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Europe Mag • May 09 2004




Will malta be a bridge to the south?

Karl Schembri takes our promise to bridge Europe with North Africa seriously and foresees some problems

In the centre, that’s where we are. That’s how we have learned to view ourselves, from our childhood readings of Dun Karm’s poetry to parish sermons and political rhetoric. In the centre of the Mediterranean, if not of the world; a melting pot of cultures.
That is also, incidentally, one of our foremost promised contributions to the EU: to fulfil a bridge role between north and south, Southern Europe and North Africa.
We promise that our history and culture can only serve to make us understand better our surroundings, and act as intermediaries between Europe and Africa. We pledge to contribute “our experience and knowledge of the Mediterranean,” as Joe Borg used to put it when he was foreign affairs minister. Here we are, the EU’s smallest member state with the most devout Catholic population which calls its God 7.
It is interesting to note how a bunch of vague, popular notions can be turned into our national mission statement. Such a declared mission however risks remaining itself a vague notion, in the absence of a critical discourse that puts it to the test.
The discourse about Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean is in itself a development of our country’s former imperial role as a fortress colony. This had a historic precedent under the Knights, who despite their reluctance to settle in Malta in 1530 following their defeat by the Turks in Rhodes, ended up shaping Malta’s image as a bastion of Christianity. The French needed Malta in order to expand their empire southwards. The only role the British could envisage for Malta was purely as a military base, specifically for the Royal Navy. It was a role which diminished to irrelevance in less than two decades after World War II, but which the Maltese have somehow internalised in the perception of their country. In other words, a totally utilitarian need of our colonisers has been turned into an asset in the popular mindframe of independent Malta, a strategic position that is held to be useful no longer to conquest but to mediate and regulate the region within the European concerns for foreign policy and security.
But let’s not kid ourselves: we promise to mediate dialogue between two cultures when we are only interested in one. Despite all our declarations in good faith about our diverse Mediterranean elements that make us Maltese, our aspirations remain European, our models come from Brussels, we all look up north.
Perhaps rightly so, especially when it comes to social and economic development, although even here our reference point remains just a stereotype of Europe, which is basically northern, and which ignores the historical processes that made us different.
Indeed, my suspicion during the EU membership debate – if so it can be called – was that the continuous assertion of us being European, the need itself for saying so, could have been – at least to some degree – an expression of a desire to associate oneself with a particular stereotype of Europe.
Such a desire requires a constant distancing of oneself from the other, in this case the other being the Arabs. It requires handy labels such as Arabs and Europeans, a process of collective grouping of cultures and societies – diverse as they might be – into extreme poles, and confronting them in an infamous clash of civilisations‚ so that one could in turn easily associate himself with one or the other.
“With whom do they want to affiliate us, with Arabs?” That’s what David Casa had said during one of his Radio 101 programmes before the membership issue was solved once and for all.
It is clear that the apparently conflicting slogans that were being repeated in Malta, both for and against EU membership, form part of a wider imaginary distinction that has gained ground historically and is being passed as real to this present day; that between the West and the East. As the late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, has brilliantly shown in his seminal book, Orientalism, the West has managed to create the Orient successfully, to the point of conquering it intellectually and militarily, by producing a different, inferior, category of human beings in need of Western intervention. This socially constructed distinction has become so pervasive that one finds it deployed in virtually all sites of discourse; from the overtly political rhetoric to media reports, from literature to commonplace public statements denigrating the Arabs. Viewed in this context, two seemingly conflicting statements made by a minister and an MP in Opposition during the week-long Parliamentary debate on the EU referendum can be seen as falling into a much more coherent framework of discourse about us and the others. Then Minister for Economic Services, Josef Bonnici (now appointed EU Auditor by the government), said that “if we remain out (of the EU), we will be in the company of those other countries out of the EU in the Mediterranean, which are far worse than us”. On the previous day, Labour MP Adrian Vassallo made the same argument to reach the opposite conclusion. “Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean and EU membership will make Malta a frontier, just north of North Africa, where there are so many problems with fundamentalism,” he said, adding that “we already face enough problems with illegal immigrants and we’ll have to face far more when we become EU members”.
In contrast with our promise of bridging the north with the south, the articulation of our aspirations and sense of European belongingness, from the key opinion makers to public perceptions at grassroots levels, becomes problematic.
Because apart from our rich history and legacies which we evoke selectively – our language is a case in point: a Semitic language based on Arabic, which knows its origins as an Arabic dialect, written in Latin script, a Roman alphabet, full of Italian influences and with a rich English terminology assimilated in our vocabulary – we also have our own personal versions of Maltese identity, with all the grudges, biases and denials that come with the territory. Foremost among these is the popular perception of Arabs among the Maltese, one built on suspicion and prejudice, an evolution of the image of the Turkish infidels. The typical stereotype of the Arab is that of a male in his twenties who comes to Malta for a brief stay (they are never referred to as tourists) and who is either engaged in criminal activities or is a potential criminal. Such a perception had led a Bugibba night-club owner to display a sign, in Arabic, which said: “Arabs are not welcome here”. As Said repeatedly said, identity is established only in relation to what it is not.
Of course there are historical explanations behind such perceptions, ranging from negative popular reaction to Mintoff‚s close relations with Libya in the late ‘70s and ‘80, to the rate of crimes committed by Arab youth during their brief visits here, moving on to the increasingly frequent images of hundreds of poverty-stricken migrants from North Africa and the Middle East disembarking from sinking boats in search of the Promised Land. Reality and stereotypes feed off each other.
At a time when relations between North Africa and the West have become fashionable, we must surely realise that our perceptions of the Arab world are utterly limiting. As we recover from the accession celebrations hangover, we should be realising that the union we’ve joined is also made of single states taking initiatives with Europe’s neighbouring countries in their own interests. Also, images of none other than Col. Muammar Gaddafi himself standing side by side with Commission President Romano Prodi in Brussels last Wednesday should make us seriously re-evaluate our self-professed mission of mediation.
Needless to say, there’s so much more to EU membership, so many opportunities to grab, so many challenges to face. But once the euphoria subsides, it would be good to spare some thoughts on the promise we’ve made and how we intend to go about it.





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