US embassy cables | Mintoff 1977: Threats, bluster and blackmail

Declassified US embassy cables describe in full the limits of Mintoff’s brinkmanship and his threat to become a Libyan satellite, and how he agonised over rising unemployment due to the rundown of the British defence forces in Malta.

Giulio Andreotti on his 1977 visit to the United States
Giulio Andreotti on his 1977 visit to the United States
Former Labour prime minister Dom Mintoff
Former Labour prime minister Dom Mintoff
Former Malta US ambassador Bruce Laingen, seen here after being released from Iran where he stationed during the hostage crisis of 1979.
Former Malta US ambassador Bruce Laingen, seen here after being released from Iran where he stationed during the hostage crisis of 1979.
US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with President Jimmy Carter
US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with President Jimmy Carter

The pugnacious Dom Mintoff used his negotiating tactics to exploit the Cold War by threatening to drift into the stream of Muammar Gaddafi’s ‘Arab socialism’, in a bid to extract as much financial assistance as he could from the West.

But if there was one tactic he steadily relied on, it was his use of blackmail in threatening letters he sent to the West’s leaders.

The former late prime minister had threatened to scuttle an agreement for European guarantees of Malta’s neutral status, unless Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti reached “a decision this week-end, or at the latest early next week”, newly declassified US embassy cables from 1977 have shown.

Mintoff – employing a tactic he had used with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a year earlier – told Andreotti on 24 March, 1977 that “you should consider our proposal withdrawn if we do not receive a favourable answer before the end of the month.”

Miffed that the Italian premier, now the head of a minority government with a fragile lease on life, was not available to meet him in Italy a week earlier, the Maltese prime minister puts forward a challenge to Andreotti.

“I have unsuccessfully tried to meet you in Rome before the Community heads of government meeting in your capital this weekend. I have nevertheless sent you messages making it clear that after a 15-month period of half-hearted response on this issue on the part of the Italian government, Malta was not prepared to see another meeting of the EC take place without reaching a clear-cut negative or positive decision on Malta’s proposal.”

Mintoff also suggested that, after meeting British foreign secretary David Owen, who had told him that neither Italy nor France required any EC consent to sign the treaty of security guarantee, “there are really no insurmountable obstacles for the Italian government to reach a decision this weekend… you should consider our proposal withdrawn if we do not receive a favourable answer before the end of the month.”

Letter ‘ill-received’ by Andreotti

As claimed by Italian ambassador Eric Da Rin to US ambassador Bruce Laingen, Mintoff’s letter was ‘ill-received’ by Andreotti, who was busy with more pressing matters.

Da Rin spoke to Mintoff’s aide, Joe Abela, and Attorney General Edgar Mizzi, pointing out that pulling Gaddafi “like something out of his drawer” was counter-productive.

While political discussion on Malta’s security guarantees were apparently concluded in February 1977, Mintoff persisted in his threat to Andreotti in June that Muammar Gaddafi was prepared to go further than Europe in providing security and financial assistance for Malta.

In another cable from the US ambassador to the European Community, Deane Hinton, Mintoff was said to have told a Commission official in March that “I need money and I don’t know where to turn”.

According to Da Rin, Mintoff gave a “rambling and not very effective” presentation to Andreotti on Malta’s economic requirements once the British defence forces left in 1979, complaining that Italian and French financial offers were “limited, particularly in light of what Libyans [were] prepared to do.”

Now adopting a softer stance, Mintoff was said to have told Andreotti that this was “not a breaking point” in discussions.

The Americans described Mintoff as being eager to extract as much financial assistance to cover an “exaggerated unemployment situation” due to the run-down of the British services: Mintoff was said to have admitted that NATO subsidies for the British base in Malta had been spent in wages for his labour corps.

Mintoff also presented Andreotti with a document for a 10-year neutrality guarantee from Libya and $30 million to cover the transition period after the British departed.

Gaddafi hand ‘overplayed’

Despite his threats, Mintoff’s attitude through the year in 1977 gradually changed when he realised that his game of brinkmanship also had its limits.

In May, the French government reported to Laingen that Mintoff was ready to treat security guarantees for Malta’s neutrality, separately from the financial assistance he was demanding. “Mintoff, who really does not want Malta to become a Libyan colony, may have realised that he had almost overplayed his hand.”

According to a cable from the US embassy in Paris, Mintoff was proposing that France and Italy grant Malta $12 million in 1979, and dropping by 30% each subsequent year until 1981, in addition to other bilateral development assistance treaties – a total of $24 million to be borne equally between Europe and the Arabs.

France appeared unwilling to front the cash, but ready to tell EEC member states that Maltese “neutrality” was better than Maltese hostility, warning that the Italian communist party will “undoubtedly attempt to fish in troubled Maltese waters and that the resultant political problems this small island poses for the West could then be worse than the ones we are facing now,” deputy head of mission Samuel Gammon reported.

But the French also said that their concept of dialogue and Mintoff’s “did not correspond at all”, describing a French-Italian exchange with Mintoff in May going “through cycles of depression and euphoria”.

‘Bluster and demand’

At home, Mintoff faced rising unemployment, and trouble with the unions and a direct collision with students after closing down the Medical School. In the long hot summer of 1977, there was no end to Mintoff’s hard-nosed negotiations with the Europeans, now resorting to break talks with the Italians after waiting too long for concrete guarantees.

In June that year, he imposed a new ultimatum on the French and the Italians, saying he would go public with “accusations of non-performance against France and Italy in a way that would unduly jeopardise their dialogue with Malta.”

Mintoff also demanded a meeting with Andreotti on a Rome visit for a trade delegation, just days before going to meet MDC chairman Joe Cassar on his yacht in Dubrovnik: but ambassador Da Rin says “Andreotti has sent word he does not want to see Mintoff.”

In a new revelation, Da Rin also tells the Americans that the Libyan ambassador in Malta had told him an alleged draft Mintoff had detailing Libyan readiness to support Malta economically and militarily “are Maltese versions which do not as yet have any binding character as far as Libya is concerned.”

In September 1977, in protest at Franco-Italian delays, Mintoff broke off talks with the Italians after he failed to get an agreement with the Italians on his way back from a visit in Munich, via Rome.

“Mintoff had apparently hoped to complete talks with Italians at that point… when Italians responded that summit meeting was premature, Mintoff came back with 24-hout ultimatum saying that GOM was no longer prepared to accept any postponement in talks and that if no Italian response was forthcoming by 2pm on 21 September, the GOM would ask the GOI ‘to forget the Maltese neutrality proposal and thereafter focus on more conventional ways’ of continuing relationship,” Laingen wrote.

Laingen noted that no such threat was made to the French, with Mintoff having correctly not mentioned turning totally towards the Arab world. “We doubt the current episode means that Italy can escape the fate that geography has imposed on it – being the country that Mintoff will continue to expect to be his principal advocate in the European and Western context and thus the country whose ambassador here (poor Eric) will feel the heat more than any of the rest of us.”

Mintoff instantly set himself on giving Da Rin the cold shoulder, and courting West Germany into becoming his primary interlocutor with the EEC and as Malta’s primary aid donor. Mintoff and his ministers also went on trips to the UAE, Pakistan, China and Indonesia, as well as Syria, Lebanon, and Yugoslavia in a bid to court financial assistance anywhere he could find it.

But his control on the foreign affairs portfolio meant that not even his foreign secretary, Maurice Abela, could sell well enough Mintoff’s concept of neutrality to the Swedish government.

“The visit to Stockholm of Maurice Abela did not lead to any particular results. As was expected, Abela took up the question of Swedish assistance ‘but our reaction was negative’,” Laingen quoted a note from a Swedish ambassador as saying.

“Most revealing of all is the paragraph in the Swedish ambassador’s note on Malta’s own neutrality concept – for which presumably Abela assumed and expected sympathy from interlocutors who are established practitioners of the art. Regrettably, the Swedes found Abela either unable or unwilling ‘to clarify his government’s precise intentions’.”

Why, Laingen asks himself – his guess: Mintoff’s tactic of keeping one’s opposite number guessing, and the way “he runs this place in ways suggesting a personal fiefdom” means that not even his ministers could speak independently on Malta’s neutrality.

“Abela probably doesn’t know the answers to some of the questions posed by the Swedes.

“And, finally, neither probably does Mintoff, especially in the light of his presently interrupted dialogue with the Italians and French – a dialogue to which Mintoff will no doubt return, with vigour and with renewed threats about going solo with Libya.”