Joseph Muscat in Parliament last night. Photo: DOI (Reuben Piscopo)
From the United States and the UK to Italy and Germany, anti-migration rhetoric is on the rise worldwide and it appears to be a winning strategy wherever it raises its head.
Meanwhile, those politicians who struggle to hold back the tide are often very easily dismissed as elitist, globalist or detached from the realities on the ground, but the script is being played out very differently in Malta.
Malta was already one of the most densely populated countries in the world when Joseph Muscat was elected Prime Minister in 2013 and the island’s population has soared by an estimated 10% since then, largely as a result of immigration. To put this in perspective, the UK’s population only increased by 3.57% in the same period. Yet while immigration concerns spurred the British public to vote for Brexit, Joseph Muscat is still on a high, with his latest trust rating placing him at 53.5%, almost 36 points ahead of Opposition leader Adrian Delia.
In a speech in Parliament last night, Muscat showed more clearly than ever why he remains in control of the migration narrative, despite Delia’s repeated warnings that the island’s economy is based on population growth and therefore risks collapsing under its own strain.
“The Opposition leader cares nothing for all the sacrifices made by the Maltese and foreign workers, by the workers and small business owners,” he said. “According to him, the economy isn’t growing thanks to them but thanks to foreigners.”
PN leader Adrian Delia (left) has warned the economy is based on population growth
The Prime Minister started off by poking holes into Delia’s economic arguments, using both logic (“South Sudan’s population grew by more than any other country last year but its economy shrunk by 16%”) and humour (“Delia’s claims that 15,000 foreigners came last year are belied by statistics published by the PN itself”).
Then came the trickier part, countering Delia’s argument politically without coming off as an out-of-touch elitist who has grown too comfortable in his ivory tower. It started off as other pro-migration political arguments often do, accusing the PN leader of pandering to the “extreme right”, of spouting “racist clickbait” and of “abandoning European values because it is the flavour of the month to talk against foreigners”. Interestingly, he never once referred to his opponent as a “populist”.
And then came the crucial moment, trying to convince the public that Malta shouldn’t only accept foreigners but that it needs them.
“Is it possible the PN leader doesn’t meet businesses who tell him how hard it is to find employees?” Muscat questioned. “On the one hand, he wants Malta to branch into new sectors but on the other hand he doesn’t want to bring in people to staff them. For example, he justifiably warned there are still some 700 children who the free school transport scheme still doesn’t cater for, but the main reason for this is because there aren’t enough drivers. Delia must choose what he wants.”
Several employees in Maltese restaurants are foreigners (Stock photo)
Delia has advocated for “intelligent immigration”, meaning that Malta should only accept migrants who work in jobs that not enough Maltese don’t have the skill set to take up, an argument that has often been espoused by people against freedom of movement.
Muscat tackled this argument by going for the jugular, essentially questioning whether Delia wants to encourage Maltese people to work in menial jobs despite them now having much higher aspirations.
“I take it as a compliment that Malta is no longer a country where the Maltese work for foreigners but a country where foreigners work for the Maltese”
“Doesn’t he want foreigners working in humble but dignified jobs that are necessary to our society?” he asked. “Doesn’t he want foreigners working in our hospitals, doesn’t he want them collecting our rubbish or cleaning up our streets, doesn’t he want them taking care of our elderly, working in the scorching heat and serving our families and tourists in establishments?”
“If they don’t do these jobs, then who will? Our children are now aspiring towards other and better jobs and if this is Delia’s idea, then it’s not intelligent immigration but a very stupid idea. I take it as a massive compliment that Malta is creating so much wealth that it is no longer a country where the Maltese work for foreigners but a country where foreigners work for the Maltese.”
An appeal to the heart, an appeal to patriotism, but also an appeal to welcome more immigrants.
With politicians worldwide struggling to find enticing pro-immigration arguments and narratives, they could do well to cast an eye at the Prime Minister of this tiny island state. Somehow, the rules of politics in 2018 don’t seem to apply to him…