L-Aħħar Testment ta’ Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici – Dnubiet u Profeziji (2023), written by Sammy Meilaq, could hardly have seen the light in a more apt time than that of the latest round of mass scale slaughter of thousands of Palestinians entrapped in the largest open-air prison camp on the planet guarded by a Jewish-Israeli army permanently at war.
Radical and extreme
At the official launch, following an initial note by the author, we read a brief foreword penned by Mifsud Bonnici himself – a foreword that is more a ‘last words’ epilogue, probably the final writing of the former prime minister and Labour leader.
In it, Mifsud Bonnici describes Meilaq as a left-winger of an extremist and radical nature. This sets the tone of the book and is better explained when contextualised in the words of another former prime minister – and President of Malta – Eddie Fenech Adami. In his book Eddie: My Journey (2014) the latter writes that, when the young Mifsud Bonnici went on a familiarisation visit of the European Community institutions and returned to Malta, “his views had become radical by now and, when he eventually went to the LSE, he became even more extreme”. It is interesting that the same epithets addressed by the former PN leader to Mifsud Bonnici, would later be attributed by the former Labour leader to Sammy Meilaq.
Sammy Meilaq’s book narrates in a succinct but clear style the main political battle cry of the Front Maltin Inqumu (FMI), the one for state neutrality and non-alignment. For the Front, this is not merely a political slogan subject to alteration in the ever-changing political marketplace of kitsch myths clearly visible in electoral campaign manifestos. The FMI has been consistent throughout – neutrality and non-alignment are solidly engraved in the Constitution of Malta: “Malta is a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance.”
Before they were engraved, Eddie’s Europe-at-all-costs conviction turned him against “the concept of neutrality being pursued by Mintoff with such vigour, because we were against putting the two superpowers in the same basket”. In spite of such beliefs, the PN was ready to qualify the constitution with the same principles once this promised electoral gain following the results of the constitutionally sanctioned, even if popularly contested, 1981 general election.
Back to the book. The foreword by Meilaq attributes and establishes the drive for neutrality and non-alignment in Mintoff. As mentioned above, this clashed with the PN’s historical drive toward the European continent, harking back to the ‘cultural’ attraction of ‘italianità’. Consequently, anything that stood in the way (from the PN’s perspective) of joining would be rubbished. By the time Malta did join, the political and economic reality of the European Union (its latest version, a neoliberal one) was starkly clear. The non-democratic power-holding institutions of the EU on one side and the institutional support it offered to the multinational entrprises with its foundational Maastricht principles of financial capital, goods, and labour mobility plus, furthermore, a single – not common – market, meant that, in spite of changes over time, Europe was the only and immediate goal.
Meilaq attempts to overturn the tables on the PN’s distractions on the EU, but the battle was always uphill; it could not be otherwise when you attempt to critique the great project of making Europe great again in Maltese common sense. It will take a record number of deliberations in EU history and exploiting the slow-moving European enforcement systems for the dream to keep on its shine.
Once the Maltese voted, more grudgingly than elsewhere, for EU membership, there was the great leap into the continental institutional framework, where it endured,
- economic navigation in globalisation and all the crises it had previously created locally,
- political obsequiousness to the Franco-German leadership, with what was in historical terms a fleeting presence from the UK in turn creating further difficulties for Malta’s long-term migrant British population on the islands,
- cultural traumas such as the abortion-legalising and minority membership in a hardly Catholic scenario.
Tax havens and reserve armies of cheap labour overturned the globalisation trap, the increasing convergence of the two dominant political parties towards the centre, populism, and clear-cut social divides embittered the cultural context, and so on.
Sammy Meilaq wrote 13 hard-hitting chapters that build up from an announced prophecy to a final quo vadis to be answered within a final judgment (terrible but not hopeless) scenario. It starts with PN subservience, British Euroscepticism, the micro countries like Malta that stayed out, the relatively reduced manoeuvrability to reach out outside the EU, and de-industrialisation populated by increasing financial services, some navigating greyish seas of pseudo legality. The Lisbon Treaty substituted the squashed European Constitution (Dutch and French resistance) when Maltese MEPs – numerically irrelevant – became “waiters” (perhaps, I add, given a few exceptions), waiting for orders.
The European Parliament, a favourite punching bag for those who believe in strong democracies, is targeted by Meilaq. A toothless but costly enterprise. With Metsola in the picture, the comments become heavier – the first pulena, a decorative figurehead on the ship’s bow, and the first żugraga, spinning-top. The arguments shift to the social aspect. Mussolini is brought in because, as Meilaq appears to argue, the present capital-labour relations are closer to the ones prevalent in Mussolini’s days than they were when labour challenged private capital in a more confrontational style. Less strikes and more collaboration fit within the general overview of neoliberal economies. Fascist corporativism worked like that.
The arguments pile up as Malta becomes a den of thieves – foreign and local. Betting companies and offshore businesses; audit, consulting, tax, and advisory services with their expertise in tax mobility. The absurdity is that wage-earners pay more taxes than the large multinationals. Pyrrhic victories over the latter are settled by compromise fines that do not disturb these companies. However, the main attraction of the book is reached when Meilaq discusses neutrality and the sorry state of the EU as images roll out of CIA abductions all over European territory.
What follow are specific themes, including the Libyan tragedy (Malta being one of the worst hit for the loss of market, immigration flow, and the boost to local trafficking crime); immigration and racism (including cold-blooded racist murder); Ukraine (not a black and white situation); Pope Francis; and the Ark Royal blockade (a spectacular and defiant signal of peace and neutrality against those who had invited the British warship. Australian dockers served the same treatment.
The book concludes with the unconditional surrender (including, in Sammy Meilaq’s view, that of the PL) and Quo Vadis, an ominous prospect for a national parliament reduced to a local council.
Michael Grech’s critical epilogue
In his typical critical style, Michael Grech pens a critical epilogue for the book, with his prophecies and sins on one side, possibilities and limits in the writing on the other. He responds to the queries raised by Meilaq at the end of the book by claiming that the Maltese were and continue to believe this is the best world possible. One can add that this is a haven for political “progressives” who drive the reformist chariot. Eurocentrism is a related concept and has been plaguing Maltese consciences since the PN developed its italianità, part of a tradition intent on separating us from the southern Mediterranean in the eyes of our British colonisers. The EU’s anti-democratic centralism and neoliberalism continues to support the spread of similar racist lines and right-wing politicians to power.
Playing the past against the present allows Meilaq to observe what happened to some of the false promises at the time of Malta’s EU membership: serious and transparent institutions (at least we did not get hoodwinked as much as Gorbachev did); a Christian Europe (Eddie’s dream of sorts but he missed large chunks of European history here); safeguarded sovereignty (so what’s the problem with neutrality?); workers’ rights (we have referred above); and, to be less provincial (not really something to boast about). These counter-narrative themes require further elaboration. Others are more difficult to hold, such as the call for an industrial policy on a national scale. Industry survives in Malta and manufacturing contributes to the balance of payments besides being the reason for some of the financial services, but promoting an industrial Malta is another thing. This is similar to Meilaq’s desperate call for a Messiah (and Grech takes him to task over this). Waiting for Godot?
Finally, and I am in full agreement with Michael Grech on this, Meilaq talks about the people. What constitutes this ‘people’? The idea of writing such a book is, after all, not just to leave a testament for memory’s sake but also to get those who still want to think outside mass alienation, to engage with the arguments in an open-ended and critical manner.