INTERVIEW | Sunday, 02 December 2007

Don’t look back in anger

It takes the experience of a former empire that created the world’s most brutal dictators to shift a vote on the Commonwealth for its secretary general. Foreign Minister MICHAEL FRENDO knows there were way too many backdoor dealings to keep up with his Indian contender for the post, despite Britain’s pretence of neutrality.


Michael Frendo is not a vindictive man. If he were, he would have a great arsenal of historic tragedies to resort to in reminding Britain not to mess any further in world affairs – from the India-Pakistan disaster to the latest war in Iraq killing millions of civilians and displacing innocent families from their war-torn countries.
But besides his sensible character, it must not be easy maintaining a sense of diplomacy in the face of the typical British deadpan nature while knowing they are trying to shaft you.
As foreign minister and seasoned politician, Frendo must also know it’s no easy task to convince a motley crew of tyrants, dictators, kings, queens and some elected heads of governments to support him in the face of their former colonisers’ bullying – my words, not his.
As he recovers from months of aggressive campaigning around the world for the post of the Commonwealth’s secretary general, Frendo admits his disappointment at having the post snatched from him, and from Malta, in a last-minute turn that changed the tide of things.
There is also a tinge of bitterness, maybe some resentment, but in his customary upbeat mode he prefers looking at the good that came out of all this.
“We put up a very good show,” he tells me back in his office which served as Napoleon’s bedroom during his brief stay in 1800 before elements of Maltese society helped the British invade the islands.
It’s a bit of a diplomatic cold war with the UK right now, characterised by long silences and loaded understatement. Frendo spit it out last week in Uganda when he thanked only Cyprus as the only EU member in the Commonwealth to support him.
“Britain did not take a stand on this,” he says. “As a policy they never promise who they are going to vote for, but there was no clear support for our candidature. I did ask to be listened to, I put my case, I had a meeting with David Milliband on the margins of the UN general assembly, our prime minister also spoke to both Blair and Brown, so we did lobby them. It was unclear where the political side was. There was information in both directions.
“Cyprus on the other hand was a country that once we announced the candidature issued a public note-verbal saying that they support us. And more than that: they were given instructions to use all their embassies and high commissions, their foreign minister lobbied alongside me, and gave us their full support of the highest degree. We’re EU members like them. We are close, as realities, we are the only small island states in the EU, and Malta has supported them also in many, many instances and I know they are very grateful for a number of interventions that I have made, particularly on the issue of the unity of the island and on the issue that part of Cyprus was invaded by another power. They have been true friends.”
An amazingly sympathetic David Frost even told the world on Al Jazeera that Frendo ‘might well be the next secretary general’ on the eve of the election last week, but something went wrong.
“We were moving uphill,” Frendo says. “We knew it was uphill in terms of the fact that I come from a small island state and the other candidate has the strength of India behind him. I knew I had to make even more effort, but that is normal for people from small states. But I was gaining ground and support was building up. I’ve always said it’s a closed box. I did feel that we were actually very close to each other as we were approaching Kampala. And I think that on Friday we could have had the edge, but that was a sensation coming from around the table in the reaction of people and in the soundings. We were receiving soundings that we could be slightly ahead, and I suppose Sir David Frost was receiving the same information. He surprised me with the way he put that question. I think what could have happened was that we were not the only ones to receive this information but India too. India had come there with a jumbo jet and we were a team of about 10.”
Frendo says it is more disappointment than bitterness that he’s feeling.
“I think that we should have beaten the other candidate on the level of the candidacy. I feel very strongly that I could have made an important contribution to the Commonwealth in terms of development policy, good governance but also in terms of the realities of small island states and also in the fact that we straddle both realities of the Commonwealth and the EU. It would have been a good moment to engage the Commonwealth in the EU, particularly in Commonwealth programmes using EU development funds, which would make the Commonwealth a much better vehicle of delivery for programmes. I feel a sense of loss of not being able to give my contribution to development from that platform. Bitterness? I don’t think it’s bitterness, it’s more disappointment.”
The British High Commissioner in Malta, Nick Archer, has denied talk of betrayal towards Malta – the feeling shared by some of the highest government circles.
Frendo explains: “First of all nothing should be personalised on Nick Archer. He’s the British High Commissioner at the end of the day. The issue is: did Britain make a promise? No. Were we expecting one? We would really have valued their support because it would have helped tremendously, not just for the Commonwealth but also for the comfort with which the EU could actually have come to support the candidature. We could have had the support of all EU members had Britain come on board.”
No support, therefore, despite Frendo’s initiative at getting an outright condemnation of Iran after it arrested 15 British soldiers in its territory last March.
“I would do it again,” he says today, “because it’s something I believe had to be done. When we discussed the text at the European Union I noticed it was going to be very similar to the UN document, and I felt that the EU should come out with a stronger statement because of solidarity with its members. That aspect is very important. We in the EU should show solidarity whenever one of us has a crisis with someone outside the EU. So I felt very strongly about it, and that’s how it went, there was an outright condemnation of Iran.”
Now the Commonwealth will have an ageing Indian diplomat with no political experience as its secretary general – an explosive situation when it gets to dealing with Pakistan given the two countries’ historic border wars.
“This factor did not come into the equation, in my opinion,” Frendo says about the choice of Kamalesh Sharma, the former Indian high commissioner in London. “I think in the end it was an issue of India versus Malta, and once you put it in that context, once India had just lost its context for UN secretary general, then it becomes extraordinarily important for them to win there.
“The choice that was made also reflects what people might want from the Commonwealth. There was a choice to be made between a politician and an ambassador, between someone who worked his way in the prestigious offices of diplomacy and someone who comes from the rough and tumble of political life. The outgoing secretary general was a foreign minister. The choice that was made now I believe also reflects whether we want the Commonwealth to be run by someone who has political experience or simply by someone who is in diplomacy.”
Archer actually claimed he could understand it was the Asians’ round to head the Commonwealth now – a position also supported by The Times in its editorial last Monday.
“It was a line that India tried to put across in its campaign,” Frendo says. “When people asked me to respond to that, I referred them to what the outgoing secretary general said – that there is no such thing written anywhere. When would Malta’s turn be, then? If there’s rotation one assumes that one day we’ll get the post by default. When is that going to happen?
“I don’t believe that should be the issue. I think with the Commonwealth’s secretary general it should be about the candidates, who is the best person to run it, irrespective of where that person comes from, irrespective of the person’s ethnic origin.
“If the Commonwealth gets into that logic it loses much of its strength. If you had to turn to that logic then one might well argue it was the turn of the small island states, who have never made it to the post, and the Commonwealth has a great number of small island states.
“This election has put doubts into my head as to whether someone from a small island state can ever have a chance of making it on that level. This was an opportunity for the international community to show this is not just a place for the big boys. This was an opportunity to show that there is also space for people with political experience and a proven record on the Commonwealth.”
About the editorial line taken by The Times after the Indian’s election, Frendo says: “The idea that it was Asia’s turn is a notion that does a disservice to the world, and also puts the Commonwealth in the logic of UN agencies. If that’s how the Commonwealth behaved, and that’s a possibility, then it would be a new thing for the Commonwealth because it has never been an accepted argument, the regional argument, and a great loss for the balance with which the Commonwealth has operated so far. If that’s how they want it to be then they should change the rules and call for candidates from a given region, but that would be a great loss.”
His advice to any future Maltese candidates for the post would be: wait till late before announcing your candidature, travel as much as possible to lobby, and get the unequivocal public support of one or two larger states.
“This election showed that if the larger states get together, then they will cloud the sun. And when the sun is clouded they might even cloud people’s thinking,” he tells me.
People’s thinking may also get clouded when they heard Archer telling the world that the Queen’s visit to the islands on her diamond anniversary on her way to Uganda was just “a happy coincidence”. Was the high commissioner of any help when he said that?
“Not really. I don’t think this was an issue that was discussed in Kampala, though.”
Is it true, however, that she came here by “a happy coincidence”?
“That she came here by coincidence? I can’t understand if this was a problem of expression. I believe she came here because she had a special place in her heart for this country. I accompanied the Queen when she was here in 1992, and it was very clear to me that this was her second home, and people treated her as if she was their Queen. You could feel it; they had affection for the person who remembers all sorts of places when she was still a princess. So I suppose there’s a certain nostalgia in it. Coming here on her diamond anniversary by coincidence? I don’t know what that means. What’s the coincidence?”
Now, facing a desk immersed in files, letters and reports, he also has to get back to the 10th district – a veritable sea of sharks where his own party colleagues are not only going around trying to rob his votes but even his canvassers. Does he think all these months away from his constituents will project him as out of touch, or as a high-flying Maltese who almost made it up there and who therefore warrants their vote?
“I have always contested in very difficult districts, and they’re very highly contested. When you’re doing the work of foreign minister, as all foreign ministers around the world know, you are always a high risk individual in terms of constituencies. If you’re doing your job well you just can’t stay behind the desk, you have to get out and reach out to other countries. And that cuts you off, but it’s an apparent detachment because ultimately you’re working for your constituency and your country in trying to attract investment, putting across our views, showing we’re active players and all the time building the image of our country that has a tremendous effect on the economy.”
Is he concerned of the conservative streak taking over the PN?
“I don’t think that’s the case, we have always been a broad church. We are the outcome of a nationalist movement started a couple of centuries ago, an amalgam, and we need to keep that factor. Sometimes the party might emphasise one side more than another but it remains a broad church.
“We are perhaps the only country in the EU that is absolutely against abortion. This raises eyebrows because it is a categorical position, but you can see that there is no political force in Malta that is pro-abortion, and speaking to the people in the street you will find no social pressure to introduce abortion. So we have to reflect that. We might be completely misunderstood on the EU, but that’s it.
“There are some positions in life where you have to stick to your principles. For example we have been very clearly in favour of Palestinians having their own state. When we joined the EU there were countries that thought we should leave the UN committee on the inalienable rights of the Palestinians. I resisted that very strongly. Not only we will not leave, Cyprus stayed with us, we remained rapporteurs and I invited others so that maybe they should join us.
Would he feel comfortable entrenching anti-abortion laws in the Constitution?
“I don’t believe this is any more on the cards.”
Yet, a petition was presented by Gift of Life to Frendo’s deputy leader last week.
“I really don’t think this is something that is very much on the cards at this stage. I am very strongly against abortion, I find it abhorrent, I find it very difficult how people can accept it on a moral plain, but I don’t think this Constitutional amendment is on the cards.”
Meanwhile, the Maltese embassy in Ireland remains without an ambassador since Richard Muscat’s resignation following revelations about a police report alleging that his son had groped a woman, although the police never got to charging the diplomat’s son who was enjoying diplomatic immunity until his father’s resignation.
Frendo has no hurry to fill the post. “We have a charge d’affaires heading our embassy and that puts us on the same level as the Irish embassy in Malta,” he says.
Muscat was quoted in the Irish press as saying he doesn’t know where his next posting will be. Are you seriously considering taking him back? “There are no posts available at the moment.”
Did you feel betrayed when you got to know about his son’s case through the Irish press in the most explosive way, shortly after you reappointed him?
“I was very unhappy about that, and that’s a euphemism. And I think one must also be considerate there. We are not only ambassadors or politicians, we are also fathers, we can sometimes go into that mode. I understand that. However I was clearly very disappointed that I had no clue about his son’s case, and there was no way I could get to know about it.”
Was it really your idea to reappoint him earlier this year after the VOM fiasco? Everyone out there believes his reappointment was merely the PN’s way of thanking Richard’s self-imposed exile in Sicily in Mintoff’s years when he broadcast the party’s clandestine messages.
“Don’t mix one thing with the other. Richard gave a major contribution to this country. It was a courageous decision to go abroad and carry out what he did and that meant that if things did not change in 1987 he would have had to remain there. He was taking a hell of a risk, never knowing when he could come back to Malta. Everyone owes a lot of respect to Richard for that.
“The reason why I decided to extend his appointment for a year – it was not a reappointment, it’s a normal one-year extension we do with ambassadors after three year – the reason is in the letter which I sent him and which I published. The reason is the Labour Party itself was saying the VOM report was inconclusive and they wanted to scrape further. The chairman of the public accounts committee himself said so. And therefore it was on that basis – why should I be the judge when everyone is saying it was inconclusive? Obviously I did not know at that time that there was the other case.”
Now, just like the Commonwealth experience, Muscat is case closed for Frendo.

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