[ANALYSIS] Five reasons Abela pushed the migration button during COVID-19

Why is Robert Abela so keen on milking the migration issue during a health crisis, JAMES DEBONO asks?

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

On Friday, Malta’s prime minister Robert Abela went overboard in a reaction to a criminal complaint filed by the NGO Repubblika, a civil society group that is politically antagonistic to Labour, over the government’s failure to save a boat of migrants that drifted into the Maltese search and rescue area.

The boat is believed to have been sabotaged by crew members of the AFM’s P52 patrol boat, before being returned to Libya by a commercial vessel, with five dead and seven people lost at sea.

After apparently ignoring requests to deny the incident, Repubblika filed a criminal complaint for homicide against the P52 crew, the AFM’s commander Jeffrey Curmi, and Abela.

Abela reacted with a prime-time press conference on the national broadcasted, backed by his Cabinet, in a fiery speech in which he promised that nobody would stop the government from “doing what was needed in the national interest… Our love for the Maltese people and our country is too big for us to give up in this important moment.”

But why is the PM so keen on pushing this button at a time of national emergency?   

Nationalism: a rallying cry in a moment of crisis

Nationalism remains the most potent and effective of rallying cries at a time when people are feeling anxious because of a pandemic which has brought about uncertainties.

Unsurprisingly many answered the call to put up a Maltese flag on their rooftops or balconies on Sunday, as a collective response to the COVID-19 emergency.

But in the context of what happened a few days before in the Mediterranean, it was easy to conflate this display of patriotism with anti-immigrant sentiments.

Nationalism cannot thrive in the absence of an “enemy”. While Abela steered clearly away from any xenophobic declaration, his actions have spoken louder than words.

By failing to rescue migrants stranded inside Malta’s SAR, he pushed a button which unleased a wave of xenophobia in the country, which once again brought out the worms from the woodwork, legitimising their pet hatred: migrant rescue NGOs and asylum seekers.

Ironically, instead of facing the backlash of the migrant deaths one would expect in a democracy that holds its leaders to account, Abela felt comfortable enough to go on the attack thanks to a convenient target, Repubblika, which is associated with the anti-Delia faction in the PN and is disliked by rank-and-file Labourites for its role in the protests that preceded the fall of the Muscat administration.

Migration diverts attention from mounting economic and social problems

Abela’s honeymoon was interrupted by a health emergency which has enormous social and economic implications.

For while the government can pride itself on its excellent handling of the medical emergency and for launching an unprecedented but limited package of financial assistance to businesses and workers who lost their jobs, the economic slowdown and the pinch in living standards, may well leave his government vulnerable.

Labour’s ability to wade from one political crisis to another, triggered by corruption scandals and the aftermath of the Caruana Galizia assassination, heavily depended on high levels of economic prosperity which left the majority immune.

Moreover, in a rush for recovery, the government will be facing contradictory pressures which may expose rifts between the pro construction and pro-business wing of the Labour party, and those who are more sensitive to good governance, social justice and environmental issues.

Even during the pandemic itself the increasingly vulnerable government felt a need to pander to the hunting lobby by opening the spring hunting season, despite the partial lockdown imposed on the rest of the country.

By pandering to anxiety on migration, the government is tapping on an issue which not only reinvigorates the Labour base, but even helps Abela connect with segments of PN voters who perceive the same threat.

The risk is obvious: Abela cannot suspend international obligations beyond the current crisis, without becoming an international pariah.

The risk is that by closing the ports now, he may have legitimised the call to keep them closed indefinitely.

Moreover to achieve this short-term goal Abela and Evarist Bartolo have also cultivated a climate of mistrust against migrant rescue NGOs and an anti-EU rhetoric which misses the fact that EU policies reflect those of member states like Hungary and Poland, who like many Maltese xenophobes are keen on keeping the borders closed.

In reality with other countries more likely to look the other way because of COVID-19, this may well be the ideal time to change the EU’s migration policies.

One suspects that criticism of the EU at the moment is mainly meant to address the local audience, as a way to shift the blame for the migrants’ deaths from Malta to the EU. Expecting a radical reform of the EU’s migration policies during a pandemic is nothing more than wishful thinking.

He is keen on exploiting divisions in the opposition

While Repubblika cannot be blamed for making a criminal complaint with the aim of ensuring accountability though an investigation of the army’s and government’s actions, it may well have provided Abela with a convenient punching bag.

It provides Abela with a golden opportunity to expose rifts in the opposition, between the pro-Delia and anti-Delia faction.

The fact that the Opposition’s justice spokesperson Jason Azzopardi filed Repubblika’s criminal complaint made it easier for Abela to present the complaint as a partisan one.

Opposition leader Adrian Delia reacted by paying a courtesy visit to the Armed Forces of Malta, a day after his justice spokesperson presented a legal challenge against its top brass. Surely this is no excuse for Abela to present the army as some sacred cow immune from demands for accountability.

But it may have been wiser for critics to keep the focus on Abela’s own political responsibility, rather than give him an opportunity to present himself as a defender of an aggrieved institution.

While Delia did take a principled stance by insisting on the duty to save migrant’s lives, his stance contrasted with the PN’s media coverage of migrant boat arrivals often presented as a sign of government failure to keep the numbers down.   

Moreover, legalisms may also backfire. The European Court of Human Rights decision to turn down Repubblika’s request for an interim measure for Malta and Italy not to shut their ports to asylum seekers, ended up giving legitimacy to the government’s actions.

While nobody is above the law, the issue of criminal responsibility of individual government and army members diverted attention from the issue of political responsibility for the tragedy.    

It puts Abela back at the helm of his party after being sidelined by his own deputy PM

Abela’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been so far lacklustre and overshadowed by the more prepared Chris Fearne whose self-styled “no-nonsense” approach managed to strike a chord with voters across the political spectrum, as confirmed in last Sunday’s MaltaToday’s survey.

Fearne even managed to announce the decision to quarantine the Hal Far open centre in purely medical terms, without resorting to any stereotyping or making a political point of it. Unlike Abela, Fearne also resisted the temptation to score political points when faced by questions from journalists from the PN’s TV station. This may have reinforced the perception that Fearne is more prime ministerial in dealing with national emergencies than Abela.

So Abela may well be trying to steal his leadership’s rival thunder by taking a populist stance on the migration issue.

It gives him the opportunity to shape the party in his image

Abela has consistently hinted at a stronger stance on the migration even during the leadership campaign against Fearne, during which he expressed concerns on the impact of foreign workers on Maltese workers’ conditions.

Italy’s decision to close its ports on the pretext of COVID-19 provided Abela with the opportunity of presenting himself to the Maltese electorate as a strong leader able to stand firm on this issue without being singled out for criticism in Europe for doing so.

Moreover unlike Muscat, who used the pushback threat more as a warning shot to the EU, Abela went further by not only indirectly effecting the pushback of the 47 migrants who were “rescued” by a private vessel and sent back to Libya, but also in refusing to respond to the humanitarian crisis which resulted in five of these migrants actually dying and seven others being reported missing. In this way Abela may be more inclined to re-shape the Labour party along populist lines

Although it remains doubtful whether such an approach would outlast the COVID-19 emergency his actions in the past days have reinvigorated bigots in the Labour Party.

The failure to take any action against Alfred Grixti following his call to scuttle migrant rescue ships may well be interpreted as a license for xenophobic bigotry in the party.

Reining these elements back in after this emergency passes may prove difficult.

Moreover the economic slowdown may also reduce the need for precarious foreign labour, thus removing one major justification for Muscat’s cosmopolitanism.