40 years of Freedom Day: Tables turned on the colonial masters?

1979-2019. Sweet historical revenge for Malta: a seat at the EU table from where to watch Theresa May’s torturous Brexit. Or is it a loss for two countries who were stronger together in defending their ‘exceptionalism’ inside the EU?

For Malta, 1979 represented the final chapter in its arduous transition from a war economy dependent on imperial military spending, to a civilian economy which has to constantly find new pastures to ‘put food on the table’ of inhabitants of a resource-poor island.

Malta and the UK started off their EU trajectory from opposite poles. One as a former imperial power which often favoured its ‘special relationship’ with the United States over its European allies, as was the case with the invasion of Iraq in 2001. The other, Malta, was occupied with the difficult task of finding short-cuts from colonial backwardness to first world prosperity. And while sitting at the EU table with other nations as an equal voice represented a step backwards for a former empire, it represented a step ahead for a former colony like Malta.

While Britain struggled with the pains of decolonisation, de-industrialisation and loss of global power while rebuilding itself into a global financial centre, Malta embarked on the same road in a bid to redress the colonial legacy of under-development.

Wave goodbye: 1979, the last British warship sails out of the Grand Harbour, as President Anton Buttigieg and his wife bid the British forces farewell
Wave goodbye: 1979, the last British warship sails out of the Grand Harbour, as President Anton Buttigieg and his wife bid the British forces farewell

The key issue ever since Malta ditched its reliance on the war economy was how to make ends meet. Labour prime minister Dom Mintoff eased the transition by resorting to his Cold War brinkmanship and extracted as much money as possible from Britain for renting military facilities in the seven years preceding Freedom Day – the final departure of all British forces from Malta. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself raised historical parallels when noting that “it took the UK seven years to leave Malta and they ended up paying an equivalent of over €1.5 billion in today’s money. Seeing as it took seven years to leave Malta, two years were definitely not enough to leave the EU.”

After ditching the Mintoffian protectionism that was meant to nurture a national industrial base, subsequent Nationalist governments charted Malta’s place in the world economy as a financial centre offering competitive tax advantages to companies setting up here, while subsiding tourism development with land grants, eventually using the same ploy to attract foreign property buyers. After 2013 Muscat did not deviate from this route, and in some instances pressed the accelerator, in his bid to secure a development model which guarantees both social spending and robust economic growth.

And goodbye to you again: Joseph Muscat with ‘Brexit’ PM Theresa May, and bottom: 1964, George Borg Olivier greets newly independent Malta
And goodbye to you again: Joseph Muscat with ‘Brexit’ PM Theresa May, and bottom: 1964, George Borg Olivier greets newly independent Malta

New dependencies?

The question is: has Malta cut its umbilical chord on the war machine only to find itself dependent on other unsavoury aspects of world capitalism like gaming and tax avoidance? And is its willingness to use public land to entice investment in property projects reminiscent of colonial days when parts of the country were off-limits for common mortals?

Britain’s transformation from industrial powerhouse to a global financial centre has left many behind, people all too ready to blame the EU for the decline they experienced in daily life. So far, Malta has been spared the kind of austerity which feeds populism and Euroscepticism.
Still within the EU, Malta and the UK were allies in defending tax sovereignty from the intrusions of the EU. With Brexit, Malta has been deprived of a powerful ally. Yet there was always a fundamental difference in approach between the two countries: while EU regulations represented a shackle for a part of the British establishment, it was EU membership which added value to Malta’s own exceptionalism. That explains Labour’s smooth conversion from opposition to membership to a soft, flexible but confident Europeanism.

In this narrative Malta can still bask in the glory of its place at the decision-making table while defending its turf against the “envy” of other EU member states who lament the loss of tax money to companies set up in Malta (and a number of other EU countries). In this way Malta may well have found a way to redress the structural imbalance between countries like Germany, whose big exports build up a huge surplus for the country; and countries like Malta which have a trade imbalance, without ever questioning the orthodoxy of the Eurozone.

Brexit, which coincided with Malta’s presidency of the EU, has also offered Muscat an opportunity to project his leadership qualities to a European audience, coming across as a reasonable and measured interlocutor.

But while Muscat continuously reminds us of continuity between his model and Mintoff’s vision of a free Malta, one cannot overlook one important distinction. While Mintoff was always keen on disrupting what he perceived as the designs of western imperialism by identifying with the global south, under Muscat with its place at the EU table, Malta actively participated in inflicting collective punishment on Greece in 2015 and in strengthening external borders and criminalising rescue NGOs to keep immigrants from reaching the EU.

The historical ironies of Brexit

Jesmond Saliba, geopolitical observer Diplomatique.expert
Jesmond Saliba, geopolitical observer Diplomatique.expert

Theresa May triggered Brexit on the eve of Malta’s Freedom Day celebrations at a time when Britain’s former colony held the EU Presidency. This meant the UK was scheduled to leave at 11pm UK time on Friday, 29 March 2019, again a day close to Malta’s Freedom Day, which is celebrated on 31 March.

As holders of the rotating Presidency, Malta took a ‘leadership’ role in delivering messages on behalf of the other 26 states. This, in itself, was ironic, given that while one of its smallest former colonies was ‘spearheading’ the club, the UK was leaving.

During the period of negotiations, Malta’s arguments were always European. There are a number of ironies in this regard. First and foremost, Malta’s Prime Minister, who on a European stage is positioned as a convinced Europeanist, had formerly campaigned against Malta’s membership as part of the Labour Party’s campaign. During that campaign, the Labour Party’s position was built around the need to retain control of certain aspects, while trying to have a ‘partnership’ which would give access to the Common Market: a position which resonates with some of the elements negotiated by May.

Since Malta joined the EU, and even more since Joseph Muscat became Prime Minister, Malta’s and Muscat’s European vocation became unquestionable. This conversion was also evident in the various statements of Muscat, even recently, where in public statements, Muscat described the possibility of a country like Malta being around the metaphorical ‘decision table’ is the peak of ‘freedom’.

This, in itself, is a diametrically opposite position to the narrative of the Brexiteers, and perhaps the conversion attested by Muscat and Malta’s success within Europe might have been a strong attestation to why being an EU member pays.

There is one other pertinent link between the days, which is somehow ironic, yet deserves mentioning. 31 March is the end of the British government’s fiscal year. Given that in both cases, there’s a significant budgetary consideration, the date was determined by such. This year, the 31st happens to be a Sunday.

This is one of the few ‘ironic’ twists in a fate of two countries, whose history is intertwined in many ways: had 31st March been a weekday, most probably the original Brexit day would have been this very day, when Malta’s formal links were terminated, and then only formally entrenched and enhanced within an EU context so many years later.

Economic independence is the key to freedom

Mark Camilleri, historian and chairman of National Book Council
Mark Camilleri, historian and chairman of National Book Council

Freedom Day is the most significant national day for a very important reason.

The closure of the British base in Malta does not only represent Malta’s turn from a British base to a neutral state; it also represents its gigantic historical leap from a society which was economically dependent on a higher power, to a society which could actually sustain itself on its own and without the patronage of a bigger power.

It is only in the 1970s under socialism and the leadership of Dom Mintoff that Malta could, for the very first time in history, boast of its economic independence. For centuries on end, Malta, as a poor country always depended on higher powers to feed it and protect it; this was no more on 31 March 1979. Such a paradigm shift could only take place with a robust economic development which had taken place during the 1970s under Mintoff’s administrations, hitting in consecutive years, double-digit GDP growth rates, never seen in our history under other administrations.

Breaking the neo-colonialist mind-frame

Michael Grech, philosophy lecturer and social justice activist
Michael Grech, philosophy lecturer and social justice activist

Though Malta obtained its independence 15 years earlier, Freedom Day is popularly associated with the ‘British leaving Malta’.
“Meta Mintoff keċċa l-Ingliżi” (‘When Mintoff kicked the British out’) – I used to hear people (both Labour and Nationalist) say this when I was a kid. Though constitutionally the day was insignificant – the end of the colonial period occurred in 1964 – and in terms of Malta-UK relations it was just the day a contract between the two countries expired, the psychological value of the day was immense.

The presence of the British army, which to many ordinary Maltese provided a psychological and emotional assurance of sorts, came to an end. Many regular individuals, Labour and Nationalists alike, were highly troubled by the fact that the British military presence was ending. I remember the late Charles Miceli recalling how in the last mass meeting before 31st March, Mintoff, amidst the triumphalism and rhetoric, had to reassure the Labour crowd that following the departure of the last British soldier, the sun would rise as it had always done. Similarly, many on the other side of the political divide where in a sombre mode, assisting in dismay to something many never thought would occur.
Such incidents might be dismissed by condescending historians as tribulations of people ignorant of constitutional matters, unaware that the ties between the two countries had really been unknotted earlier.

Yet such moods point to something very significant: the fact that colonialism involves more than just formal treaties and legal trappings. Colonialism is something which also has to do with the mind. It concerns how those affected by it think, feel and experience their existence. Historians, thinkers and opinion-makers might have gauged this, and discussed what colonial legacies stayed in our thought and culture following the events of 1964, 1979 and all that; whether or in what respects we still require de-colonisation.

Instead, for years the sterile debate concerned whether the most important occasion was 31 March or 21 September 1964. The neo-colonial spirit and forma mentis has largely remained unscathed. It simply evolved and adapted to different scenarios.

Today it lurks disguised – ironically – even under the semblance of patriotism. What is more colonial than the belief that certain people are a threat or a burden simply because of the colour of their skin or because they hail from a certain part of the world?

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