Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, November 28, 2016

Can we still dream of Europe?

(appears as 'Any dreams of Europe?' in Times of Malta 28 November 2016)
Picture by Max Henkell
As if the European Union is not experiencing its own share of crises, Donald Trump’s election as US President is underlining existential questions which have been troubling the European soul in these past recent years.
If Trump stays true to his word on foreign policy and globalisation, the EU has no choice but to alter its transatlantic view, which has been in place since World War II.
Let us keep in mind that Trump has raised questions on Nato’s role in Eastern Europe, has expressed sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin and does not seem much concerned about the catastrophe in Syria.
If Trump does not keep to his word on foreign policy, it is only because he seems to be unpredictable, for better or for worse. We can only wait and see.
Within the EU itself, the spectre of Trump seems to be haunting many electoral campaigns. On December 4, Austria might elect its first far-right President, Norbert Hofer, and on the same day Italy’s Matteo Renzi risks political demise if his proposed constitutional referendum is beaten. His main political adversaries include a mix of populists and far right demagogues, mainly Beppe Grillo of the 5-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord.
In the near future, Denmark may experience snap elections, to the benefit of the far right People’s Party, and, on March 15, the controversial Geert Wilders may end up kingmaker in the Dutch general election.
The best is yet to come in France and Germany. Marine Le Pen seems increasingly likely to win the first round of French presidential elections next April and might only be kept off power if a grand coalition of other political parties keep her out. Then again, the likely winner, namely the Republican Party, will likely do its utmost to attract voters from Le Pen’s National Front.
Germany will have its general elections on August 27, and once again, the populist right may achieve a historic result through the Alternative for Germany Party. It is highly unlikely that they will be in some governing coalition though and some see Angela Merkel’s decision to contest for the fourth time as a blessing. The more progressive social democrats and greens have less support than Merkel’s Christian Democrats but as things stand at least one of them might well end up in some form of governing coalition.
Do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Could Merkel be the last (wo)man standing to defend the European dream? Surely, the EU, and Merkel herself, have made their fair share of mistakes in recent years but do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Let us keep in mind that the EU has made various achievements, including peace within its borders, progressive extension of rights and liberties, as well as relatively high investment in social security compared with other blocs around the world.
There were times when the EU has also worked with the US and also with other blocs from a position of strength and this includes areas such as climate change, competition policy and privacy.
Those forces who believe in the European dream and in realistic reform should move away from defensive defeatism. This includes a broad range of parties from different sides and colours within the political spectrum, which believe in dialogic democracy and who resist the absolutist and populist nationalism of both extremes.
Unless those who believe in the European dream are assertive and speak an evidence-based language, which is closer to people’s aspirations, everyday life, hopes and fears, the language game will keep being won by the populists who bank on simple solutions that are often not backed up by evidence.
In this regard, a political case for Europe should be expressed in concrete terms, and not in abstract language with limited appeal.
The EU should also move away from rigid policymaking and instead decide to adopt more flexibility within shared EU-wide goals. A positive example in this regard concerns the EU climate goals, where different countries have different goals within the general EU framework.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The very best in Europe

The Panama Papers scandal is the mother of all scandals. This is the opinion of Mark Anthony Sammut, a former Labour candidate who has just published L-Aqwa fl-Ewropa, a must-read for all those analysing Malta’s current political context.
Sammut, who also happens to be the son of one of Malta’s foremost novelists, the late Frans Sammut, writes in a very accessible way, with exceptional mastery in his use of the Maltese language.
He says the aim of the book is not to damage the current Labour government, but to provide a panoramic view of the Panama Papers in relation to Malta, to present facts and to interpret them.
The text gives concise explanations of terms which have featured prominently in the discussion on this scandal during the past months. These include offshore accounts, shell companies, intermediaries, nominee directors, trusts, and so forth.
As one would expect, the focus is on Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi and on the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri. Both are implied in Panama Papers and both have remained central figures in the Labour government’s power structure.
Sammut explains how Mizzi did his best to play with words on his involvement in the Panama Papers and on implications on his role as minister involved in various deals in the energy and health sectors. For example, Mizzi’s attempt to duck questions was very much the case in an interview with the Times of Malta journalist Jacob Borg.
Joseph Muscat is depicted as a magician who “grabs your attention through his left hand while performing a magic trick with his right”
As regards Schembri, Sammut interprets various potential and actual conflicts of interest, stating that these would be unacceptable in European democracies where good governance is taken seriously.
Indeed, Sammut refers to coincidences, deals, resignations and various facts which make it very difficult to ignore the political implications of Panama Papers. His text also reminds us how an audit – as promised by the Prime Minister and Mizzi - depends on an audit trail.  So far so good, save for the fact that the audit was never delivered. Not to mention that an audit trail becomes problematic when one is dealing with secretive jurisdictions and transactions.
The book features many quotes from public figures – including from the Labour camp – which are very revealing. Among those quoted, one finds Jason Micallef, Evarist Bartolo, Glenn Bedingfield, Leo Brincat, Godfrey Farrugia, Alfred Sant, Edward Scicluna and Desmond Zammit Marmarà.
‘New’ Labour stalwarts such as Alfred Sant and Evarist Bartolo were pretty clear in their negative opinion of Mizzi’s situation. Some others were less straightforward, but nevertheless very pertinent.
For example, in his article in the Times of Malta of October 11, Zammit Marmarà wrote that “it is more than obvious that when your primary aim as a politician is to attain high public office and become rich at the same time, you are bound to start from day one with a conflict of interest”.
It would be very difficult to believe that Zammit Marmara was excluding Malta from the equation.
The final chapter of Sammut’s book is less factual and more speculative. Here, Sammut presents a philosophical argument that the Labour government has taken a neoliberal direction away from its social democratic roots. Joseph Muscat is depicted as a magician who “grabs your attention through his left hand while performing a magic trick with his right”.
Consequently, Sammut argues that post-liberalism is the way forward for socialism. The book’s appendix then includes a short essay by Adrian Pabst who advocates “a politics committed to family, decent work, a fair return for workers, contribution, duties linked to rights, and love of one’s country”, which “can be a majoritarian politics of the left”.
Perhaps the last chapter is the least convincing chapter in what otherwise is an excellent read. Not because of the Labour government’s deficit in good governance, but because in actual fact, good or bad governance are not monopolised by one political ideology.
For example Sweden, Germany and Britain are three European countries that have different political traditions, but all  three currently receive high scores in governance indicators.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dissecting Trump's victory

Times of Malta 14 November 2016
Most social-scientific polls were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton. Yet Donald Trump won and will now be the 45th president of the United States.
This is not the first time that such polls went wrong or that historic moments were not predicted. It was not a survey that explained the collapse of the Soviet Union, and few would have predicted that Libya and Tunisia would witness dramatic changes in the recent past.
Along the lines of the rising narrative of the insular populist right, the Brexit referendum was another case in point.
This is not to say that surveys or predictions should be confined to the dustbin of analysis. The subject matter of social science comprises the complexities of possibilities of human behaviour which can be analysed through various research methods, yet which are very difficult to reduce to simple predictions. Rationality, reflexivity, social influence and emotions are all entangled in the web of society. And various analyses are wiser ‘after the event’.
Society also comprises patterns. In the case of Donald Trump’s victory, it was clear that he was the preferred choice of white working-class voters, especially if they formed part of the older age cohorts. On the other hand, Clinton underperformed among respective middle-class, black and Hispanic voters especially in key battleground states. Clinton was favoured among voters under 40 years of age, but a considerable amount of such voters (around eight/nine per cent) chose small parties.
Various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself
Trump’s victory seems to follow the wave of populist successes around the world. Social theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have written volumes about this type of strategy. It comprises a charismatic form of leadership which speaks an accessible language that has broad appeal across the social spectrum.  This discourse attempts to unite a broad ‘us’ against a ‘them’, thus constructing a strong sense of identity. A diverse spectrum of politicians including Chavez, Tsipras, Orban and Farage exemplified such strategies in different electoral campaigns.
In the case of Trump, the ‘them’ comprised of his views on Mexicans, Muslims, the ‘establishment’, the climate change ‘Chinese conspiracy’, the ‘rigged’ media, and others who were depicted as a ‘threat’ to the ‘American’ way of life. His language and behaviour were politically incorrect, yet he was seen by many as being more authentic than his challenger in tackling issues dividing the nation such as economic inequality and migration. Within this strategy, Clinton’s depiction as ‘the establishment’ was more appealing than her own narrative of experience, safe hands and liberal values.
Yet, electoral victories represent just one dimension of successful statesmanship. It has to be seen whether Trump will actually carry out what he promised. This includes the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, the vetting or temporary banning of Muslims from entering the country, the deporting of undocumented migrants, and the removal of the Obamacare reforms. He has also promised a range of other changes as from his first days in office.
I would suggest that the real world of policymaking cannot be reduced to one person’s rhetoric, even if he happens to be President of the United States. Proposals interact with a complex web of networks, interests, influence, personalities, ideas, resources, force majeures and unpredicted consequences. And the United States happens to have one of the most established systems of checks and balances in the world, thus often resulting in a long process of negotiations before policies are implemented.
Will fellow Republicans simply rubberstamp all his proposals within his cabinet, senate and congress? I am not so sure. Indeed, various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Democrats are likely to their best to defend the Obama legacy. They might even move to the left by exploiting a window of opportunity for left populism à la Bernie Sanders.
As the US is entering unchartered territory, the world is watching. From a European cosmopolitan perspective, I feel that the EU has a massive responsibility to defend and promote the values of pluralism, tolerance, solidarity and sustainability.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The lords of the slime


Times of Malta 7 November 2016

In the past months fish farm slime entered Malta’s beaches like an unwelcome guest. Whether one was at the beach or on Facebook, chances were that certain images of slime remained ingrained in one’s mind. Consequently, many people became conscious of the negative environmental impacts of fish farms.
The storm over Malta a few days ago made a further contribution to the placing of slime in our collective consciousness. Photos of slime at the Portomaso marina hit the social media waves. This time around, the victims of slime were not swimmers but owners of expensive boats.
It was as if nature were getting its back on Malta for all our environmental sins. And the governance deficit on fish farms needs much redemption.
Curiously, fish farms never made it to the pinnacle of environmental politics in Malta. Yet, since the 1990s, when the industry took off, there were some voices which warned about its environmental impacts.
Some have also warned about the social impacts of this industry, particularly with regard to the traditional form of artisan fishing and related practices carried out by small-scale fishermen.
Let’s put things into context. In the field of bluefin tuna ranching, Malta happens to be a global giant in terms of exports. Millions of euros worth of this fish are exported to Japan for sushi purposes.  When it comes to matters such as fishing quotas, Malta is bound by agreements within the EU and the ICCAT, the inter-governmental fishing organisation.
At the same time, however, the country’s lack of policy experience, as well as consistent state support have helped create a huge industry operating amid regulatory contradictions.
Interestingly, after Malta joined the EU it became increasingly visible to the eyes of transnational environmental NGOs active in the field. For example, a decade ago, organisations such as Greenpeace and WWF called for the banning of bluefin tuna fishing until stocks recover.
The governance deficit on fish farms needs much redemption
Some Maltese ENGOs and Greens did speak on this issue, but it was never given primacy over other more ‘visible’ environmental issues such as overdevelopment and the hunting of birds.
During that period, a report by Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies had criticised Malta for underreporting tuna catches. Other Mediterranean countries were also criticised for cumulatively overfishing this species.
When European and global negotiations on the matter were taking place, the Maltese government firmly supported the interests of the industry, despite warnings about environmental impacts by scientists and environmentalists.
For example, between 2008 and 2009, the Maltese government lobbied hard against a European Commission proposal to lower fishing quotas for bluefin tuna. The European Commission itself was split on the matter. Environment commissioner Stavros Dimas was reportedly supporting a ban on bluefin tuna fishing, while (Maltese) fishing commissioner Joe Borg argued for a ‘balance’ between scientific advice and industry interests.
Initially, the European Commission was in favour of a compromise deal to enlist bluefin tuna as an endangered species. The majority of EU member states disagreed with the European Commission’s proposals, and Borg eventually said that it was up to ICCAT to be responsible for the recovery ofthe species.
ICCAT eventually decided to reduce tuna catches and to introduce stricter regulations. The Fisheries commissioner, the tuna industry in Malta and fishermen welcomed the decision, while environmentalists opposed it on the grounds that it was unsustainable.
As years went by, bluefin tuna cages flourished around the Maltese islands. They also featured at least twice in world news. First when migrants were captured on film dangling on cages to avoid drowning, and second when Sea Shepherd activists liberated tuna from cages.
A change in administration in 2013 did not change things in terms of state support of the bluefin tuna industry.
Yet the slime phenomenon this year made the issue highly visible to the Maltese public, thus forcing the government to do something.
Whether the government will really live up to its words on enforcement has to be seen, yet the bluefin tuna issue has impacts and ramifications which go beyond the slime in our beaches.