Malta’s Janus-faced approach to migration betrays the real political crisis at hand

On an island where the people fear asylum seekers more than the large amounts of foreign workers, the political temptation for parties to outflank each other from the right is growing

In a scenario with surveys showing that the Maltese are more concerned with the relatively small number of asylum seekers than with the far larger numbers of foreign workers, the temptation to outflank Muscat from the right may grow
In a scenario with surveys showing that the Maltese are more concerned with the relatively small number of asylum seekers than with the far larger numbers of foreign workers, the temptation to outflank Muscat from the right may grow

Joseph Muscat was well aware that his change of heart on taking 230 migrants stranded on the Lifeline boat had not been well received by a significant portion of the electorate which he actively nurtured in the past.

In a balancing act he joined Matteo Salvini’s Italy in refusing entry to NGO rescue ships while the police arraigned the captain of the Lifeline rescue ship on ship registration charges.

Muscat had only just scored an international success after forging a coalition of nine willing European nations to take responsibility for migrants rescued by the Lifeline, appearing closer to French President Emmanuel Macron – now portraying himself as the anti-populist Europeanist. Yet to do so he had to allow entrance to the boat in Maltese ports.

Then again, this modest achievement was not even matched by any progress in an EU summit, which failed to impose any mandatory burden sharing. It was a summit marked by the intransigence of the Visegrad nations, Germany’s inability to provide leadership as Merkel was busy patching up with her rightwing CSU allies, and a very weak Italian Prime Minister who clearly does not call the shots on an issue where Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord is hegemonic. Muscat knows that there are limits to what can be achieved on a European level.

Therefore, Muscat had to send a very clear message to voters, both within his party and those he could potentially win from the Opposition, that he remains a strongman. For he knows that in a political debate dominated by migration issues, he is bound to sow more division within the Opposition, where Delia’s drift to the right is not seen positively by more liberal PN voters.

Matteo Salvini holds the Italian PM to ransom on migration
Matteo Salvini holds the Italian PM to ransom on migration

The front pages of newspapers owned by the two major Maltese parties clearly exposed the quandary. On its front page, Labour weekly Kullhadd announced that the Lifeline captain Claus Peter Reisch was to be arraigned in court. Although he was later arraigned on ship registration charges, the organ blamed the Captain for “creating the crisis” by ignoring the Italian coastguard’s orders not to rescue the migrants and allow the Libyan coastguard to do this job.

NGOs engaged in the rescue of migrants were also the focus of a radio interview in which Muscat announced that “until things are clarified, we were forced to close our ports to all NGO-run ships. And we also cannot let any NGO ships currently in Malta to leave our ports.”

While Muscat may enjoy the European limelight as Macron’s ally against Salvini, he is foursquare with the Italian far right in blaming NGOs for the current crisis. Yet in this case he has been granted a veneer of legitimacy by citing the call by the European Council on all ships working in the Mediterranean to allow the Libyan coastguard do its job.

Amico mio: Joseph Muscat with Matteo Renzi
Amico mio: Joseph Muscat with Matteo Renzi

Blame it on…Renzi?

While Malta and Italy proceeded to blockade their ports to NGOs, other EU members like Spain have not.

On the other side of the Rubicon, the Nationalist organ Il-Mument blamed the latest crisis on the “secret deal” between former Italian PM Matteo Renzi and Muscat through which Italy accepted to take migrants rescued in Malta’s search and rescue for creating tension between the two countries.

The story is a mistaken premise: the arrangement dates back to 2013 when Enrico Letta was PM, who in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy which saw 350 migrants drown, embarked on operation Mare Nostrum, through which his country assumed leadership over search and rescue operations across the vast Maltese SAR area.

While Delia has supported Muscat’s official line in the latest standoffs with Italy, he was ambivalent on Muscat’s decision to accept the 230 Lifeline migrants and has not stated his position on Muscat’s decision to blockade

It was in this context and probably to avoid pointless stand-offs with tiny Malta, that the Italians started taking Malta’s share of migrants. The arrangement between the two countries was renewed by Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni.

But it was the EU that failed to create a robust alternative to Mare Nostrum, creating a situation where NGOs became indispensible in saving lives. And that’s why the Mument story was a timid attempt to attack Muscat on migration, while avoiding the fundamental issues at stake.

While Delia has supported Muscat’s official line in the latest stand-offs with Italy, he was ambivalent on Muscat’s decision to accept the 230 Lifeline migrants and has not stated his position on Muscat’s decision to blockade. Under Simon Busuttil the PN was very cautious not to confront the government on migration issues from the right, but now Delia is more keen on confronting government on the large presence of foreigners in the economy.

Yet he also seems reluctant on confronting government directly on the plight of asylum seekers. In a scenario with surveys showing that the Maltese are more concerned with the relatively small number of asylum seekers than with the far larger numbers of foreign workers, the temptation to outflank Muscat from the right may grow, and may even be emboldened with surveys showing Nationalist voters more edgy on migration than Labour voters.

The electoral weighing scales

In a scenario with surveys showing that the Maltese are more concerned with the relatively small number of asylum seekers than with the far larger numbers of foreign workers, the temptation to outflank Muscat from the right may grow

In the end Muscat’s balancing act may be highly effective in electoral terms since it makes it hard to pigeon-hole Muscat either as a heartless Salvini – for he did accept the Lifeline migrants to enter Malta – or as a snowflake liberal, since with regards to NGOs he is in full agreement with Matteo Salvini.

Muscat projects this as a balanced approach to a complex problem which, as he rightly says, has no “silver bullet solution.”

Yet in practical terms, the blockade against NGO ships by both Malta and Italy has paralysed their ability to rescue migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Over the past few days more than 200 migrants have drowned while over 1000 were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and sent to overcrowded detention centres where living conditions are deteriorating.

In short the human consequence of blocking our ports to NGOs may return to haunt Muscat and other EU governments who are looking the other way as more people drown or fester in Libyan detention centres.

So… are they doing so in the knowledge that electorates become completely desensitized to reports of drowning people? The Lampedusa tragedy led to operation Mare Nostrum which saw Italy saving thousands of lives, while the latest tragedy has led to a blockade of NGO vessels that are effectively doing what Italy used to do with their ships in 2013.

The contrast could not have been starker.

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