[ANALYSIS] Deciphering Joseph Muscat’s ‘cosmopolitanism’

Joseph Muscat is bold in confronting Adrian Delia head-on on migration, even when surveys show the Maltese are concerned about the growing number of foreigners living alongside them. Why?

More Swedish baristas! At Bettson with CEO Ulrik Bengtsson: Muscat’s challenge is how to ensure the economy remains attractive to foreigners. His model risks making Malta more dependent on attracting foreign labour, and in turn on volatile industries like remote gaming and construction
More Swedish baristas! At Bettson with CEO Ulrik Bengtsson: Muscat’s challenge is how to ensure the economy remains attractive to foreigners. His model risks making Malta more dependent on attracting foreign labour, and in turn on volatile industries like remote gaming and construction

Labour leader Joseph Muscat is certainly not oblivious to the threat migration poses to his own party’s hold on voters, particularly working-class voters.

I recall a frank conversation with Muscat in 2009 in which I expressed my concerns on his belligerent talk on irregular migration. He rebutted by arguing that by being perceived as soft on migration, social democratic parties in Europe had opened the floodgates for the far right. He promised not to do the same mistake here in Malta.

In Opposition, Muscat faced a very different reality. Before 2013 Malta was on the receiving end of spectacular boat arrivals of African migrants. The number of foreign workers only started to pick up after 2011 to reach new heights after 2014. Even in Opposition, Muscat always emphasised his distaste of “illegal” migration while largely ignoring foreign workers.

Muscat’s boldness today on migration may reflect a need to show a sense of leadership on an issue which troubles his constituency.

Surveys show a change in concerns on migration: 10% consider “foreigners” as the main problem and only 6% refer to “illegal” migration

Surveys show a change in concerns on the migration issue. While under Lawrence Gonzi respondents were mostly concerned with irregular migration, now 10% consider “foreigners” as the main problem and only 6% refer to “illegal” migration.

One thing is sure, Muscat does not underscore the issue. He fears his own voters are more likely to consider foreign workers as a top concern. It’s not surprising: these voters were politically brought up to fear a ‘Sicilian invasion’ during the EU membership referendum, while having supported Muscat himself when he advocated pushbacks of boat migrants.

Despite the need for foreign workers, aylum seekers are still easily portrayed as a burden
Despite the need for foreign workers, aylum seekers are still easily portrayed as a burden

Muscat’s actions immediately after being elected prime minister in 2013 were meant to prove himself as a strongman with xenophobic voters. But then he also prepared himself to open up Maltese citizenship for sale and the labour market to more foreigners.

Today his government is still giving preferential treatment to foreigners that bring wealth to the country, while asylum seekers are easily portrayed as a burden despite providing cheap and makeshift labour. Only a year ago, the Labour administration jailed nine Malian nationals for three months in a round-up of overstaying migrants, when these men had been living in Malta for years but were never deported.

Sure enough Muscat can now push a narrative which still appeals to his voters. Foreign workers can be represented as an economic resource that fuel consumption, pay taxes and even contribute to making our pension system sustainable. And indeed Muscat’s discourse fits nicely with the ‘best of times’ narrative in which foreigners flock to share in our wealth and contribute to make us richer.

This is why he dubs Malta an “oasis” in a desert. And with foreigners feeding the construction industry with a growing demand for housing, he ensures the bubble does not burst any time soon.

Dubai, where natives profit off rich expats and underpaid workers
Dubai, where natives profit off rich expats and underpaid workers

A Dubai in the Mediterranean

So it’s not left-wing utopianism or a love of diversity that underlines Muscat’s cosmopolitanism, but a very utilitarian approach that sees foreign workers fuelling accelerated growth. It’s more of a Dubai where natives profit off both rich expats and underpaid workers, than a melting pot of cultures.

Indeed this is why reforming citizenship laws to give full rights to people who have lived and worked here for years remains taboo.

Still Muscat has to sell this vision to his voters. It is inevitable that gated communities at the high end and ghettoes in working-class areas can erode social cohesion. This is why Muscat’s government is the first one to take timid but significant steps in enacting integration policies, an area left unaddressed by PN administrations.

    The other challenge – made likelier by political instability in Italy and the likely formation of a populist government – is a return of boat arrivals that bring with them the wretched of the earth
The other challenge – made likelier by political instability in Italy and the likely formation of a populist government – is a return of boat arrivals that bring with them the wretched of the earth

Disorienting the Opposition

Of course there is always a political reason for Muscat to engage the Nationalist Opposition on this issue. Once again, he smells the opportunity of splitting PN voters, many of whom were politically brought up welcoming liberalisation, openness, and free markets. Not that the PN does not include traditionalists with concerns about identity. But it also includes liberals who regard the presence of foreigners as an inevitable fact of life.

Muscat’s challenge is how to ensure the economy remains attractive to foreigners. His model risks making Malta more dependent on attracting foreign labour, and in turn on volatile industries like remote gaming and construction.

The other challenge – made likelier by political instability in Italy and the likely formation of a populist government – is a return of boat arrivals that bring with them the wretched of the earth. Will Muscat be ready to open the gates of the ‘oasis’ for them as well or will he differentiate again between different categories of migrants?

Finding common ground: Emmanuel Macron and Joseph Muscat (Photo: DOI/Jason Borg)
Finding common ground: Emmanuel Macron and Joseph Muscat (Photo: DOI/Jason Borg)

The Maltese Macron?

As long as he averts these two scenarios, Muscat can easily position himself as the Maltese version of French President Emmanuel Macron or Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. His speech on Sunday firmly puts him on the side of openness in the new political spectrum, which pits politicians advocating walls that separate, against politicians who are open both for business and migrants.

Muscat bills himself as a reformist “not scared of change” and one who wants to overcome challenges by “building bridges” while his adversary “builds walls and closes doors”. This is why he is so keen on confronting Delia on this issue where the latter risks being perceived as a milder version of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen.

It’s not left-wing utopianism or a love of diversity that underlines Muscat’s cosmopolitanism, but a very utilitarian approach that sees foreign workers fuelling accelerated growth

It may well suit Muscat to depict the PN as retrograde and conservative and himself as an open-minded cosmopolitan. That way he gives liberal voters alienated by corruption and Panamagate, a motivation to vote for him again (or just not to vote for Delia).

And it comes with the added bonus of appealing to big and small businesses which profit from the foreign influx.

In doing so he may be taking his own voters for granted, those irritated by the problems that a rapidly growing population bring. Once again, that’s a risk Muscat is willing to take.

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