On March 31, the online version of The Economist published an eye-opening essay discussing “the spectre of high-end war” that is now “so widespread in French military thinking”.

The head of the French army – reported The Economist – envisages “high-intensity, state-on-state conflict” in his strategic vision for the “more dangerous world” of 2030. Analysts are thinking of Russia, Turkey and even a North African country as possible opponents.

On March 8, the prestigious Italian geopolitics review LIMES dedicated a whole issue to tensions in the Mediterranean, claiming that the Strait of Sicily is a critical area and that Italy is looking straight at “Chaosland”. Tunisia and Libya are in a context of chaos; the latter has been taken over by two powers: Russia and Turkey.

LIMES also argued that, apart from disputes relating to exploitation (particularly exclusive economic zones), the Mediterranean is also experiencing increased rearmament.

Mintoff and 1979

As then prime minister Dom Mintoff frenetically prepared for the difficulties Malta would face once the British base closed down in 1979, he sought to trade Malta’s neutrality in exchange for foreign investment and aid.

To succeed, he sought not only to transform Malta into a ‘neutralised’ state but also to establish guarantors for Malta’s neutrality, including France and Italy – the same two countries currently perceiving potential conflicts right across the water from us in “Chaosland”.

At the 1975 Helsinki Conference, Mintoff had convinced Europe that there couldn’t be European security without Mediterranean security. It seems that the French military and Italian experts have come round to that vision.

When I was a student, a delegation from the University Students’ Council met Guido de Marco, then foreign minister of Malta. The extraordinary professor told us something that impacted me greatly as a young man. He told us that the Nationalists in government had built on Mintoff’s foreign policy. It is clear to me now that he didn’t mean the maverick adventurism Mintoff had feverishly pursued.

De Marco followed the mature idea that, as a sovereign country, Malta could independently and freely choose her own path to follow in international politics, the path most suited to the interests of the Maltese nation. So many years later, we all now take it as a given that, in international politics, Malta seeks our interests, not the interests of some power in return for protection.

Robert Abela’s March 31 speech

So, I could hardly believe my ears when, on Freedom Day,  Prime Minister Robert Abela delivered a speech that said absolutely nothing about Malta’s geopolitical challenges. Not only was Abela’s speech shallow in content and priedka-tat-tifel-like in delivery (providing no insight whatsoever while expecting us to find him cute) but it focused on domestic issues that could have easily been addressed elsewhere.

Labour lost its identity under wheeler-dealer Joseph Muscat first, then its soul under the underprepared, disoriented Robert Abela- Mark Sammut Sassi

The prime minister seems oblivious even to opinions expressed by knowledgeable people from his own camp. Dominic Fenech, for instance, has written that Mintoff strove to “[put] Malta on the path of neutrality externally and socialism internally”.

For Labourites, Freedom Day should be about neutrality; socialism should be celebrated and practised on every other day of the year.

But Labour lost its identity under wheeler-dealer Joseph Muscat first, then its soul under the underprepared, disoriented Abela.

Labourites should take note of this. The social element can be found elsewhere, as, ultimately, social fraternalism is a Christian motif.

For the Maltese nation, Freedom Day – March 31, represents the closing down of the British base. But it also and more significantly represents the vision that tiny Malta adheres to in a dangerous sea that is patrolled by big-power navies.

It’s that once-a-year occasion for the government to reassure the electorate that it understands the geopolitical challenges facing Malta given that we live on the border between two worlds – the West and the Arab – and on the border between organised states and chaotic political units.

One would have expected the prime minister to reveal his government’s preparedness for developments in Libya that, 10 years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, is still somewhere close to a “state of nature” (to borrow Hobbes’ phrase describing states with weak, or even no, state structures).

Given the diverse claims on the exploitation of the sea by different littoral states, one would have expected the prime minister to share his vision for mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of potential disputes.

Instead, all we got was myth-making and a pathetically petty speech aimed more at ensuring his party wins the next election than reassuring the country that its prime minister’s keeping his eye on the ball.

Listening to Abela’s priedka tat-tifel speech, I couldn’t help but reflect about Reno Bugeja’s question during the Labour leadership race in pre-COVID-19 times, when the seasoned journalist asked the lad whether he felt he had what it takes for the office he was running for.

Mark Sammut Sassi is an author and lawyer. 

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