Five reasons Adrian Delia’s tough migration talk can turn toxic on him

Polls suggesting migration could be Joseph Muscat’s Achilles’ heel increase Adrian Delia’s temptation to weaponise the issue to save his skin in the 2019 European elections. JAMES DEBONO lists five reasons why his tough talk on foreigners could turn toxic for his party with its own voting base

Delia seems to be mostly concerned with foreigners working in Malta but polls show that the Maltese are less concerned with foreign labour than irregular migrants
Delia seems to be mostly concerned with foreigners working in Malta but polls show that the Maltese are less concerned with foreign labour than irregular migrants

Delia’s speech on Sunday suggested that migration will be at the top of his party’s agenda in the year preceding MEP elections. On social media some even raised comparisons between Delia’s ‘alt right’ and ‘far right politics’.

But what exactly is the PN leader saying?

In a nutshell Delia is saying that Muscat’s economic boom is the result of an increase in population: “no new industries or new ideas, just new people.” He suggests that current economic growth is the result of importing “cheap labour” not innovation.

Such a critique is not particularly rightwing. In fact, even left-leaning NGOs have made similar observations. The creation of an underclass composed of precarious foreign workers with little sense of belonging and rights does not bode well for social cohesion and except for those benefitting from exploitation few would agree with people living in cowsheds.

Unlike one of his MEP candidates (Dione Borg) who seems to have a problem with shops in Hamrun being owned by foreigners, Delia suggests that he has no problem with foreigners who “don’t just come for a few months and leave” but want to “integrate with us and want to become Maltese like us.”

The problem is that Delia does not stop there.

He also presents foreigners as a threat to identity and values; arguing that the government’s strategy of bringing in more and more foreigners “is eroding our values and our principles and is causing havoc with our Maltese identity”. He also called on supporters not to be afraid to stand up for “their Christian values”. It is not clear how values are influenced by migration rather than by other phenomena like the social media, the worldwide web or Netflix.

So, does Delia’s stance represent a lurch to the far right? Sure enough Delia is not a neo-nazi who incites racial hatred against foreigners. Like Muscat he believes in the “humanitarian responsibility to save people from drowning.” But he does hit two familiar notes which characterise the European populist right wing. While these parties have generally replaced rabid racism with a more moderate discourse, their distinctive mark remains the depiction of foreigners (especially migrants from Islamic countries) as a “threat” to security and identity. This theme is present in some of Delia’s speeches.

PN supporters are being asked to “stand up” against the changes brought about by mass migration. Moreover – like Donald Trump – Delia is also in the habit of lumping unconnected things together under the theme of moral degeneration, Delia’s “soulless state”. In a Facebook post, which was later edited Delia referred “to knife fights in Hamrun Marsa and Tarxien, a police injured in St Julian’s and “a newborn baby abandoned in Bugibba”.

These events were weaponised as signs “that we are losing the battle against criminality” and that “Malta is becoming a soulless state.” The reference to the abandoned baby was later removed in a sign that Delia may have been alerted to the bad taste of weaponising a personal tragedy. This approach is also symptomatic of a narrative of moral degeneration, which characterises Trump and fellow travellers. This has also been a running theme in Delia’s speeches since his memorable first speech in which he coined the “soulless state” motif.

But morality and ideological nuances apart, has Delia finally given his party the effective battle cry it lacked or is he committing an own goal? Sure enough since Malta joined the EU in 2004, the PN has lacked an effective battle cry which unites the various party factions and appeals to the centreground. But a divisive theme like migration may well backfire.


1. PN may lose moderates

Adrian Delia addressing the press after a PN administrative council
Adrian Delia addressing the press after a PN administrative council


This approach gives Muscat the opportunity to present himself as a moderate centrist who stands for openness in line with European mainstream politicians like Emmanuel Macron. Centrism was traditionally the ideological space the PN used to occupy. For although conservative on moral issues at face value the PN also stood for humanitarian values and was traditionally open to foreign labour in contrast to Labour in its Eurosceptic days.

Delia also seems to ignore the fact that social values are in a state of flux and that change may be unsettling for some but an opportunity for others. He also risks sounding rigid. Muscat’s empathy with the woman who abandoned her baby in Bugibba contrasted with Delia’s reckless comment on Facebook the previous day. Although Delia may be in synch with public sentiment on migration issues, he may also lose support among those Nationalists who expect their party to be a voice of reason and compassion.


2. The PN may be outflanked from the right

The far-right Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin in a protest in Msida protesting against its temporary use for Muslim prayers
The far-right Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin in a protest in Msida protesting against its temporary use for Muslim prayers

The PN risks legitimising a kind of discourse, which can be easily appropriated by a far-right group, which is not constrained by the limits of political correctness expected of a mainstream political party like the PN. In the same way as right-wingers constantly harp on Muscat’s failure to deliver on “push backs”, they will present themselves as the true warriors defending Maltese identity. In short by contributing to make migration the top issue in next year’s MEP election, Delia may risk being outflanked on the right.


3. The PN may have to speak more on asylum seekers

Delia seems to be mostly concerned with foreigners working in Malta but polls show that the Maltese are less concerned with foreign labour than irregular migrants. A MaltaToday survey shows that while 41.5% of Maltese have no concern at all over foreigners who legally work and live in Malta, 41.2% fear that asylum seekers are ‘invading us’. This may explain why last Sunday Delia ambiguously used the word ‘foreigner.’ He also claimed that no one knows where these migrants are coming from. But by doing so he may well end up propping anti-immigrant sentiment, which goes beyond what he may be wishing for.


4. Pressure will increase on Delia to come up with solutions which businesses may not like

Migrant workers in the Marsa area waiting for job pick-ups
Migrant workers in the Marsa area waiting for job pick-ups

It is well and good to criticise an economic model based on cheap labour. But will Delia lurch to the left to address the problem posed by rising rent and property prices? Is he willing to close the tap on planning permits, which increase the demand for temporary low-paid foreign workers? Or will he lurch to the right and close the door on migration. Will he commit his party to exit the Schengen area to stop Italy’s asylum seekers from working here? And how will his migration stance go down with the party’s backers in business, particularly the construction industry which relies on this source of cheaper labour?


5. Muscat may still be perceived as the best choice on migration issues even among those who are worried

Joseph Muscat
Joseph Muscat

When flying the cosmopolitan flag, Muscat may be more concerned with fuelling demand for property than with cultural diversity. He is also a good salesman for his Dubai model, which has made a number of people who traditionally supported the PN, richer. Moreover, his decision to block Maltese ports to NGOs who are saving lives in the Mediterranean was a reminder of his ability to perform balancing acts. While Muscat has repeatedly succeeded in brokering deals among a number of EU members to take responsibility for migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, with Malta accepting responsibility for some of them, he balanced this by arresting the Lifeline captain and impounding rescue vessels. With a few exceptions, the PN’s leadership has been silent on these two hallmarks of Muscat’s policy.

But does this mean that the PN should remain silent on migration issues? There are obvious risks for mainstream parties who turn migration into their major issue. This is because talk on this issue can easily slip out of hand especially when regurgitated by less politically sophisticated supporters in the lower rungs of the party’s pecking order. While Delia may have been careful not to cross the line, some of his supporters on the social media are less restrained. This is reminiscent of what happened to the Labour Party when it also toyed with the migration issue.

Under Muscat Labour had successfully weaponised the migration issue on the eve of the 2009 MEP elections even at the cost of stirring racist sentiments among a section of its supporters.

Muscat himself never instigated racism but his harsh stance on the EU’s inaction on migration was often taken by supporters as a licence for xenophobic attitudes. Yet on that occasion the issue was simplified to one on who has the ‘greatest balls’ to extract the best burden sharing deal from the EU. The debate was dumb but circumscribed.

The issue, now conflated with identity, religion, demographics and economics, is far more complex and toxic. It is an issue that surely needs to be talked about. The Maltese have had little say on what economic model their country should adopt and Muscat has no interest in stirring such a debate.

But the risk is that migration will be politically weaponised again, this time in a bid to save the PN and its leader from a humiliating defeat. The risk is a race to the bottom among candidates, which will leave little space for rational debate.

Expect more photos of Africans sleeping on benches and candidates touring Marsa.