conte – whose calls for burden-sharing of migrants were rebuked by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, an ally of Victor Orban in the Visegrad group. Babiš passed on the same message to Maltese PM Muscat on Tuesday.

Both Muscat and Conte know that there can be no durable European solution without the consent of the Visegrad nations. Therefore both are right in reaching out to these countries. But Salvini’s (and Orban’s) political ambitions, which may hinge on disrupting other European governments in the wake of next year’s European elections, make this even more unlikely.

A dog-eat-dog Europe

The Salvini-Orban meeting exposes the contradictions underlying cooperation between far-right parties and movements in different European countries.

They may find enough common ground to disrupt the European political order but they are less keen on finding collective European solutions. On migration their solution consists of illusory walls: a closure of borders which is both difficult to enforce and economically suicidal in view of changing demographics which could see countries like Italy facing a pensions time bomb.

The outcome is more likely to be a return to ‘squabbling’ between rival nations, as had been the case before the Second World War.

Only this time around, the European powers are dwarfed by Russia, China and the USA. The far right in its various guises sees next year’s MEP elections as an opportunity for disruption, but has little interest in governing an EU which most of them want diluted or dismantled.

Orban is more intent on embarrassing and splitting a rudderless EPP, which is unable to kick him out of the club despite his repeated condemnation of western liberal democratic politics, than leaving it

Why Macron is the ideal adversary

What is surprising is that Orban and Salvini have anointed Macron, who does not even belong to any of the two major European political families, as their main adversary.

In fact, there may be logic why both leaders singled him out: Macron’s own European design to lead a new realignment of centrist parties could leave voters disillusioned by an integration dictated by markets, out in the cold. This presents an opportunity for the hard right to polarise next May’s European elections as a contest pitting populists in touch with the people’s concerns, and an “establishment” represented by the French President. The best hope would be of turning the tide, maybe by presenting a more radical alternative, which disowns neoliberal policies while upholding values like European solidarity, ecology and social justice. But this may be anathema for Macron’s business-friendly approach.

And what makes the alliance sponsored by Salvini and Orban stronger is that it is not confined to the European “far right”. Orban was careful to underline that his meeting with Salvini had been “authorised” by Silvio Berlusconi, the representative of the European People’s Party in Italy of which Orban is a member and from which he insists he has no intention of leaving.

In fact, Berlusconi may see this as an opportunity to divide and rule, luring back Salvini to a right-wing alliance with his own Forza Italia party, by undermining his alliance with the Five-Star Movement (M5S) populists who may be keen on confronting the EU by demanding more burden-sharing, but are increasingly embarrassed at their association with Salvini’s xenophobic antics.

It is clear by now that Orban is more intent on embarrassing and splitting a rudderless EPP, which is unable to kick him out of the club despite his repeated condemnation of western liberal democratic politics, than leaving it. This leaves the local Nationalist Party, which also advocates ‘burden sharing’, increasingly isolated in the EPP on an issue where most of its European colleagues are shifting to more intransigent positions, especially as a reaction to increased competition from the far right.

The silver lining for the PN is that although facing decline, the EPP is likely to remain the largest political force in European politics. This gives it the chance to influence the big guns. The same cannot be said of the Socialists, which are in terminal decline and are facing increased competition from both the radical left and Macron’s centrist model.

This may be why Muscat is increasingly looking at the French President as an ally.

An alliance of centrists? Joseph Muscat (left) and Emmanuel Macron
An alliance of centrists? Joseph Muscat (left) and Emmanuel Macron

Muscat’s learning curve

Muscat openly hints that on migration he has been on learning curve since being elected in 2013.

In fact, upon being elected he was very close to the Cinque Stelle approach, threatening pushbacks and vetoes to make Europe “wake up and smell the coffee”.

The lesson to be learnt by the Italian government, which is threatening to withhold EU funds over European inertia on migration, according to Muscat, is that “it isn’t words, or the size of a country that brings about solutions, nor is it simply tweeting and raising your voice. Solutions are found through persuasion,” – adding that through its actions Italy was “driving itself into a corner”.

Curiously it was the same Muscat who in a ‘migration plan’ presented when he was Opposition leader in 2008, had hinted at the use of the veto to force the EU’s hand on this issue. He has clearly learned from experience that this is not the way forward.

To his credit Muscat has managed to secure concrete solidarity on ad-hoc cases, which saw a coalition of willing European nations sharing responsibility for rescued migrants on three separate occasions. On all occasions Muscat and Macron were pivotal to reaching these agreements.

Like Gonzi before 2013, he also speaks of a moral obligation not to let people drown. He also prides on Malta becoming a more cosmopolitan country than ever before. Under Labour the word ‘integration’ is no longer a taboo in policy-making. The question is whether ad-hoc solutions which see a limited number of European nations agreeing to share responsibility is further delaying a long-term European solution. For by firm opposition by the Visegrad group to any permanent EU solution, Muscat is faced with a quandary.

In the absence of such an agreement should he join Salvini in demanding stricter border controls? Or should he continue on the tortuous road of temporary solutions between like-minded European nations like France?

In his meeting with the Czech PM, Muscat insisted that while various solutions to tackle migration had to be explored, including border controls, “Europe could not just erect walls”. Muscat has to balance his pro-European approach with the concerns of his own electorate. That may explain why Muscat was keen to join Italy’s populist government in hindering the operations of rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean.

Like Salvini, Muscat also thinks that NGOs should not defy orders to hand over migrants to Libya, a country in which migrants are tortured and sold as slaves. The flipside for Muscat is that by courting Macron and advocating “more Europe” on migration, he may find himself facing increased pressure on other fronts. Macron is a strong advocate of the harmonisation of European tax systems, which would undermine Malta’s competitive advantage in financial services. But Labour is itself isolated on this issue where it is more in line with the EPP’s more sovereignist position.

It is clear that on migration Muscat, who may still harbour European ambitions after leaving national politics, prefers to stand in line with the mainstream European political establishment. The risk is that he may find a more hostile political terrain after next year’s European elections, especially if Macron’s project – which is already riddled by contradictions – fails to take off and the far right makes more gains.

Indeed the greatest risk is that next May’s European elections will fail to produce a majority for the two major centrist groups, the EPP and the Socialists. In this way they would be unable to elect the next President of the European Commission through consensus. While Macron may see this as a window of opportunity for his new centre-ground, especially if the liberals do well, it may well herald a long period of instability and disruption by forces who have never shown any enthusiasm for the European project.

For they now know that by disrupting collective European solutions on issues like migration, they have a greater chance to grow and prosper.

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