On the wrong side of history

Published: March 20, 2011 at 11:55pm

That Malta is a nation of cowards is disputable, if the general anger and disappointment at the stance taken by prime minister Lawrence Gonzi and foreign affairs minister Tonio Borg is anything to go on. But that Malta is a nation led by cowards is now indisputable. The lack of moral courage and forthright speech manifested by the prime minister at his press conference on Friday were dispiriting and depressing. He couldn’t even bring himself to mention Gaddafi by name.

At times like this, the role of a national leader is to instil in his people the sense that they are on the right side of history, that they are fighting and will fight for a just cause, for ideals that are worth upholding, for a better future that includes their own, that they stand with the Good against the Bad and that the great effort required is worth the while.

The prime minister’s miserable failure to rise to the occasion left us confused and upset. Some even wondered whether he is threatened, such was his demeanour, and talk of telephone calls from Gaddafi’s man Bagdadi, however they were explained away, only served to heighten that suspicion. Whether justified or unjustified, the suspicion has been created – by the prime minister’s behaviour – and minds have to be put at rest.

There appears to be no sensible explanation for Dr Gonzi’s behaviour other than pusillanimity. Up until now, the prime minister and his foreign minister have sheltered behind Miss Neutrality’s skirt as the excuse for inaction other than in humanitarian efforts. With that skirt stripped away on Thursday night by the decision of the United Nations Security Council, Dr Gonzi and Dr Borg have been left naked and shivering, clutching about for some other garment with which to cloak Malta’s shame, and finding none.

So Dr Gonzi faced the press on Friday with no excuse for staying out of the coalition action against Libya. That’s right, no excuse. The Constitution of Malta states explicitly that we are free to participate in military action, or to allow military forces of other countries into Malta as part of such action, if it is mandated by resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

The prime minister did not explain this to the waiting press, so much so that nobody asked him what would have been the obvious question had he done so: Given that neutrality is no longer the reason why Malta will not participate in coalition action, then what is the real reason?

On Sky News yesterday, Tonio Borg had me shouting angrily at the television for the first time since Alfred Sant’s press conferences in the general election campaign of 2008. He sounded weak, yellow, cowardly and disreputable – why, he even giggled nervously at one point – and came across as somebody who is trying hard not to get involved.

The interviewer’s leading statement was: “Some people say that you are showing solidarity with Gaddafi’s regime.” Tonio Borg, billed as ‘Malta’s deputy prime minister’ and addressed as Mr Deputy Prime Minister, instead of offering up a spirited and indignant reply that underscored Malta’s determination, shared with the coalition, to get shot of Gaddafi, said:

I wouldn’t say so. We did not return the Mirage jets which landed in Malta, and the pilots are still here….. We are upholding UN sanctions…..We responded to a request to supervise the ceasefire by saying it would have to be a decision of the UN….Our prime minister has stated publicly that the time of this regime is over. It is very unfair to say so……What about Germany?… This does not mean to say that we shall allow our country to be used for an attack on another country.”

An attack on another country, indeed: the coalition action is clearly and specifically not an attack on Libya but an attack on Gaddafi’s regime. In choosing his words so unwisely, Dr Borg merely encouraged the perception that Malta speaks Gaddafi’s language.

The inevitable question followed: “Are you saying that you are opposed to the action being taken by the coalition?” Dr Borg responded: “No, not in any way. The fact that we are not participating does not mean we are opposed to the resolution…..Germany isn’t taking part either…..Why pick on Malta?”

And the interviewer said: “Germany did say that in lieu of not taking part in the current action in Libya, it will take on a greater part in Afghanistan. What will Malta offer in lieu of staying out of the current action?” Dr Borg replied: “Malta is the smallest state in the European Union….It cannot offer more than it can offer…It is the sovereign state closest to Libya…We helped in the evacuation of foreign nationals, including British nationals” (you tell ‘em, Tonio) “and will continue to offer humanitarian aid.”

Ah yes, Malta cannot offer more than it can offer, but it certainly can offer less than it can offer, and it has just done so. Because Malta has not offered the use of its airstrips, British jets will now be positioned at Cyprus, which is closer to Benghazi than Malta is. But with Malta in the equation, it would also have been able to position jets close to Tripoli. You can argue until the cows come home that with the US base at Sigonella just up the road in Sicily, Malta isn’t necessary. But Malta could at least have showed willing, only to be told ‘thanks but no thanks’, and it didn’t.

The Sky News interviewer was clearly nonplussed, more so at Mr Deputy Prime Minister’s fatuous remark that Malta is the European state closest to Libya. To somebody living in Britain (or anywhere else, for that matter), the 60 miles between Malta and Italy are negligible. And if our foreign minister were to bother training his eyes along the Libyan coast, he would notice that Greece is pretty close too, in the form of Crete.

The Maltese government is surprised and upset that its position has been so badly perceived, but it has only itself to blame. It is pointless blaming others for its own manifest shortcomings. Whether they are shortcomings of fact or shortcomings of presentation is irrelevant at this late stage.

The performance of all our political leaders, not just the prime minister and his deputy, but also the leader of the Opposition and parliament itself, has fallen far short of what is expected. Malta is a small country, indeed, but there was no reason at all for them to behave like small men.

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday today.