When the Maltese finally waved the British armed forces goodbye in 1979, it never felt like they were getting rid of an alien oppressor. They continued to respect the English and have remained close ever since. The Maltese like the British and admire their level-headedness.
This is why they watched with bewilderment the increasingly irrational debates about the Scottish referendum and why they worry now about the ‘Brexit’ referendum, which will decide whether Britain quits the EU for good.
All of a sudden, a country of shrewd traders, bankers and accountants is steeped in deep emotions that wreck friendships and divide families.
Everybody knows it’s not about the economy. The world’s leading financial institutions – the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD – are unanimous in their negative outlook on the UK leaving Europe.
It’s not about British influence in the world, or sovereignty. Every friendly nation is worried about Britain’s diminished role if it quits the EU, with the exception of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
It’s not even about the much-lamented EU bureaucracy or the lack of influence over the EU. The EU has been shaped over the years much in favour of England. The last round of special exceptions negotiated by Prime Minister David Cameron cemented its role outside the currency block, outside the border-free Schengen agreement and outside its banking regulation, with the infamous agricultural ‘rebate’ untouched.
The English see their National Health Service, their pension provisions, housing needs and educational system over-stretched and underfunded, their local communities burdened by segregation and inequality. But they blame the EU for it, not their own austerity policies or failing community programmes.
They see refugees flooding into Europe and want to raise the drawbridge. They see the bloodbaths of Paris and Brussels and think the suicide bombings of July 7, 2005, will never happen again if they only quit the EU.
They are afraid of Polish plumbers, Romanian tourists, Russian oligarchs and Asian students – all net contributors to the UK budget rather than a fiscal burden. And they are rightly scared by the Muslim extremism which has grown in their midst. Now they want to turn the clock back, tend to their gardens and just have a nice cuppa in peace.
Call it globalisation fatigue; a deep-felt unease, understandable, yet irrational, because it cannot make the 21st century go away to make place for Downton Abbey. It is parochial. And many things more sinister than that. But sadly, it is not a domestic, English affair. It is affecting us in Malta a great deal more than we realise.
First, if the UK really quits, its net contributions of €7.5 billion in 2015 have to be picked up by other countries, which might not be immediately ready to do so. In 2014, Malta paid €66 million into the EU budget and received €255 million in grants and subsidies. The EU’s net payment to Malta was therefore €189 million, or €450 for every Maltese from toddler to doter, of which €45 were paid by the UK.
All of a sudden the legal status of English people living in Malta or of Maltese living in England is in doubt. Will they be kicked out? Will the Maltese have to refuse residency to the British?
It will be more difficult for Maltese children to study in the UK, and if they do, final degrees may not be recognised in Europe. Police cooperation will be more convoluted and extradition requests or legal claims will go unheeded.
Should our children write to the Queen? Should we march to Trafalgar Square?
When in January 2017 the EU abolishes mobile roaming charges, we will still have to pay them in the UK, and so will British citizens visiting Malta. When we fly into Heathrow we may have to queue with US or Chinese travellers.
Our right to work in the UK will be annulled and Brits will no longer be able to work freely in Malta, no matter if they are bankers, accountants, hotel managers or gardeners.
The mere possibility of the UK, on June 23, deciding to leave is already impacting Malta via the exchange rate. The British pound has lost value, which makes it more expensive for British tourists to visit and tightens the household budgets of British pensioners living here.
Malta’s language schools will lose out in favour of UK competitors and exports to the UK will become more difficult. The service industry is clearly challenged: banking, accounting, transport, tourism have all already become less competitive when compared to the UK.
The Maltese have all started to pay for the mere possibility of a Brexit, and would have to suffer greatly in the event.
The truly catastrophic, long-term damage though will be to the European project as a whole. If the UK secedes, Poland, Spain or Italy, for instance, could follow suit. And it is far from clear how long Germany would stay put.
European defence and border control will slip back to a mere national level instead of countries working more concertedly and effectively.
It may well be the death knell for the euro too. Markets will start to scrutinise each and every country for hidden financial corpses. It will start with the UK, then Italy, and eventually reach Malta. Remember the upheaval when Greece almost dropped out of the eurozone? Now try to imagine what will happen when the UK, Europe’s second biggest economy, leaves.
What should be done? Should we try to talk to every Englishman we know? Should our government make an official appeal to the UK, as old friends and staunch allies in World War II? Should our children write to the Queen? Should we march to Trafalgar Square?
All of that and more – this imminent threat must be confronted by all possible and impossible means.
Yet, strange as it may sound, we have an even stronger weapon: we actually do have a primary voice in this. Unlike any other European nation, we are a member of the Commonwealth. And therefore every Maltese living and working in London can cast a vote in this referendum.
I believe it is the national duty of the Maltese to make their voice heard, not only with friends and colleagues but at the ballot box.
Dear expat Maltese, please vote in favour of Europe. Too much depends on it.
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