It may be a small sovereign state but ‘Malta’ is also an archipelago with two main inhabited islands. This important detail is camouflaged in the way in which the name of the state (Malta) is also the name of the main island (Malta) – a common situation in many island jurisdictions.
The short stretch of water in between our two inhabited islands creates a rich, inter-island dynamic that envelops and shapes the lives of most Gozitans, many Maltese, and various other identifiable subgroups (including government ministers, workers, students, day trippers, tourists, entrepreneurs, second-home owners, truckers, ferry employees).
And yet, such turbulent life courses and multiple identities only seem to come together physically and tangibly in the fleeting ferry crossing proper.
It is during that brief and mobile time-and-place capsule, where the captive audience of locals and tourists – a cross-section of Maltese society – is literally forced to mix and mingle, in the compressed quarters of cafeterias, car and passenger decks, hallways, stairways and washrooms. And it is also only there, close to the centre of the channel, that Malta and Gozo physically loom as large, or as small, as each other, inviting shifting, alternative and unsettling conceptualisations of core and periphery, of mainland and outback. There is no other place quite like it in the Maltese Islands.
We need a fresh, archipelagic framework to better understand how we strategically live out this multi-island reality, even though we may try to camouflage it in our essentialist and unitarist discourse. Whether it is for matters regarding work, business, leisure or education (amongst other concerns), many Maltese and most (perhaps all?)
The short stretch of water in between our two inhabited islands creates a rich, inter-island dynamic that envelops and shapes the lives of most Gozitans, many Maltese
Gozitans, need to weave an appreciation of what has (so far) been the irrefutable physical bimodality of their/our lives in Malta (the country).
We therefore need to navigate the Gozo Channel, but while doing so in different ways, we tend to consider the same basic set of questions: weighing the opportunity costs of crossing over; how much time to, and can we afford to, spend ‘on the other side’; how well are our short and long-term interests satisfied by a quick visit, a long sojourn, an investment, on the other island; and whether we could get what we want – public services, expertise, careers, training, consumer goods – over to us for a change, rather than us having to travel every time.
These are also the key questions that need to be asked when debating the social and economic pros and cons of building a fixed link (in our case, either a tunnel or a bridge) between Gozo and Malta (the island). The presumed impact of a Gozo-Malta link will be appraised in light of the transactional psycho-social analysis that each one of us performs in navigating, or not navigating, the Gozo Channel.
Should there be a referendum about a fixed link, it would be determined and decided by the sum total of some fairly basic and personal interpretations and valuations of: difference versus similarity; or accessibility versus remoteness; of ease versus discomfort.
In our contemporary technological age, what used to be given facts of life have been transformed into problems that call for solutions. The Gozo Channel risks being similarly reconfigured: it has been a natural liquid expanse between our two island worlds, with its dangers (lurking pirates on or around Comino; loss of life at sea; loss of connectivity in bad weather) and its pleasures (part of the fun of a day trip to the other island; a watery defence for the stark differences between the two islands’ social and ecological fabric). But, increasingly, it is now portrayed as a nagging obstruction and a source of distress. In an age of solutionism, and assuming that the financing will be in place, geo-engineering always throws up a solution. And pricing strategies can play around with access: setting higher bridge or tunnel fees would make a place feel further away, to all or some commuters; setting lower bridge or tunnel fees, or none at all, would make a place feel much closer.
But: approaching and choosing between a range of solutions would and should only happen if the Gozo Channel is a problem in our minds, and our lives, in the first place.
Godfrey Baldacchino is Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta and editor of Bridging Islands: The Impact of Fixed Links.