[ANALYSIS] Why Muscat changed tack and accepted the Lifeline migrants

Long read • 1,238 words | In an interview on One Radio on Sunday, Muscat adopted the legalistic argument to defend his government's position not to take in the migrants’ boat. Yet five days later he accepted to take the migrants after brokering an ad hoc agreement between nine European nations. Why did he have a change of heart?

The answer to the question on why Muscat changed his mind and opened Malta’s border to 230 migrants on the Lifeline boat has a lot to do with the changing European landscape and Muscat’s own aspiration to act as a player on the international stage.

The new political reality in Europe, where Muscat wants to leave a mark, is characterised by the ascendency of populist anti-immigrant parties which are now in government coalitions in Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland.  

The latter two form part of the Visegrad Group of nations which opposes any notion of burden sharing. This group also includes the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

As expected, despite their ideological affinity to Italy’s new populist government, none of these nations offered any help to Malta and Italy by sharing responsibility over migrants stranded for a week on the Lifeline boat.

It was pro-EU centrist or socialist governments which mainly joined the ad hoc “coalition of the willing”.  Norway, which is not even an EU member state, has also joined.   

Although he has only been in power for five years, Joseph Muscat has seen the political landscape change dramatically.  Gone are friends like former Italian PM, Matteo Renzi, and former French President, Francois Hollande.

Only four other EU countries are led by members of the European Socialists. Britain is now on the verge of leaving the EU while its Labour Party has veered towards the far left, burying the new Labour legacy cherished by Muscat.

The other political power house; the European People’s Party, is increasingly divided in their approach to migration between isolationists like Hungarian strongman Victor Orban and Austria Chancellor, Sebastian Kurtz, and cosmopolitans like Ireland’s Leo Varadkar.

Angela Merke,l whose government coalition is now endangered by the misgivings of the Christian Social Union (the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria) over Merkel’s acceptance of thousands of refugees from Syria in 2015, cannot  provide leadership at this sensitive juncture.

But the  emergence of a‘coalition of the willing’triggered by the Lifeline incident may trigger a new alignment of countries who are ready to share the migration burden. 

The ad hoc coalition includes not just left-wing governments in Portugal and Spain but a pro-European liberal centre-ground best represented by Emanuel Macron’s France and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar together.

The fact that France, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg have accepted an invitation also poses a dilemma to the new Italian government.

READ ALSO: Lifeline captain's sea licence was for coastal waters, court hears

Such a decision puts Salvini in a quandary; is Italy best served by the likes of Orban or Kurtz and others who are only interested in closing their borders or by the ‘coalition of the willing’, which has concretely shown solidarity in action? Giuseppe Conte may well be lured away from Salvini’s embrace if other European countries take concrete action.

The Italians are right to question Macron’s consistency. For while the French President has rushed to rebuke Salvini’s intransigence, France continues to send migrants who moved from Italy to France, back to Italy, strictly abiding by the Dublin regulations which both Malta and Italy question.

Italy's new Home Affairs minister Matteo Salvini has insisted that Italy cannot be expected to deal with migration alone
Italy's new Home Affairs minister Matteo Salvini has insisted that Italy cannot be expected to deal with migration alone

Yet despite the EU’s inertia and inconsistencies on this thorny issue, Muscat seems bent on seeking a European solution.

Upon being elected in 2013 Muscat had flirted with a populist approach to the migration problem by threatening push backs to make Europe “smell the coffee”. 

His strategy depended on soliciting a response to Malta’s plight from concerned social democratic governments.  The response came in the way of a bilateral understanding with a social democratic government in Italy which accepted to take responsibility for migrants rescued in Malta’s search and rescue zone.

Yet the arrangement renewed by three successive Italian Prime Ministers – Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, all hailing from the centre-left – did not survive the election of a populist government in Italy as it was never formalised into a treaty or agreement. 

After the election of a far-right government in Italy, Muscat faced two choices: either to turn his back on human tragedies in the Mediterranean or to actively seek a collective European response by showing a willingness to do his part. 

French President Emmanuel Macron praised Muscat's efforts at attempting to find a European solution to the Lifeline standoff
French President Emmanuel Macron praised Muscat's efforts at attempting to find a European solution to the Lifeline standoff

In his first clash with Salvini over immigrants rescued by the Aquarius, Muscat refused to budge. But when dealing with migrants stranded on the Lifeline, Muscat ultimately preferred taking the role of a broker of a ‘coalition of the willing’. He knew that he could only gain trust if he also did his part. On his part Muscat insists that the two cases are different.

In the case of the Aquarius, Italy was insisting that Malta take responsibility for migrants despite these being closer to Lampedusa. In the case involving the Lifeline, both Malta and Italy questioned the behaviour of the NGO in question. Still, at the end of it all while Spain took the spotlight by saving the day by taking migrants on the Aquarius, by accepting migrants from the Lifeline, Malta emerged as a protagonist.   

By actively working for a European solution Muscat gained the trust of French President Emmanuel Macron whose grand political design is to create a Europe-wide alternative to xenophobic parties. With most governments in Europe hailing from the liberal ALDE, Macron could be toying with building a new European centrist alliance, which could also attract moderates and cosmopolitans in both the socialist and popular families.

Like Muscat, Macron is far from dovish on immigration. He has been keen on balancing compassion with firmness, alienating many on the left, especially NGOs working with migrants in the process. The test case for this new European alignment is whether Macron is willing to compromise on a reform of Dublin regulations through which immigrants are sent back to Malta and Italy whenever they move around Europe.

In these circumstances Muscat made the best of a difficult situation and has re-emerged as a player in European politics as he did previously on Brexit during Malta’s Presidency. This may also have helped Muscat restore his standing which received a blow after the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

However, while Muscat plays to a more liberal audience in Europe, allying himself with the cosmopolitans, he knows that he has to address the local xenophobic audience. 

Therefore, his gesture of openness had to be balanced with a firm stance against the NGO whom he accused of ignoring orders by Italy to allow the boat to be rescued by the Libyan coast guard. One risk is that by accusing NGOs of  “loitering”, he risks fuelling negative perceptions of NGOs who for the past years have been doing what European governments should have done in the first place; saving lives. On this point Muscat is in full square agreement with Salvini.

Yet despite threading on thin ice, Muscat has emerged more statesmanlike and less isolated in Europe from the latest migration crisis. For, in the absence of a long-term solutions, Malta can now take a new role; that of facilitating coalitions of nations willing to face up to their responsibilities.

READ ALSO: Prime Minister: Lifeline economic migrants will be sent back to their countries

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