Waking up Brussels (on the wrong side) | Manuel Mallia

Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia claims last week’s pushback attempt was never going to take place. But the provocation has put Malta’s demands on the agenda. At what cost?

Manuel Mallia: “I condemn any racist assault, and such demonstrations should not take place”
Manuel Mallia: “I condemn any racist assault, and such demonstrations should not take place”

The new minister for home affairs and national security is only just being baptised into the business of government. But you can easily surmise that Manuel Mallia - better known to the public as the successful criminal defence lawyer for some of Malta's most followed trials - is going to have to learn quickly the art of politics. Already within the first months of his ministerial career, he finds himself having to learn the ropes of Malta's migration reality, getting around the numbers of detainees and the pounds, shillings and pence going into the island's rescue efforts. Unlike his predecessors Tonio Borg and Carm Mifsud Bonnici, Mallia comes from no discernible political dynasty, nor is he part of an ideological strand within the Labour Party. Indeed, he is neither 'Labour' nor a party man, but a former sympathiser from the Nationalist end of the political-legal divide, who became one of Joseph Muscat's star candidates.

Surely enough, he has been no stranger to controversy. Following a surprise visit to the Corradino  prison that found warders going AWOL, paving the way for a clean sweep at the top, Mallia was in for some criticism over a prison amnesty and his presence at Security Service recruitment interviews. All this pales in comparison with what the summer of 2013 might hold for him, as boatloads of asylum seekers already push this year's arrivals to 600. Not an emergency by any standard, but according to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat "not a normal situation".

So it was with last week's attempted pushback that Muscat and Mallia were thrust into a moral quandary that has left the new Labour government's political nous somewhat bruised. For all the talk of civil rights, and just weeks after Muscat eagerly accepted a 'Soldier Award' for his dedication to gay rights, that shiny patina has now been tarnished by an attempt to hive off single Somali men for a pushback to Libya without them placing a claim for asylum.

But Mallia, like his boss, refutes the postulation that Tuesday's ruckus was "an attempted pushback".

"Everyone is talking as if this action was going to be taken, but the reality is that the government was keeping its options open and seeing to the logistics needed for all the options that were available," Mallia says.

Those logistics included the preparation of two Air Malta flights scheduled for Mitiga airport. Mallia knows that pushbacks are illegal, and not just because of a European Court of Human Rights ruling against Italy, which as it turned out was used by the same court to stop the pushback late on Tuesday evening. "If something is illegal, I won't do something that is manifestly illegal," Mallia says when I ask him whether he personally believes in pushbacks as a legitimate action.

"The government will keep on observing the law," he then tells me when I ask him whether pushbacks remain part of this gamut of options.

It is hard to believe however that this pushback was not going to take place, especially when the government waited for the ECHR's official stop order in parliament, while a miffed Muscat had to endure an entire parliamentary session of umbrage from the Opposition. Mallia is keen to play it cool: "I think the rumour of the pushback was so strong... personally I expected that kind of action, even if there was no pushback taking place. The perception was that since the prime minister was keeping all options open, and certain logistics being organised, everyone was thinking of a pushback without any official government communication having taken place."

I find Mallia's claim that the pushback was just a rash perception hard to believe. Not just because those two Air Malta flights to Mitiga were indeed scheduled for departure, but because such an elaborate media stunt would be too crass to consider as a tactic of getting Brussels "to wake up and smell the coffee", as Muscat put it. Had the Strasbourg court not stepped in, the pushback would have been an experiment that would have tested Maltese politics and the extent to which it was ready to go to douse populist discomfort on asylum and migration. Still, Muscat and Mallia probably believe this game of brinkmanship paid off.

So I ask him whether this political manouvre was too fast and too rash just weeks after threatening to veto EU legislation. Don't such provocative mises en scene risk losing Malta respect in EU quarters?

"Well the EU was pretty much in a slumber before, and Brussels started taking some interest. I will be meeting Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom this week... our aim was this. We have a problem, we need a solution, we're not getting assistance from Member States, the previous attempts for burden sharing from EU members did not work out as much as we expected, and ambassadors I spoke to so far have told me that burden sharing is out of the question."

I ask Mallia what sort of guarantees did the Maltese government have for the safety of any migrants that would have been deported. "The respect for these people's health and dignity was always safeguarded. Even as we were in parliament, Malta's armed forces were rescuing other asylum seekers," Mallia tells me, although he later says that he is not informed as to what sort of agreement Muscat hammered out with his Libyan counterpart (as he himself declared in parliament) to guarantee the safety of any deported asylum seekers.

"You certainly cannot do the same thing as the Nationalist government did back in 2002, when some 200 asylum seekers were forcibly removed to Eritrea, a dictatorship, without even knowing what happened to these persons upon their return," Mallia says, diverting attention on Tonio Borg's tenure of his ministry. At this stage I point out that racism in Libya towards sub-Saharan Africans and militias running the show, in a country that is not even a signatory to the Geneva Convention for the Rights of Refugees, makes Libya no less a safe country for return. "Whatever the state of Libya, if a prime minister has an assurance from another prime minister, diplomatically this means a lot," Mallia says. "If our counterpart has given us their word, that promise is a meaningful one."

Mallia sounds unsure as to whether Malta should diplomatically encourage Libya to become a Geneva signatory. "I cannot really tell you... we have not yet entered into an action of this kind. I agree that it would be more positive that Libya would be a signatory of such instruments."

Mallia thinks I am jumping to conclusions when I put to him that the botched pushback raised a popular sense of expectation amongst people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with migration, even resulting in one racist assault on an Arriva driver, and plans for "an anti-immigration protest in support of the government".

"I cannot agree that expressing ourselves in parliament on this subject should necessarily mean what you have just said. Nothing we said in the House should have incited any such actions, and I condemn any racist assault, and such demonstrations should not take place."

So was Muscat's comment in the House that the lawyers who petitioned the European Court of Human Rights "should bear their part of the responsibility" simply a throwaway comment?

"Keep in mind that some people are very capable in the art of spin, and that was the context in which it was said," Mallia says, now referring to some 60 lawyers, in their majority straight out of the Nationalist camp, some of them former ministers, who filed their own petition in the Maltese courts. "Where were these lawyers when so many members of the bar and the judiciary was attacked, illegally, by certain sections of the press?"

I turn to the government's demands for EU assistance, beyond the financial aid that Malta will be getting from the next budget (€80 million more than the last financial framework). As Mallia shows me, each patrol craft employed by the AFM for its rescue missions costs anything between €500 to €1,167 per hour. "What I expect from the EU is that Member States realise that solidarity is a principle of this Union. This solidarity should translate into assistance. We have given 3% of our GDP to Greece, which is quite substantial for us. What we expect is nothing much, except for us not to be left alone. EU Member States might not make much of our 'small' numbers, which for us represent a different kind of stress."

But is your final demand a system a mandatory burden-sharing? "The experience of the last government was that Member States were not happy to take their share of asylum seekers," Mallia says of the voluntary burden-sharing system.

I chip in to tell him that it's also likely that EU Member States do not want to take in any more asylum seekers than they already have, taking for example countries like Spain, England, France, Sweden... even Greece itself is unable to cope with its own asylum system. We don't have the numbers at hand, but Mallia sounds unconvinced.

"It's not that they cannot handle the few hundreds we are asking to have relocated," he says.

Wouldn't EU governments be wary of the political fallout from bowing to EU demands to take the problems of the south and lose support to the far-right?

"Well, aren't these also our same preoccupations? So what's the solution... doing nothing? Shall we just lose faith in a solution and do nothing at all while the arrivals keep on coming?" Mallia asks, rhetorically.

So I ask him whether Labour has a limit in mind of how many asylum seekers our system can cope with, keeping in mind that roughly 50% of claimants are given some form of protection (the majority get subsidiary or temporary protection, which is annually renewable and can be revoked). "Since 2005, we had over 14,000 arrivals at least. Subtracting those refugees relocated elsewhere in the EU and the USA, we still have thousands living in Malta. We think the present number, relative to Malta's size, is already a lot."

So why does Malta play an active part in attracting rich non-EU nationals through the Global Residence Programme, retirement schemes for foreigners, reduced taxes for highly-skilled CEOs and tax rebates on businesses profits? Is it because this government believes there is a limit to the multiculturalism they desire?

"There is a problem of integration. As long as new arrivals respect the culture of the host country, I don't envisage any problems. If we start seeing problems of anti-social behaviour stemming from a different way of living or culture, we are going to have problems.

"The Maltese, psychologically, are trying to process a reality where the people who are entering Malta are 'not leaving' as it were, stoking the fear that they are here to stay," Mallia tells me, spelling out almost too well the typical nativist gripes of the Maltese.

Mallia says he has started a series of meetings with various officials across the government's asylum and migration spectrum, to draw up studies that can give him an academic picture of the situation. "We are taking stock of the situation. We have to see how failed asylum seekers who were not repatriated are returned to their countries of origin. It's not a humanitarian issue at this stage. These are claimants who were not given protection. The next step is their removal. Unless they are still living here, they have probably been smuggled into Europe. It's no mean feat."

Mallia is also seeking ways of hastening the asylum determination process. "If need be, we need more people handling the asylum determination process, and to give refugees enjoying protection their right to free movement."

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