You can distinguish run-of-the-mill, mediocre politicians from the rare nuggets of excellence by their habit of being blind to anything that might happen after they’ve clocked out and retired.

Robert Abela is the patron saint of mediocre politicians. His anti-Europe tirade after the farmers’ protest last week identifies him as a bog standard, home-grown, tin-pot politician who survives by deflecting criticism, dodging responsibility and blaming others for his inadequacies.

There’s a pattern emerging. No one suggests that any prime minister should be all-powerful, which means no one suggests that a prime minister should carry responsibility for failures of institutions he has no control over. When bad things happen that are beyond the prime minister’s control, it is right that the prime minister distances himself and explains who did what wrong where.

But you don’t hear the prime minister often defining the limits of his authority, do you?

Consider this cheap ‘blame the EU’ tactic of Abela’s. I don’t offer myself as an expert on agricultural policy but I do know a bit about how European laws are made. I know it is perfectly possible that an EU law comes into being, with which the Maltese government does not agree. There are areas of policy (few, to be sure) where the objections of a country can be overridden by the intentions of the rest.

It turns out the laws that the farmers were protesting about were made with the Maltese government’s consent. If Abela now agrees with farmers that the rules they have been protesting are wrong and should not have been adopted, then the least he can do is accept that he didn’t realise that when the rules were being adopted.

Our bureaucracy is set up to monitor the adoption of every EU law. We have a massive embassy in Brussels, a fat bureaucracy in Valletta, and, at least in theory, legislative review processes in parliament and at the MCESD. We have consultative bodies, standing committees, and, lest anyone forgets, a government ministry with several departments managing agricultural policy. And we have a political party in government, which, presumably, has issue groups, vertical committees and a cohort of members who earn their living tilling the fields.

None of these raised any of the alarms that, after the farmers’ protests, Abela decries as self-evident. If the laws were so absurd to begin with, why hadn’t the Maltese authorities – so apparently in tune with the needs of local farmers – object to them?

Perhaps they could not have stopped them but that never meant they shouldn’t have tried. After all, if there is one major fault in the EU’s design, it is that it spends inordinate amounts of time seeking for compromises that even the smallest EU member State would be happy to sign up to.

Robert Abela is the patron saint of mediocre politicians

Twenty or so years ago, I would have waxed lyrical about the EU, back when joining it over the Labour Party’s objections could be described as something which barely remains in our politics today: an ideal. Now, the EU to me is more mundane, another branch of our government, a system with which we run our affairs as a community, a peaceful vehicle for persuasion through which we can try to promote other ideals that matter, such as peace, human rights and a fairer distribution of the community’s wealth.

I can be as romantic about the European Commission as, say, I could shed tears of passion for the land registry office or a hamlet’s administrative committee.

I am not offended by Abela blaming the EU for his failings because I have an emotional attachment to the EU. I am worried at his behaviour because Abela is exploiting his more advantageous relationship with his electorate to undermine other institutions of our democracy. He is sowing mistrust in the agencies that can keep him check.

The EU is, by definition, more distant from the lives of a Qrendi potato farmer than the local prime minister. It is quicker for Abela to show up for a photo. The many faces of the EU’s pluralist institution make it look faceless, in contrast with Abela’s grinning mug that is in your face all the time.

Consider that Abela doesn’t just do this with ‘Brussels’. He’s doing it with the Maltese judiciary, turning the criminal cover-up of the corruption in his party into attacks on judges whose faces most people in the country will never have seen. In a line-up and without a toga, Maltese people would only pick out Joe Mifsud. None of the other names – Gabriella Vella, Ian Farrugia, Joanne Vella Cuschieri, Mark Chetcuti, and so on – mean anything to most people.

Which makes judges ideal candidates to the rank of ‘enemies of the people’ if they are nominated by Abela who has the face most people see more often than their own mother’s.

Living in a democracy means we get to know the executives who run our government before we can vote for them and place them in office. But this is not only a democracy. It is a republic, which means it is not just governed by people whom we choose, it is also governed by laws and structures. And the people we choose are also governed by those laws and structures.

Abela shoots these missiles at institutions that the law says must not be in his control and blames them for his faults because he knows that, unlike him (the leader of a political party who is on TV all the damn time), they don’t have the means to respond to him.

People believe all sort of weird things from their politicians. And riled up enough, when things aren’t working properly, it is easier for people to mistrust faceless judges or Eurocrats they do not know than to blame themselves for electing incompetent fools to run their government.

I remember a time when I wondered how the Italians, whom I knew from TV to be amiable, cultured and sophisticated, once chose Benito Mussolini to run their country. I stopped wondering when I saw how years of idiotic politicking on apocryphal EU rules on banana curvatures culminated in Brexit or how years of polarised, hate-filled Tea Party rhetoric culminated in Donald Trump.

Abela is reading that playbook. And he’s acting it out. While you think it’s everybody else’s fault, he expects you to thank him for being him. He doesn’t care about the mess he’ll leave you with after he retires.

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