“It wasn’t in our manifesto.” This, according to the Prime Minister, is an adequate response to the question of voting rights for non-EU resident foreigners.

As reported, the matter was raised at a Cabinet meeting by Minister Helena Dalli, who tabled a position paper and proposed a study that would look into it. It seems the idea was taken out and shot without so much as a semblance of a trial. The members of the Cabinet were having none of it, with one even asking if we wanted an African mayor in Marsa, horror of dark horrors.

There are a million reasons why it makes sense to extend voting rights in local elections to non-EU residents (or, as they are sometimes called, ‘third-country nationals’). Before I get there, however, there’s the question of consistency.

 ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is one of the Prime Minister’s pet words. He wheels it out every time the Opposition goes anywhere near the topic of migration. The Leader of the Opposition is a backwater xenophobe, the routine goes, as opposed to the Prime Minister, who is the cosmopolitan leader of a cosmopolitan nation.

I can see why the word lends itself to political rhetoric. First, it sounds hip, global and progressive. It’s the name of a magazine that features articles about sex and other cool stuff, and to call a person or a city ‘cosmopolitan’ is usually a compliment. (‘London exudes cosmopolitan charm’, and suchlike.) Second, it can mean so many things that it usually ends up meaning nothing at all. On the second count especially, you might say it was tailor-made for politicians.

It turns out, however, that there is one sense of the word which is more vertebrate and tangible, and which goes back over 2,000 years to the Greek Stoics. Put simply, cosmopolitanism means that a person can, and usually does, have multiple political allegiances. Thus, for example, I might feel and display allegiances to my local council, my party, my country and the EU, simultaneously and to considerable dividend.

This is relevant, because it doesn’t make sense to bandy about cosmopolitanism at every turn and then proceed to limit it to its vacant forms. If the Prime Minister is serious about cosmopolitanism, we expect him to be consistent and live up to its implications.

There is absolutely nothing to stop non-EU nationals, or anyone else for that matter, from having political allegiances to the councils of their towns and villages in Malta. They can belong as much and as well as anyone else, and it is not terribly cosmopolitan to think otherwise.

I don’t see why a Frenchman should have the right to vote while his neighbour, a Bangladeshi who experiences the exact same local scene, shouldn’t

It’s probably worth understanding why resident EU nationals have the right to vote. The argument, I suppose, is that, while not Maltese citizens, they have a political stake in their local councils. The decisions of those councils on cleanliness, public spaces, services and such affect them directly. It follows that they should have the right to participate in them, especially since they pay tax in Malta (unlike certain people).

As it happens, the argument holds equally well for non-EU foreigners. I don’t see why a Frenchman should have the right to vote while his neighbour, a Bangladeshi who experiences the exact same local scene, shouldn’t.

It’s depressing to see the EU used as a pretext for discrimination in this way. In fact, this kind of nationalist-chauvinism-writ-large inequality is nothing short of a perversion of the EU as a political project. Little wonder, then, that Dalli, who is the Minister for European Affairs and Equality, thought it a good idea to raise the matter for public discussion.

Cut to Marsa and to the problems that foreigners seem to be causing. I think there’s much hyperbole going on there (a current affairs programme on Net TV the other day made me want to throw up), but still, there really appears to be an undesirable situation. Of that, the many photographs of black people sleeping rough at street corners and in public gardens are pretty strong evidence.

Thing is, one of the causes of that problem is the years of neglect, exclusion and outright racism. You cannot coop people up in detention or semi-detention, pay them a few Maltese liri for a day’s work (the norm until a few years ago), exclude them from social and political life, and then expect them to behave like responsible citizens.

Call it integration or whatever else, the point is that to systematically discriminate against and exclude a part of the resident population is to court disaster. This is one of the reasons why the right to vote in local elections would be a step in the right direction. I’d add national elections, but I don’t suppose my opinion is widely shared.

The Prime Minister seems to be unable to make up his mind on this one. (Or maybe he has, which would be truly disturbing.)

On the one hand, he tells us that Malta is cosmopolitan and that we need more and more foreigners to live and work here.

On the other, he persists in treating those foreigners as nothing more than fodder for his growth machine – labour supply to match labour demand while keeping its social and political distance

I now understand why someone suggested that Sophie the robot, who fits the bill perfectly, be made an honorary citizen.

mafalzon@hotmail.com    

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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