Fuelled by globalisation and what is partly its by-product, immigration, identity issues have again become prominent in political and social debate. They have always been close to the surface of public affairs in Europe, a continental space which in human terms, developed par excellence as a conglomerate of different, if frequently related, tribal – national if you like – societies.
Over the centuries, the relationships between them covered a wide range of “options”, from total physical dominance to tense stand-offs to full collaboration – even union. This by contrast to the Chinese mainland, for instance, which proceeded towards integration as a unitary state, or the US where immigrant population streams occupied the continent in melting pot mode.
To be sure, in their majority, European national/tribal systems shared a common cultural heritage that affected their ways of thought, behaviour, social organization and economic endeavour. This went back to the Greco-Latin ethos under the Roman Empire which had united Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in one political, legal and cultural entity; and the Christian community which flourished during the Middle Ages, in a multilayered feudal organization that despite its many political and territorial splinters, retained cohesion and legitimacy through an acceptance of the central religious authority of the Pope, head of the Catholic church.
For most, the sense of being European arises from an awareness of these past strands of common experience carried over by the living legacies which they gave rise to, especially by way of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the industrial revolution. Still, the flow of awareness and experience always went through the grid of a particular “national” appreciation, as it was received and assimilated with fellow members of one’s “tribe”.
The claim is made that the sense of European belonging is relevant above, beyond, or more radically than, the national ethos. However, that claim is frequently bound in first instance, to an intellectual appreciation of the European reality (not least in comparison to the realities of other continents). It is from this then that any associated emotional fervour is generated.
The classic case of this would be Victor Hugo’s passionate rhetoric in favour of a United States of Europe. Yet to date, despite two devastating pan-European wars and sixty years of the European Union, his perhaps superficial if vigorous vision of one political European entity is still pending.
There is little problem in scaling these considerations down to Malta’ size and position as one of the smallest countries of Europe and an island at Europe’s frontier with Africa. A Maltese is European because he/she is Maltese, not the other way round. That is the starting point.
Being a very small island “tribe” with a long history of foreign rule has brought complications regarding how, up to quite recently, the Maltese perceived their identity and defined their self-interest. For instance, recognition that they needed to be masters of their own destiny, was tempered by the belief that they could not manage alone, but needed some outside protector or sugar daddy to keep them afloat. The insularity and closed environment in which Maltese society developed contributed to this tendency.
At the time of the Knights, the community’s “protector” was installed and resident in Malta. Prior to and following that, from even before the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to Great Britain and the EU, that sugar daddy was established outside the island.
Moreover, the fact that we were on the southern edge of Europe, facing a non-Christian society, heightened the pressure – not least among the educated elites – to emphasize that the Maltese belonged exclusively to Christian Europe. In part, this was symptomatic of an inferiority complex that influenced Maltese attitudes to Europe in the post-Independence period, and perhaps still does.
A contrasting viewpoint was that given its position, Malta could serve as a bridge between the north and the south of the Mediterranean. Fashionable during the seventies decade of the previous century, this perspective was again counterproductive. It did not get far, having overestimated the ability, reach and willingness of Maltese society to understand and mix with both European and North African societies in order to bring them closer together.
Today, one could argue that social media have helped to make Malta a more open society so that the barriers to integration with the European mainstream have become weaker. This should make the Maltese people, especially the young, less turned towards a national consciousness and more open to “Europe”.
Perhaps. The argument might indeed be more valid at times of economic growth, which is the case in Malta at the time of writing.
However, Europe-wide, the popular roll is in the other direction. Social pressures to heighten the national consciousness have increased. Political parties which took this into account, are making electoral inroads. It is unfortunate that such trends, which gained momentum on the back of the social media, have been captured by extremist movements.
So where do Malta and the Maltese stand in their relation to the concept of “Europe” – to the European Union?
We need to assert a Maltese identity while insisting that it remains in a deep relationship with the European ethos. We need to link such a national identity – fully, without any reservations but also not in a naive manner – to the political, ethical and social determinants that qualify behaviour in Europe, now and in future. And we need to do all this, without surrendering those tools of decision-making and action at national level (restricted in scope as they are), that can best autonomously protect and enhance the interests of the Maltese people.
In my view, given current circumstances, that is the best, the only way of being Maltese, and therefore European.