Neutrality is more valid now, than ever before | Evarist Bartolo

Former Foreign Minister EVARIST BARTOLO dismisses rumours of any ‘kick upstairs’ to the Presidency; while looking back on 40 years’ involvement, in a Labour Party that now has ‘a lot of work to do’

Your retirement from politics marks the end of a 40-year career with the Labour Party. During that time, the PL has evolved quite considerably: from the ‘Old Left’ represented by Dom Mintoff; to Alfred Sant’s ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s; to the ‘business friendly’ approach adopted by Joseph Muscat. Looking back: are you comfortable with how Labour has changed, over the years?

Yes, and no. First of all: strictly speaking, I was never active within the Labour Party when Mintoff himself was still its leader. At the time, I had more of a ‘fringe-group’ mentality. In fact, I was very active in a small organisation called ‘Xirka Gustizzja Socjali’ [Society for Social Justice]: where we were critical, even of things the Labour government was doing. 

And at one point, I was even a member of an organisation called ‘Grupp Kontra’… basically, a group ‘against everything’!

But eventually, yes: I chose to become active within the Labour Party. The big decision itself came in 1985: when I was approached by Alfred Sant - who was party president, at the time – and asked if I was “ready to run the Labour Party’s media.” I had to choose between that, or joining the University as a lecturer – having, in the meantime, studied journalism in Stanford and Wales. And, well, to cut a long story short, I chose the former.

Strictly speaking, then, I was only really active within the Labour Party from the days of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici onwards. But to come back to your question: yes, the Labour has certainly changed a lot, since those times.  And this was necessary; because if it didn’t change, it would have grown outdated, and run out of steam. 

Some of those changes should probably have come earlier than they actually did. I think, for example, that Mintoff ultimately stayed on a little too long, as party leader. After 1979, his agenda – which was to make Malta a neutral, non-aligned country; to remove the naval bases, and so on – had largely been achieved; and besides, his economic policies were probably around 20 years behind the times, too. 

If, in the 1950s, Mintoff had been allowed to carry out the reforms he implemented in the 1970s and 1980s… it would have made a lot more sense, all things considered.

So, looking back: I think there’s still a lot to learn from Mintoff, when it comes to foreign policy, and how to handle our relations with the rest of the world; and he also instilled in us a sense of national dignity: that we must stand up for our interests, however small we are. 

And obviously, we must also credit Mintoff with having built up the welfare state; and for his strong sense of social justice, equality, and income distribution…

But you’re talking about those things – social justice, and especially income distribution – as if they are already part of the Labour Party’s ‘historical legacy’. How much of all that is still relevant today? 

Well, it depends how you look at things. To be fair, a lot has happened in the past nine years: pensions have improved; there has been income distribution… even if, at the same time, there is now a wider gap between the ‘haves’, and the ‘have-nots’. That is obviously something to be taken into consideration, too.

But the reality is that the Labour Party changed, because it HAD to change. There were other Social Democratic parties, in Europe and elsewhere, that did not make those necessary changes; that were not ready to navigate the complexities of the modern world… and those parties have effectively died, as a result. 

If Malta’s Labour Party hasn’t died, it’s because it succeeded in modernising itself in the meantime. Having said this: there are some ‘Red Lights’ that we should be paying more attention.

For instance: I believe that you cannot ‘distribute wealth’, unless you create it first. You have to grow an economy, before you can talk about how to distribute the resulting wealth. So we do need a culture of ‘wealth creation’; and to attract the necessary investment, to create that sort of economic landscape. 

But at the same time, we must also be aware that there are people who are finding it hard to make ends meet…

But today’s problems don’t really concern ‘wealth creation’, do they? Let’s face it: lots of people ARE making money in this country. In fact, the Labour Party is often criticized for having ‘drifted too far from its Socialist roots’, by cosying up to business elites. Isn’t there some truth to that?

Rather than taking the ideological approach, of saying: ‘This is the Faith’; and then asking, ‘Is the Faith being kept?’… I prefer working the other way round. Let’s look at what is happening on the ground; and ask ourselves whether the people’s quality of life has improved, or not

And by ‘quality of life’, I don’t just mean income, or material benefits; but also the environment; and the ability to live a life that is not just about ‘working to survive’… but also to enjoy a better standard of living.  It is here that I think we really need to be focusing more, at the moment.

But I repeat: instead of taking the abstract, ideological approach… I think we need to look at how people are actually living; and what can be done to improve their lot.

And there is definitely a LOT of work to be done. I myself have visited homes, during this campaign, where you could tell that those people were still struggling. And if this interview is scheduled to appear on Labour Day [which it is]: then it would be well-timed to bring up other issues, too. 

If we are to honestly commemorate Labour Day, we need to also talk about the realities of today’s working conditions: that, for instance, there are people on definite contracts, who have problems getting loans; and, in general, to make ends meet. 

Another thing we also need to look into, is the effect of getting workers from overseas, who are ready to accept conditions that would weaken the conditions of the rest of the workforce…  

The realities you describe, however – especially, ‘getting workers from overseas’ - are all part of the Labour government’s own official economic policy. After all, it was Joseph Muscat who first said that Malta needed to ‘grow its population’; and Robert Abela has continued that policy ever since…

Yes, but… once again, it was a necessity. Let me be frank with you: I was Minister for Employment, at the time. The reality is that we used to create 11,000 jobs a year; but we could only fill 4,000 of them locally. We had to get those extra 7,000 from overseas… sometimes, because the skills demanded were not available here; but mostly, because the numbers were not available, either.  

And one thing that no party has ever addressed in Malta – and we need to address it: even if just to acknowledge its existence, once and for all – is our ‘demographic suicide’. I’m not being melodramatic, here: but our birth rate is the lowest in Europe. Our population is dwindling, fast…

And this creates a situation that we cannot afford to ignore indefinitely. If we all agree on the need to improve the lot of the people, by continuing to maintain the welfare state, and living standards in general… we need a strong economy. But you cannot have a strong economy, when at the same time you don’t have enough workers in all the relevant sectors.

So: are we going to do something about this issue? Because if not… we’re facing a demographic suicide.

At the risk of an impertinent question: you have been quite openly critical of the Labour government, since retiring from politics. But why only now? Shouldn’t you also have been critical, at a time when you were still part of the Labour government (and could therefore actually do something about the problems you now complain about)?

I don’t agree with that interpretation at all, myself. In fact, I can even tell you that I had a strategy, at the time. It was a strategy for me to survive in politics, yes… but not, as some people have suggested, just so that I could ‘stay on’ as minister, or anything like that.  

No, my strategy was that: if I feel that an institution needs changing… why should I leave that institution?  Why shouldn’t those who have actually caused the problem, be the ones to leave? So I put pressure, internally, for that to happen, as much as possible. 

Because I believe that, for change to take place, there has to pressure from both the outside, and the inside. And I was doing my own bit, to change things. I didn’t simply ‘go along with it’, like a meek sheep…

To be fair, others have also speculated that it was precisely your past disagreements with government policy, that resulted in your failure to get elected this time. Do you agree with that assessment? 

[Shrugs] Honestly? I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I haven’t tried very deeply to understand why I wasn’t elected. You move on, in life. And this is not a ‘tragedy’, for me – very far from it, in fact. 

But what I can say for certain, is that one of the major causes was that I was in a ministry [Foreign Affairs] where I wasn’t in touch with constituents. As Education Minister, it was very different. I was in touch with literally thousands of people, all the time: whether they were teachers, students, parents… and in a small society like ours, quite a few voters feel the need for that kind of ‘personal rapport’. 

I couldn’t sustain that, when doing the work of Foreign Minister. And I have no regrets about it, either; because my job, at the time, was to do my very best to promote Malta’s national interests. And that was a more of a priority, for me, than getting elected.

On the subject of the electoral disadvantages of being Foreign Minister: there seems to be a tendency here to ‘undervalue’ that particular portfolio…

[Nodding] Very much so; and not just among voters, either. Politicians tend to undervalue it, too… 

… and yet, for a country in Malta’s strategic position, it is arguably one of the most important Cabinet posts available…

It’s the most important, I would say. The smaller you are, as a State, the more importance you must give to foreign affairs. And as we only have ‘soft power’… we have to invest a lot more into it, than other countries need to. 

Because, regardless of what some people out there might think: we, as Malta, have no other way of influencing what is happening in the rest of the world. It is delusional to think otherwise; and we mustn’t allow ourselves to have that kind of delusion. 

In reality, whatever influence we wield is through ‘soft power’ [the ability to persuade, through diplomatic means]. That is the only way we can both avail of the opportunities that arise from our international relations; but also, to mitigate all the ‘pain’ that may come our way.

And to put it bluntly: Malta is one of the most exposed countries in the world. To buy anything; to sell anything… we rely exclusively on maintaining the best possible relations, with other countries.

So that is why I think that Foreign Affairs is – or should be – so important. Today, it has become obvious to everybody, that ‘Foreign Policy’ is no longer just about security, or migration, or whether we’re part of ‘this or that bloc’. Today, Foreign Policy is also about ‘Energy Policy’; ‘Food Policy’; ‘Jobs Policy’… it’s about anything, in fact, that has to do with meeting the people’s most basic daily needs…

Right now, however, those security issues may have to take priority. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, do you feel that our policy of neutrality and non-alignment may have to be revised?  

No, not at all. Actually, I would argue that our neutrality policy is now more valid than ever before. And again, for purely practical reasons… that have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘ideology’, or ‘dogma’, or ‘Faith’. 

Geographically, I can understand Finland and Sweden being very concerned with what is happening so close to their own borders. And in those countries: yes, public opinion has shifted away from neutrality.  

But that’s only because of what Putin is doing in Ukraine; and for that reason, I think that the name ‘Putin’ should also become a by-word for ‘the law of unintended consequences’. 

Because one of the things he has actually succeeded in doing, was to get the Finns and the Swedes to want to join NATO… which I’m fairly convinced was not his original intention: very much the opposite, in fact…

When it comes to Malta, however: we should certainly not rush unthinkingly into such decisions, just because ‘everybody else is doing it’. Everybody else is basing their decisions on their own geo-political realities. We should be doing the same; but our geo-political realities are very different…

Are they really? Russia has, after all, only just declared Malta ‘an unfriendly country’…

No, no, that has nothing to do with it at all! Let’s not make the usual mistake of automatically assuming the worst-case scenario.  That was only because of our participation the EU sanctions; it certainly doesn’t mean that Russia has declared Malta to be an ‘enemy’… or anything as dramatic as that.

But even if you do interpret it that way: joining NATO would still not be the answer. For one thing, we have nothing to actually offer NATO, as members: the organisation is already very well-served, by its military bases in Sicily, and elsewhere. And besides: it would only make Malta even more vulnerable to that sort of threat to begin with…

Quick last question: there are rumours going around that you have been ear-marked as Malta’s next President. Can you confirm/deny that? Have you been approached with any concrete offers, so far?

No, I completely dismiss such rumours. Certainly, I have not been ‘approached’… and I don’t expect to be approached, either. I am not after any ‘apple’ or ‘plum’. And to tell you the truth: I’m quite busy, actually. Obviously, I keep myself busy reading and writing. But I’m also back to doing what I enjoy most: lecturing, both in Malta, and overseas. So overall, I’ve got quite a lot on my plate right now.

I am definitely not after any other additional position; especially not if it’s in the hope that – by accepting that position - I will start ‘behaving’; and ‘being more careful’ about what I say or do… 

In a nutshell, I have no intention whatsoever of ‘re-designing myself’ to fit a post that might become available later on. So I wouldn’t pay too much attention to those rumours, if I were you.