When in 1533 Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave the Knights of St. John the choice of Malta or Tripoli as their new base, the knights reluctantly opted for Malta as they felt that nothing could be worse than Tripoli. I am sure that no one then realised that his offer would eventually lead to a small independent island state quite distinct from Sicily, from where it was hived off. Today Malta is not part of Italy as a direct result of this historical oddity.
Much later, Malta played a very important – but not so well known – part in the British overt and covert efforts to push for the unification of Italy. Britain was all for a unified Italian state that would be a counterbalance to mighty France in southern Europe. Garibaldi’s sojourn in Malta in 1864 and the harbouring of his supporters in Malta were no mere coincidence.
In 1940, Winston Churchill, it is recorded, even used Malta – unsuccessfully – to lure Benito Mussolini to join the allies rather than support Adolf Hitler. To this end, Churchill was willing to cede Malta, Gibraltar and Suez to Italy. Mussolini’s cynical calculations, however, pointed in another direction in the belief that eventually he would annex Malta to Italy in the wake of an axis victory. The fascists were so sure about this eventual victory that in one particular World War II fascist song, they even sang about it as if it had already happened:
‘Decima flottiglia nostra che beffasti l’Inghilterra/ vittoriosa ad Alessandria Malta Sudan e Gibilterra/ vittoriosa già sul mare ora pure sulla terra vincerai.’
But it was not to be and Mussolini’s efforts at referring to the Maltese as ‘fratelli d’oltre mar’ (brothers across the sea) only led to sad episodes of clashes between pro-Italian and pro-British factions in Malta. But that sort of bickering is long dead and buried.
Ever since Malta attained independence, Italy has been a steadfast friend. In the turbulent Mintoff days Aldo Moro had even supported Mintoff in his demands from the West, to the chagrin of the Nationalist party. But Moro had correctly reasoned that Malta’s proximity and friendliness with Italy is of a much more permanent nature than Mintoff’s hold on the island.
It therefore takes much more than a scurrilous, short-sighted politician from Italy’s half-crazed ‘Lega Nord’ – Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni – to undermine the healthy historical relationship between Malta and Italy. Maroni’s recent scathing attack on Malta, accusing it of failing to respect international obligations and dumping migrants on Italy was disgraceful and uncalled for – both in a historical context and in the context of the current illegal migration problems in the Mediterranean.
As Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said, Malta’s stand in the recent episode concerning the illegal migrants picked by a Turkish ship off the coast of Lampedusa was legally, morally and ethically correct. Whatever Maroni says.
Maroni is notorious for his racist views. Some time ago, in fact, the influential Italian Catholic magazine, ‘Famiglia Cristiana’, harshly criticized Maroni’s plan to toughen Italy’s immigration policy, saying it was similar to Italy’s Fascist-era racial laws
This is the second time this year that Maroni has been proved completely wrong on how to deal with the problems both Italy and Malta are facing because of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
Last January, he announced that all those arriving in Lampedusa without authorisation would be held on the island and that they will all be repatriated. There was, of course, an instant chorus of approval from Maltese bloggers whose right-wing views are as well known as their short-sightedness.
In fact, Maroni had declared he would be doing something that was impossible in practice. His statement provoked the mayor of Lampedusa to point out that when one is not certain of the country of origin of an immigrant, he or she could not be repatriated. As the number of people in Lampedusa’s immigrant detention centre grew to almost twice its official capacity, the mayor threatened to call for a general strike on the island.
At the end of the day, Maroni ‘discovered’ that he could only send back migrants that came from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as Italy has no agreements with war-torn countries such as Somalia, the original point of departure of many immigrants. This is a predicament in which Malta also finds itself.
Instead of swallowing his pride and relenting, Maroni has now turned his attention on tiny Malta. He now wants the world to believe that the problem is not his ill-thought out populist blustering statements and his bullying attitudes, and shift Italy’s legal responsibilities for migrants on Malta.
He has claimed that he is preparing a dossier purporting to prove that 40,000 migrants ended up in Italy because Malta did not intervene in some 600 rescue cases. This claim is as short-sighted as his previous statements. Malta has no obligation to pick up every illegal migrant crossing the Mediterranean and passing through its Search and Rescue (SAR) area. Indeed, every ship or boat has the right of safe passage in international waters and Malta is obliged to intervene in its SAR area only when the safety of human beings at sea is threatened. In his frenzy, Maroni, it seems, cannot understand this simple legal fact.
There is no doubt that the migrants who pay good money to illegal human traffickers for the privilege of making a dangerous sea trip across the Mediterranean do not head for Malta but to Italy, as a destination or as a gateway to other countries in mainland Europe. A few days ago, I watched a journalist in a news service on an Italian television station interviewing some of those same migrants who had been picked by the Turkish ship and who had eventually ended up in Sicily. All of them declared that their intention was to go to Italy. Nobody mentioned Malta! This indirectly confirmed how much Maroni’s attack on Malta was misguided and unreasonable.
Some observers perceive a possible ulterior motive behind this ‘squabble’. Malta’s SAR area – a relic from the time when our former colonialists, the British, ruled the roost in the Mediterranean - is enormous and stretches from east of Lampedusa to Crete in the west. It is out of proportion with our island’s actual size. Have Italy and Libya – from where most of the migrants embark on their ‘last’ part of their journey to Europe – set their eyes on reducing Malta’s SAR area and increasing theirs?
Increasing Italy’s SAR area in the region of Lampedusa would not help Maroni avoid migrants from landing in his country, and it would actually make matters worse from that point of view. However, the matter of who has the right to drill for oil in certain parts of the international waters in the Mediterranean has always been a bone of contention between Malta, Italy, Libya and Tunisia. Malta ceding part of its SAR area can indirectly put it at a disadvantage in this regard. Moreover Malta’s has also a large fight control region that practically mirrors its SAR area and this source of income for Malta could also be indirectly affected. So the suggestion of former Italian MP and currently AD leader, Arnold Cassola, that Malta should cede part of its SAR area is definitely not in Malta’s interest.
As more time passes, it is becoming more and more obvious that most of what is said by racist anti-immigrants in Malta and Italy – Maroni not excluded – is just a lot of hot air and that the approach hitherto adopted by the Maltese Government is not only correct but is also the only viable one in the circumstances.
After all, the real problems are in the countries of origin of these migrants – also our brother across the sea – and not in Malta, whatever Maroni thinks.