Screenshot from a 2015 awareness-raising project on migrant integration
A recent proposal by Equality Minister Helena Dalli to discuss granting non-EU foreigners the right to vote in local council elections was killed in its cradle, with fellow ministers reportedly warning it won’t go down well with the public.
Judging by the initial social media outrage, the ministers had adequately judged the public pulse. People accused Dalli of plotting to surrender Malta to foreigners, claimed her plan would have resulted in Marsa electing an African mayor, and warned her she has damaged her re-election prospects. An online petition has also been set up, calling for Dalli to resign for “betraying her own nation, all for the sake of being seen as a progressive politician”.
Yet while many are shouting ‘Victory’, this sorry saga will undoubtedly leave expats, particularly those who go out of their way to integrate, with a bitter taste in the mouth.
Not everyone knows this, but local council and MEP elections are not the sole domain of Maltese citizens, but are also fully open to EU nationals as soon as they apply for an EU residence card. That’s right, if enough Italians, Germans or Bulgarians congregate in a town, they can technically group up and elect compatriots to that town’s local council, no questions asked.
Of course, electing a mayor is a tougher prospect, as that honour goes to the most popular candidate from the political party which wins a local election.
The path to voting rights is considerably steeper for non-EU nationals, who can only get a say in how their communities are run is if they obtain Maltese citizenship. Unless you were born in Malta or have Maltese lineage, this is no mean feat and involves passing some very vague requirements.
According to Identity Malta’s website, you must prove you have lived in Malta for at least five out of the seven years preceding your citizenship application, including the year directly preceding it. You must also have an adequate knowledge of Maltese or English, be “of good character” and be deemed a “suitable citizen of Malta”. The final say rests with the Home Affairs Minister, meaning this politician technically has the power to fast-track some applications and indefinitely delay others.
The government launched a migrant integration strategy last year
The government has, at least in principle, realised that the system is not conducive to the integration of non-EU migrants into Maltese society, which is why it launched an integration strategy last year. One of the most interesting facets of this strategy – which is being spearheaded by Dalli’s ministry – is the establishment of a permanent residence permit programme for third-country nationals who have been living in Malta for over five years.
To qualify for this permit, migrants must undergo an immersive integration course, including obtaining a 65% pass mark in Maltese (MQF Level 2) and participating in a course of at least 100 hours about Malta’s Constitution, laws, institutions and society. Successful applicants are rewarded with more employment rights, such as only having to renew their permits every five years, instead of every year.
The initiative has proven moderately popular since launching last year, with a recent parliamentary question showing that 66 people have applied for permanent residency, out of which 32 have been approved so far. The applicants hailed from the USA, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Serbia, Jordan, the Philippines, Macedonia, China, Egypt, India, Libya, Albania, Bosnia, Iran and Bangladesh. This means that, despite the perception on social media comment boards, not a single person from sub-Saharan Africa has applied for permanent residence so far.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has urged Malta to open its doors to everyone who wants to live and work here
These are people who have lived in Malta for a while and who want to deepen their roots to the island, so much so that they are willing to take time out of their daily lives to learn the national language and the laws of the land. The numbers speak for themselves; even if all the successful applicants lived in the same town, a single large, extended family would have more voting weight than all of them combined.
Surely, a potential idea by the working group proposed by Helena Dalli could have been granting the right to vote in local council elections to third country nationals who have proved they can integrate in Maltese society. After all, how can you fully integrate yourself in a community if your voice on how the community is run doesn’t count a jot? Surely this was, at the very least, worthy of a discussion?
“You may walk among us, you may even learn our language, but you will never be one of us”
Yet the government has just informed these non-EU nationals there is a clear limit to their integration. While they have a right to work, pay taxes and contribute to the improvement of the welfare state, they have less of a say in how their communities are run than an EU national who has just moved to Malta and plans to leave in a few months’ time.
And why? According to MaltaToday’s report, it’s because ministers are scared of creating a public controversy or paving the way for Marsa to elect an African mayor. How this logic fits in with the Prime Minister’s recent call for Malta to open its doors to “everyone who wants to live and work here” is anybody’s guess.
Unfortunately, the government’s message to these people rings loud and clear: “You may walk among us, you may even learn our language, but you will never be one of us”.