The Malta Independent 17 August 2019, Saturday

Joseph, the two Matthews, and the migrants

Mark A. Sammut Monday, 14 January 2019, 08:55 Last update: about 8 months ago

This week, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi chastised Matteo Salvini, Italy's current Deputy Prime Minister, over the 49-migrant crisis, taunting him that he is not a leader while Joseph Muscat is.

Mr Renzi tweeted this message on Thursday: "The man who has solved the migrants situation is a Prime Minister, but it's not Conte. He supports Milan Football Club, but it's not Salvini. He speaks Italian, and thus it cannot be Di Maio. It's @JosephMuscat_JM and he is Malta's Prime Minister. Salvini attacks him with good reason: Muscat is a leader, Salvini is not" (my translation).


It is worthwhile analysing what is going on. Particularly because it is not healthy for any Prime Minister to become involved in the internal politics of another country, especially when that country is a neighbour and one with which his own country has an intimate and strategic relationship.

Italian politics are unusually volatile. Having been traumatised by the Fascist dictatorship experience, the Italians prefer sacrificing governmental stability for the sake of avoiding another dictatorship. Yet, despite their aversion to stability, despite the machinations of other countries to undermine Italy and despite not having a proper former empire for post-colonial exploitation, the Italians have managed to create and maintain the third largest economy in Europe, on a par with the UK.

With this as a backdrop, it becomes abundantly clear that it is not wise to forge too close a relationship with any Italian politician: they usually have a short life on the shelf of power.

That's a general comment. More specifically, Dr Muscat's chumminess with Matteo Renzi, seemingly to the exclusion of others, is even more perilous. One can understand that, in certain circles, it pays to be seen as antagonistic to Matteo Salvini, particularly if one harbours certain personal ambitions which go beyond tiny Malta. But one does not occupy public office for one's own career advancement. Public office is meant to serve the Republic and the People. It is in Malta's interest for her Prime Minister to remain neutral in the internal political affairs of foreign lands and to build the best working relationship with the incumbent.

But being buddies with Mr Renzi is droll. Not only because Mr Renzi himself is - to use an archaic term - droll. (Just analyse the structure of his tweet - it's like the famous Superman citation: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman! ... but in reverse - and just recall Maurizio Crozza's insightful satire on Mr Renzi: a Jerry Lewis look-alike who sprinkles his political messages with inanities.)

There's also the fact that Mr Renzi is not particularly respected outside Italy either. He disparaged Matteo Salvini this week, but in Bratislava a couple of years ago, Mr Renzi strongly attacked Angela Merkel and the then-French President François Holland. Not exactly political savvy, is it? Mr Renzi looks like a boy trying to sprout into political manhood and consistently failing at each attempt.


Germany and France

In the meantime, while we are wasting precious political time and energy vivisecting the personal and marital vicissitudes of Maltese politicians (we need a quick and definite closure to this), Germany and France have presented a novel plan before the international community, to forge a common Franco-German foreign policy and to lobby for a German permanent seat on the UN's Security Council.

In the meantime, Mr Salvini has announced the emergence of an Italo-Polish axis to counterbalance the Paris-Berlin alliance.

The idea behind the Franco-German alliance seems to be that the two countries can be ideal partners, given France's political and diplomatic clout in the South and Germany's in Eastern Europe. This new alliance could later evolve into something even bigger.

One could stoop so low as to say that it seems that French President Emmanuel Macron is at it again, trying to satisfy an older woman, this time Angela Merkel. But one should resist such temptations and instead underline that this new twist in contemporary history should grab everybody's attention particularly in the light of Donald Trump's emphasis on US military spending on the European continent.

Malta should also be publicly discussing what we stand to benefit from the coming into being of "Framany" and whether we have anything to gain from a militarily reinvigorated Germany with an international voice so powerful that it occupies a permanent Security Council seat, no less.

History is obviously a favourite candidate as guide. Not only the two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) for which Germany was responsible, but the many others in which the Germans were prime actors: the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Northern Crusades (12th and 13th centuries) ... one could even go back to the Völkerwanderung, the migration of peoples, as the Germans romantically refer to the Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire (4th-6th centuries).

The relationship between France and Germany is very old, and fraternal. The Frankish part of the French people and the Germans are brothers. A little more than a thousand years ago, France was West Francia and Germany was East Francia. Those who became the French Romanised themselves; the others who became the Germans and remained in the Germanic lands, did not (or did, but to a lesser degree). Those Germans who descended into Italy, however, did Romanise themselves but they also somehow Germanised Italy, though only to a limited extent. These legacies (ereditajiet not legati!) from past historical eras are still alive, whether consciously or unconsciously, and for peoples with a long historical memory and a cultivated sense of identity, they are important considerations.

When one's economy is the first (Germany) and the second (France) in Europe, one can afford the luxury to dream, to resolve unfinished historical business and to gamble on future greatness.

But we are a miniscule nation, with few resources, no former empires to exploit, no luxuries and continuously anxious about our collective future as an independent political entity. We should therefore weigh the pros and cons of these developments: they might have elements of political and historical déjà-vu.


My Personal Library (36)

This week was especially marked by the migrants saga, the clash with Matteo Salvini and the ethical discussion on whether migrants deserve the same level of human-rights protection as citizens.

The debate is whether all humans deserve respect or only citizens. In other words, are human rights dependent on their recognition by states (this is the position of Israeli legal and moral philosopher Joseph Raz) or do human rights depend on our humanity, whether we are citizens of a state or not? These questions have to be posed, despite the wording of international human rights instruments, because in practice interpretations are proffered that tend to give up on the idealism of the drafters and gravitate toward a "more realistic" (read reduced) scope of human-rights protection.

The issue of whether migrants are to be treated as just human (like human embryos, say) or on the same level as citizens, was addressed in a literary fashion by the Peruvian author and Nobel-Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936) in his 1977 comic novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Though the medium is humour, the novel's underlying agenda is serious; the author simply reckoned that sometimes humour is the best way to explain and understand certain serious issues (also, possibly because the novel is in a sense autobiographical).

The novel relates the crazy love of an 18-year-old (Marito) for his 32-year-old aunt (Julia), whom he ends up marrying, and the crazy story of the meltdown of a highly successful scriptwriter. It is a hilarious and brilliant novel, and, ultimately, a great read.

There is much to say about it and its funny episodes. But amid all the hilarity, there's the serious story of an African migrant, a stowaway, who arrives in the Latin American city where the action is taking place. He is discovered by a police sergeant naked, his body covered in scars, and unable to speak a recognisable language. The sergeant arrests him and takes him to the station where he is locked up in a cell while he waits for a decision on his fate. The sergeant then receives the order to kill him. The episode ends in suspense: the sergeant draws his revolver but, after several seconds have passed, he still has not fired ... and there's a series of questions. Will the sergeant let the African escape or will he shoot him dead? "How would this tragedy of El Callao end?"

In the early 2000s, I read an article somewhere on the 19th-century Latin American contribution to International Law and its relevance to our own neo-Victorian times, when the North is once again exploiting the South. I think I read it when I was attending a course in Public International Law at The Hague Academy of International Law. I then made reference to it in my book on consular law published in England almost 10 years ago. I thought then, and still think now, that the Latin American experience with Europeans sharing the same living space with natives, Africans, mestizos (half European, half native), mulattos (half Europeans, half African), and sambos (half native, half African), has a lot to teach us.

Be that as it may, the episode of the stowaway exemplifies the ethical problem of how to deal with illegal immigrants. Forty years and more have passed since the publication of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and the problem has not been resolved. Look at how Prime Minister Muscat played with 49 lives, without showing any compunction.

Reduced to its essence, the question is: are all humans equally human, or are some humans more human than others?

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, if you want to be intellectually honest you have to admit that it is virtually impossible to escape from George Orwell.

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