With less than two weeks until European Parliament elections, tensions are running high in Malta. As the EU’s smallest and least-populated member, the island nation is advantageously situated in the Mediterranean, making it of strategic importance. It is also one of the nations with the highest turnout for European elections, beaten only by those who have mandatory voting – which means election time generates fierce debate. This year, the European elections coincide with local council elections, which could drive turnout even higher.
The currently-ruling centre-left Labour Party, is likely to benefit from the high turnout, but so are the centre-right Nationalists, which have allied with the European People’s party (EPP). And while Malta has a number of parties putting forth candidates, it’s likely that only members from the two dominant parties will make it into the European Parliament. In fact, because the smaller parties are less likely to ally with either of the two major parties, they may simply bleed votes to the larger parties instead – a potential boon to Labour’s solid base of support – but a problem for the fractious and disunited Nationalists. The eurosceptic, far-right parties, of Imperium Europa and Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, are unlikely to form an alliance with the Nationalists, and simply don’t have the support to get representation in Parliament without them.
That doesn’t make things smooth sailing for Labour – having been the object of corruption allegations – while the Nationalists are embroiled in internal conflict, after losing control over the country after 25 years in government.
The Debate in Malta
Joseph Muscat – from the Labour Party – has been Prime Minister of Malta since 2013. He has won two consecutive elections – the most recent one a snap election in 2017, to counter allegations of corruption against his wife and his political allies. The allegations have not fully subsided.
Corruption, money-laundering, and migration, are the top political issues in Malta, and likely to be the concerns in play when voters go the polls to vote for their representatives in the European Parliament. The EU has also criticised Malta, for what it considers a lack of checks and balances, weak separation of power, and shortcomings in the rule of law. The environment is also increasingly a hot political topic these days, as the student-led FridaysForFuture protests in Valletta have shown.
All of these issues are at the forefront as the population heads to the polls for the European elections, and then soon after, Malta’s general elections, set for 2022.
As campaigning kicks into high gear, politicians hurl heated words at each other with increasing ferocity. On May 1st, which is Workers’ Day, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, praised the values of the EU, and Malta’s place in it, fifteen years after the nation joined the EU during a political rally.
“The Labour Party endorses European values”, he said. “One cannot just talk about Europe, but rather live its values of dialogue, tolerance, respect, and the importance of competing as a continent in a globalised world”, added Muscat. To that end, he described the various ways Malta has taken on a leadership role: such as the numerous ad-hoc deals reached with European states regarding migrants and asylum seekers striving for entry into Europe, who land on Malta’s shores. He also described Malta’s economic boost, and his dedication to increase female representation in government.
“We have taken a country with a deficit and turned it into a surplus, not through austerity, but through growth.” Muscat enthused. “We are pro-business because we are pro-work. A country looking for work opportunities has turned into a country looking for workers.”
This sentiment was shared by the European Commission Vice-President, Frans Timmerman, who also spoke that day. While he credited the Labour Party for turning Malta around, changing it from a struggling state, to one that was “one of the pearls in the crown of the European Union today”, he also stressed that there was no room for complacency. Like other states in Europe, Malta needs to close the wage gap, and address LGBTQ+ discrimination, “even where it will be difficult”.
“Congratulations for transforming the country and bringing more social justice to Malta”, said Timmerman, adding that the country had reason to be very proud. “Many would have thought this was impossible fifteen years ago.”
But Muscat also took the time that day, to swipe at the Nationalist Party’s anti-migrant rhetoric, which he said is at odds with Europe’s values. “It’s useless to praise your predecessors for making Malta an EU member state, if you are now trying to scare people about the very advantages of the EU, if you are trying to scare people about foreigners and sow hatred against non-Maltese people”, he said. “They said we’ve stuffed Malta with foreigners, but you know what we’ve really stuffed it with? With work and with wealth!”
“The arguments of the extreme right won’t scare us, but will make us stronger, because we know that our heart is in the right place, and that Malta’s heart is in the right place (…) I’d rather live in a rich country that helps other countries, than in a poor country that requires acts of charity.”
When urging the Maltese to vote for Labour on May 25th, the Prime Minister very much framed both the European election, and local council election, as a choice between himself and the Opposition – the Nationalist Party – despite multiple parties being on the ticket.
“On the 25th May, the people will have a choice between those who create jobs and those who create divides, between those who offer hope and those who offer fear, between those who believe in inclusion and those who believe in isolation. It will be a choice between those who work with love and those who work with envy. The choice will be between Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia. Let’s remain united, let’s be protagonists, and not spectators, because we have another date with history coming up.”
“Malta can show how big a small country can be when it comes to fundamental values”, highlighted Muscat.
Nationalist party leader, Adrian Delia, hit back, saying Muscat was determined to make the elections “all about him”.
“Joseph Muscat doesn’t believe in his MEP candidates (…) we believe in our ten candidates, because we know they understand what Europe is, they believe in it, and they are truly capable of succeeding in Europe”, stated Delia. He also commented, that despite Muscat’s claiming otherwise, his party’s incumbent MEP’s are concerned with Maltese wellbeing. “Their fight to strengthen Europe’s borders (…) for a proper work-life balance and for proper conditions, for all workers.”
Delia also accused Muscat of only being interested in “importing slavery”, to create different classes of people in society. “He wants to import people and create different classes of people, who are treated differently”, stated Delia. “That is Joseph Muscat for you, a person for who people mean nothing. They are just numbers on a paper which he can buy or sell.” These comments referenced Muscat’s earlier words, during which he said he wanted to see Maltese workers performing better paying and professional jobs. This was widely seen a racist, and Muscat apologised.
Delia also reproached Muscat for lying about rates of pay to foreign and domestic workers, with Delia claiming some of them where making less than 1 euro an hour. Describing Muscat as a “propagandist”, Delia insisted that “[Muscat] lied to the whole nation, and tried to make it seem as though I was lying, and that I had incorrect information – when he had the information himself and did nothing about it.” Wages in Malta have risen the slowest among EU states.
And at another press conference, Nationalist MEP Jason Azzopardi, said that Malta had become unlivable, through its massive population growth.
“Malta is suffocated and congested. 600 persons per year are dying due to respiratory diseases and other illness related to the quality of air, which is the worst in Europe. We also have the worst recycling rate in Europe. This country is becoming unlivable“, stated Azzopardi. “The reason for this is that the current socialist government has no plan in terms of the environment, and does not have a concrete economic plan to tackle the increasing population.”
Muscat lobbied back by accusing the Nationalists of hypocrisy and a lack of clear vision.
Polling to Win
So far, polls show the Nationalist party (PN), is likely to lose one of its three seats in the European Parliament. The Labour Party leads by almost 15 points. “It is almost certain that, with these percentages, the Labour Party will [be] elected four seats, with the PN having two. Despite this, Adrian Delia will have a strong base to build on for the general election”, said Independent MP Hermann Schiavone, in a Facebook post on Sunday, interpreting two opinion surveys.
But the right wing has another horse in the race.
Norman Lowell, of the far-right Imperium Europa party, has never won an election. But each time he runs, his party garners more votes, and recently, a poll showed him pulling ahead of the Greens and the Democratic party, at 1.2%. While his party is no threat to the two major parties, gaining on the two minor parties on election day would nonetheless be a serious cause for embarrassment. Lowell has previously come under fire for denying the Holocaust and calling Auschwitz “the Disneyland of Poland”.
The rise of the far-right is linked here, as it is elsewhere, to the failures of the EU. While most Europeans consider the EU a positive force in their lives, the project requires more work to be truly successful. Malta’s Democratic party (PD), in particular, insists that the way forward is for the EU to increase transparency and accessibility to the average citizen, and cut away the bureaucracy. The successes of the EU also need to be better marketed, so that more people are aware of these positive impacts.
“One widely held perception, is that the European Union institutions work in a bubble, with little regard for public opinion and the sensitivities of member states. Another is that national governments will often take the political credit when things are going well, whilst blaming the EU when things are not going so well, even if the fault may lie with the national government”, the PD said, in a statement released on Sunday.
“Decisions must be taken at the appropriate national or EU level, whichever serves Malta’s and other Member states’ best interests. We share a responsibility to foster an honest debate about the future of Europe, and better promote the positive impact of EU policies and cooperation on the lives of our citizens”, the statement read.
Voters go to the polls on May 25th.