[ANALYSIS] Populist showboating and bad faith: Malta’s Captain Morgan fiasco

Four reasons why Malta’s pushback-and-migrant-standoff strategy backfired

Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela showed signs of political immaturity by sabre-rattling on migration during a global pandemic where nobody cared about his foot-stamping. Without even thinking of a fallback position, he ended up capitulating – accepting to take in all the 400 migrants after a 40-day standoff which was largely ignored by his EU partners. Here are four reasons why this strategy boomeranged on Abela

1. He raised expectations of xenophobes and racists. Now they are disappointed

One cannot accuse Abela of deliberately fanning racism or xenophobia. His argument was framed in two important and rational considerations: the lack of responsibility-sharing in the EU and the fact that Malta had to close its ports because of the pandemic.

But a stand-off that kept hundreds of migrants detained on Captain Morgan pleasure crafts, raised the expectations of the anti-immigrant brigade, emboldening not only the loony and extreme right but also a segment in his own party, which felt free to vent hatred against activists and NGOs. It also brought back to the fore a latent Euroscepticism and obsolete nationalism inside Labour, which the party had tried to ditch in past years.

In short, Abela’s actions brought back the worms out of the woodwork.

Now Abela’s only fallback is to present the migrants, who rebelled after 40 days of illegal detention outside Malta’s territorial waters, as criminals who threatened to blow up the boat and who forced him to capitulate not to endanger the lives of the crew. In doing so Abela is indirectly fanning more xenophobia and racism. Not only does he ignore that the migrants’ rebellion was the inevitable consequence of inhumane conditions, which he imposed on them; but his depiction of migrants as criminals sends a strong message to society not to accept them at the very moment when Abela had to let them in. Now Abela has to deal with the monster he nourished over the past weeks, a monster that finds even more fertile ground in times of economic uncertainty. What is sure is that while economic recovery will need migrant labour, events like those that happened in the past days, are bound to backfire on any integration policy.

2. By holding migrants hostage, he came out as a bad faith negotiator with the EU

Despite failing to change EU rules to spread the responsibility of migrants away from frontier states to the rest of the EY, Joseph Muscat had managed to secure ad hoc deals with member states to relocate migrants from Malta. Yet in the middle of global pandemic, which obviously made any collective EU response even more difficult, Abela engaged in a test brinkmanship, which was ultimately exposed as Lilliputian and diplomacy of bad faith.

As expected other EU countries, even those who normally heed Malta’s call for responsibility sharing, would not negotiate on repatriations as long as human beings were being held in a state of illegal detention in the middle of the sea. Negotiating in such circumstances would have simply legitimized a strong-arm tactic, which not only smacked of blackmail but also offended any semblance of human decency.

So Abela’s aspiration for a Helsinki moment failed miserably, and the failure to realise this exposes a lack of foresight, if not an attempt to use such a tactic to distract the local audience from the uncertainties brought about by the pandemic. In this case, Abela simply had no room for manoeuvre. Dom Mintoff’s forays in international brinkmanship were rooted in Cold War realities, where Malta could punch above its weight by threatening to shift its allegiance to the Soviet bloc. Abela’s only fallback was Turkey, an international pariah led by an erratic populist whose North African ambitions are themselves seen as a potential cause of instability.

The incident has also seriously dented Evarist Bartolo’s pretentions of being a seasoned veteran who can restore Malta’s blighted reputation. His actions over the past days suggest a regression from standards of decency, which even Muscat upheld after recanting his pushback strategy.

3. Libya is the only card Abela has left in his sleeve but it remains too unstable to predict any outcome

Together with his foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo, Abela raised hopes of a solution to the migration crisis by pushing for a deal which would see Libya do the dirty job of keeping migrants from crossing to Europe. While this approach has many supporters in the EU, especially among those who favour a ‘Fortress Europe’, there are strong doubts not just on the sheer immorality of farming out the policing of borders to a country which has not even signed the Geneva Convention, but also on its long-term sustainability.

For while Malta has negotiated with the legitimate UN recognized government, the Libyan civil war is still ongoing. The Serraj government is itself is an unruly coalition of different shades of Islamists and militias which could break apart the moment victory is near. Ever since Gaddafi’s time, Libya knows that threatening with migration waves is its best asset in its bid to squeeze money and resources from the EU.

In short, expecting Libya to act as Europe’s enforcer is a recipe for blackmail. By keeping thousands of Africans in concentration camps, Libyan militias have the power to blackmail European countries. Added to this is the sheer impossibility of policing Libya’s enormous and porous desert frontier.

4. Abela may have created a sideshow to distract, but the spectacle may turn nasty

One advantage for Abela is that in the current climate of hyped-up nationalism, critics of the government’s migration policy are being outed as traitors to the nation. In this way voices who are also critical of the government on corruption and environmental degradation, can be neutralized, vilified and demonized, or easily associated with the anti-Delia faction in the PN.

But by fostering hostility to NGOs and activists in general, Abela may also be burning bridges with a large segment of the intelligentsia, some of which had warmed up to Labour’s socially progressive stance on civil liberties. Although Abela’s national populism may be in synch with majority opinion, the large size and diversity of the anti-racist crowd attending a #BlackLivesMatter sit-in organised by Moviment Graffitti on Monday confirms that Maltese society is more nuanced on this issue than Abela thinks.

This climate is bound to create a malaise among a segment of Labour voters who actually identify with liberal and cosmopolitan values, especially if the extreme right feels further emboldened to push its illiberal and nasty agenda.

So while migration may at first look like the obvious button to push to galvanize public support and manufacture consent in a moment of difficulty, by pushing this button Abela may have unleashed forces he is unable to control. As a partisan leader, Abela may reap electoral benefits by creating an issue which also contributes to fissures in the PN bloc, and diverts attention from widening social inequalities.

But a Prime Minister Abela may be leaving a toxic legacy in a scenario where racism and xenophobia may dig deeper roots in the Maltese psyche.

More in National