Britain intends keeping its vote and lobbying for the Commonwealth Secretary General a closely guarded secret amid accusations of double dealing and betrayal of a fellow EU member resulting in Foreign Minister Michael Frendo’s candidature being turned down last Saturday.
Reacting to MaltaToday’s story on Sunday, British High Commissioner to Malta Nick Archer denied that Britain lobbied for Frendo’s contender for the post, Indian national Kamalesh Sharma, although he declined to elaborate on Britain’s choice.
He also informed MaltaToday editor and presenter of TVM programme Reporter Saviour Balzan that he was pulling out of an interview he had agreed to give on the programme, calling the story “extraordinary and factually incorrect”.
But Frendo was unequivocal in his comments to the press shortly after the vote when he thanked Cyprus as the only other EU member on the Commonwealth, besides Britain, to have supported his bid.
“Cyprus have shown everyone what solidarity means; what it means to back an EU member in such a bid,” Frendo said. “Their solidarity was crystal clear, unequivocal and honest.”
Archer claimed revealing Britain’s choice would dent the whole process, in which the vote is always suppressed and turned into a “unanimous approval” of the elected candidate irrespective of the result that is kept secret.
“We cannot say for whom the UK voted; to do so would undermine the Commonwealth’s system for identifying new Secretaries General, so it goes far beyond us and you and India,” Archer said yesterday. “Only Dr Frendo can explain his words, but clearly we did not declare for either country as Cyprus did for Malta.”
The British diplomat also dismissed as “nonsense” the feeling shared by the foreign office and the office of the prime minister that he had snubbed Malta in harping on the claim that the Queen’s visit to Malta on her diamond anniversary was just “a happy coincidence” on her way to Uganda.
“Archer wanted to tell the world Malta was no more important than any other country, despite its EU membership, as the world’s press was talking about the Queen going to Uganda from Malta,” government sources said. “It was a clear message of Britain’s support for India.”
“I did not ‘harp on’,” Archer rebutted yesterday night. “The phrase ‘a happy coincidence’ was repeated more by the media than me. Particularly with British media representatives in the room, and with expectations in the UK and Malta running high, I had to be clear about what the visit was, and was not, not least because the Queen had time for only one public engagement. The phrase I used conveyed a sense of a bonus, the more delightful for being unlooked for. But I know now that it doesn’t translate.”
Archer added Britain had nothing to make up for in the face of Malta’s clear disappointment at the way his country dealt with it.
“We have nothing to ‘make up’,” he said. “We carry on doing what we are doing; supporting and working with Malta in ways which matter – notably on the migration agenda and in Europe.”
Meanwhile Archer also defended the Indian’s reluctance to say anything relevant about the Pakistan crisis upon his election.
“Pakistan was the subject of very extensive comment by the outgoing secretary general, the British Foreign Secretary, Dr Frendo and others after its suspension,” he said. “CMAG will continue to lead the Commonwealth effort on Pakistan. It doesn’t surprise us that the incoming Secretary General chose to emphasise other more positive aspects of the Commonwealth, and of his mission.
“We’ll continue our own efforts with both sides (Pakistan and India). In the Commonwealth context remember that, as Dr Frendo has commented, the secretary general acts on behalf of the governments he represents. At some point Dr Sharma’s Indian connections may help. But history teaches us not to over-stress the secretary general’s nationality.”
And writing in his blog, Archer said he could “hardly believe his eyes” at the MaltaToday reporting, going on to praise the line adopted by The Times.
“There have been some strange things written here about the British attitude to Michael Frendo’s Commonwealth candidacy. ‘Betrayal’? ‘Unashamed double-dealing’? I could hardly believe my eyes. This implies our reneging on some promise to Malta, or at least our giving different messages to different people. We made none and gave none; indeed the British have to be more careful than most about expressing preferences, given the Commonwealth’s history. Somebody’s letting off steam. … As for choosing Secretaries General – Monday’s Times editorial is admirably clear. There is a strong sense in the Commonwealth that the job should rotate region by region and between the more and less developed. Once you get over where they are, Malta and New Zealand have a good deal in common. It was always going to be a tough one and many thought it was ‘Asia’s turn’.
“I’m personally very sad that Michael Frendo didn’t make it – I think he’d have been an excellent choice – but I understand why – and hope these spasms of bitterness don’t persist.”
Meanwhile, MaltaToday accepts that the British High Commissioner never used the phrase ‘a mere coincidence’ which was attributed to him last Sunday in relation to the recent visit of The Queen, and that he did not, therefore, seek to create this impression of it.’ His correct phrase was ‘a happy coincidence’.