Interview | Sunday, 18 January 2009

Memory and identity

The world is changing, but the staunchly Catholic Eddie Fenech Adami says he is not one for turning…

It’s Monday morning when I meet Eddie Fenech Adami, and there is still no official confirmation of former Labour deputy leader George Abela having been nominated as his successor by Lawrence Gonzi. The Sunday papers ran riot with the news, first leaked from Castille on Friday, prompting urgent parliamentary group meetings inside Labour and the PN on Monday morning.
With nothing official yet, Fenech Adami shows reticence on commenting about a president-designate.
“I have no doubt he has positive qualities… for me he is suitable for the presidency, as so many others are,” he says about Abela, the man who (as Ranier Fsadni reminded us this week) did “backroom work” for Labour for the 1981 election, and who formed part of the MLP’s winning triumvirate in the 1996 general election, the one which Fenech Adami and his strategy team did not expect to lose.
Unlike the apparent palatability of the uncontroversial Abela, who never contested a single general election, Fenech Adami enjoyed little of this warm reception when he was nominated for president. Despite his 15-year premiership in which he steered the island into the European Union, his appointment incensed critics and was undoubtedly resented by the Labour electorate.
“I wasn’t surprised. I understood those who found difficulty with my nomination,” he says, having acknowledged as much in his inauguration speech in 2004.
As he himself concedes when I ask him whether he had any regrets on his political career, “objectively it is possible that in certain occasions I went beyond the limits and was too confrontational. By and large my actions and thoughts were in conformity with what I believe and with what I always believed to be good for the country.”
“Personally my reaction to the criticism was that my motto had always been ‘to serve’, and I was called upon to keep on serving the country… I think it’s an incongruity to say politicians should be excluded from the presidency… In many countries, nominations are always for people hailing from the political world. The presidency naturally requires acting in the most objective of manners, set apart from past political affiliations. I think this applied to myself as much as it did to all my predecessors.”
But isn’t it also positive to see somebody not hailing from the ruling party being appointed president?
“What’s important is that the person is fit for the role. Certainly, George Abela is idoneous for this nomination, as many other people are,” Fenech Adami says, adding that as prime minister he had made an attempt to nominate a person who didn’t hail from the world of politics. “There are many such people who are also suitable for this nomination.”
As president, Fenech Adami is the last in a long line of Nationalist grandees whose political formation belongs to a generation almost nobody from the new cadre of MPs hails from. The grand days of Christian-democracy, which saw the creation of the European Community, now seem over: surpassed by the transformational, pragmatist multi-parties of the new Europe. In 2003 at 69, Fenech Adami was one of the oldest and longest-serving prime ministers of Europe, bridging two completely different generations at the cusp of European membership.
Despite the emancipatory role the EU was expected to play in the rapidly changing Maltese society, Fenech Adami refuted the ideological postmodernism of Europe. A staunch Catholic and a believer in the free market (albeit “one bridled by social principles”), he “normalised” the Malta he inherited from Labour in 1987 but the prosperity he heralded also brought with it the “erosion of traditional values” he so cherishes.
Among them is his own religious formation, to which he profusely pays tribute when I ask him about its importance in his life.
“I’ve always publicly stated that I am a man ‘who believes’. By that I mean I have a strong conviction in what I believe. It was my grace to have been born in Malta, into a Catholic family, lived in a Catholic environment… ‘who I am’ is a product of our country’s Catholic milieu.”
With this same treatment, Fenech Adami traces a historic line back to St Paul’s shipwreck of 60AD, what he calls the “strong imprint” on Maltese identity. Barring the 200 years of Arab occupation, he says Maltese culture is clearly “a product of Catholic values.”
“I have often spoken about Malta’s identity. ‘Who are we?’ is a question many countries are asking themselves, and it’s important that the Maltese analyse themselves and ask who they are. I think it should be an analysis of history and culture. Our history is built upon Catholic values, tied to events of national importance which we are proud to celebrate, say Victory Day on 8 September,” he says about the victory of the Knights of St John in 1565 over the Ottoman marauders.
This Catholic identity, he says, is what gave the Maltese a particular characteristic in its formula for progress: “the value of the family. We are known, at least more in the past, for having families who would do anything to see their members prosper. It implies a quality of industriousness in the Maltese.
“One main characteristic of the Maltese that emerged during the credit crunch was their thriftiness; it’s part of the Maltese character, that is tied to the family. And this was important to the development of our economy. I attribute it to our intimacy with Catholic values.”
But although the financial crisis had its silver lining, “It got everyone to question the route we were taking”. This did nothing to throw into doubt his dearly held conviction of the validity of the free market. “…for me, there is no doubt the theories of capitalism and the free market are proven by facts. The free market delivers the goods.
“But I was always of the opinion that the free market should be bridled by social principles. We shouldn’t talk only about the free market, but also about the social market… we haven’t yet seen the worse consequences of the crisis, and this year will be one in which there will be graver consequences on other economies.”
Here, then, was the ideological foundation of Fenech Adami’s political legacy: a commitment to free market values, coated by this thick veneer of Catholic influence.
But below the surface, the reality of Maltese society was very different. The 1990s saw an alarming rate of unravelling marriages and broken families, and with the progress of the free market economy came a questionable environmental record. Had this inherent contradiction of his administration been the price of the progress it heralded?
Fenech Adami points an accusatory finger away beyond Malta’s shores.
“I think they were social changes visited upon us by globalisation. We were pretty much a closed society, being an island, with the waves of change hitting us long after they would have reached Europe. In today’s world of instant communication, the effects of change are more immediate and Maltese society is no longer resistant to what does not fit in with its traditional culture.”
He breaks off, reverting momentarily to the “one true family” which he describes as “a married man and woman, with their children”.
“Today, the term ‘family’ is used to describe other situations… But it would be a big mistake to equate them, even in definition, to the true family. This is an effect of the ideas prevailing in the world around us, particularly in Europe.”
Fenech Adami is quick to show his annoyance at the unravelling of the grand ideas and big certainties that were crucial in his own political formation.
“Whereas before we accepted certainties, today everyone doubts and asks whether something is a certainty ‘because I’ve been told it is so’, or whether ‘I should rationally arrive to the point where I accept it or not’. I think this is the biggest danger facing modern culture, where everyone thinks they themselves can be judges and that nothing is objectively true.”
Clearly, he’s no fan of those who question such foundational principles. “I think we have to look to our Catholic beliefs, that certainties do exist and that values are not relative but that there are objectively true values we must embrace.”
But does that mean that a President should refuse to sign legislation that clashes with his personal religious conviction?
“I think the Head of State, not only Malta’s, surely must conform to his own principles. Recent occasions where heads of state had qualms of conscience in approving laws include that of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg’s opposition to a Bill allowing euthanasia. Previously there was the case of the Belgian king who abdicated temporarily over an abortion Bill,” Fenech Adami says, clearly still the same man who back in 2005 told this newspaper that divorce would not be introduced during his presidency.
Since then, both John Dalli and Gonzi mentioned the need for a national discussion on divorce, while Joseph Muscat even toyed with a private member’s bill on divorce. Isn’t this the slow start towards the introduction of divorce?
“I think the amount of broken families today informs the discussion on divorce. In other occasions I expressed my opposition to divorce, both notionally and in principle, and my belief that it does not really solve social problems. I’ve always hoped we do not arrive at the stage where we see a law on divorce as necessary. Despite the difficulties facing married people, divorce is not a solution to the circumstances we find ourselves in today.”
But how far should a Maltese president allow religion to get in the way of a future Bill on divorce?
“I have no doubt that a President is the reflection of Maltese culture and identity,” Fenech Adami says, emphasising that the Maltese “do have an identity” and that the President should be “the embodiment of this identity.”
He quotes Pope John Paul II’s last book, Memory and Identity, a recurrent reference point for him. “A nation must have the memory of its history to keep its identity… the same goes for Malta if we are to keep our national identity, and we cannot ignore our history, which as I said is tied intimately to our Catholic beliefs.”
So where will that leave others with different ‘identities’, or those with different families? Fenech Adami says tolerance and respect for the dignity of the person are “fundamental. You cannot stifle a person’s identity.”
But he brings up once again the postmodern challenge to those certainties he cherishes. “I have no doubt that the social order requires stable families, and this in turn means permanent marriage. This is a fundamental point for me, that is not up for discussion… While today everything is open to discussion, the truth is that man’s nature is identifiable, what gives dignity to man is recognisable, and this has to be respected.”
But we can equally talk of a tyranny of majority belief, even in Malta, one buttressed by strong Catholic principles such as the Gift of Life movement, with the pressure it exerts on politicians to entrench abortion in the Constitution.
“I think we should clarify matters here. That there should be Constitutional protection of the embryo from life’s inception, I think it’s an interpretation of what already exists in the Constitution… to have a defence of the person, with all its human rights, from the moment of conception, I agree and I add that it would not be something new in the Constitution. It would only make clear what is already there.”
But he surprises me on the issue of entrenchment.
“If you ask me whether there should be a prohibition of abortion in Constitution, or as proposed an entrenchment of the Criminal Code’s provisions on abortion, I don’t agree with that.”
It’s a reassuring parting shot from a man who, perhaps for the first time in his political career, has no plans for the future.
“No plans, but to be free to do what I want from one day to the other.”

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