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Malta-Italy relations: then and now

With reference to the healthy exchange of letters in The Times recently between my colleague Professor Albert Leone Ganado and the newly-arrived Italian Ambassador Alvise Memmo, it may be worth noting a few points.

The extent of Italian assistance to Malta since 1964 was recently brought to public attention in The Sunday Times by the surgeon Mario Tabone-Vassallo. What was striking in his focus was the amount of aid given and the lack of fuss made about it - both positive qualities, to my mind.

For obvious reasons, Italy could not give Malta bilateral financial assistance before independence, although I have shown extensively in my writings how even before that, indeed well before that, Italy kept up a special interest in Malta and the Maltese.

While Ambassador Memmo's list of visitors this year may be impressive, it is, as discourse in Malta usually is, conjugated in the present tense. That does scant justice to the long-term Italo-Maltese reality, in the context of which the present may be less extraordinary than it may seem to the uninitiated.

Apart from commercial, political, religious, linguistic and cultural connections going back in doses and phases from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the anti-French insurrection to the Risorgimento, Italy intervened at the highest levels in Maltese affairs even during the British colonial period.

For example, as the 20th century dawned, the intended full-blown substitution of Italian by English in Maltese public life (where Italian had been the literary language for centuries) led to strong pronouncements by, among others, two Italian foreign ministers (Visconti-Venosta and Prinetti), the historian Pasquale Villari, Garibaldi's son Ricciotti, and indeed King Victor Emmanuel III. As a result, Britain's thorough anglicisation policy, deadlined essentially on the principle of "English, and English only", was modified. (See Party Politics in a Fortress Colony: The Maltese Experience, 1979, 2nd. ed. 1991, chapter 4: "The Nationalist Struggle against Strickland's Administration 1899-1902".)

Although Fascism and particularly Italy's ill-advised and disastrous intervention in the Second World War on the side of the Axis dealt Italo-Maltese relations a devastating blow, even during the inter-war period - as has been the case emphatically after independence - scholarships on behalf of Maltese talent in all fields were forthcoming mostly from Italy. Hundreds have benefited from such opportunities, quite apart from the technical and military aspects in other protocols.

Perhaps because of all the hugely publicised stereotyped party political talk in Dom Mintoff's time and earlier about 'fascisti' and 'mafiosi', and in spite of the facts brought to light from original sources in my latest two books, it is still not commonly realised that actually even the Mintoff-led Malta Labour Party saw a close Italo-Maltese rapport as possible, if not desirable, especially but not only after the Integration with Britain bid had failed by 1958.

Mintoff was on an Italian-sponsored study tour of Italy in 1963: while Borg Olivier was in London negotiating Malta's independence package, he seems to have been discussing a possible plan for Malta as an autonomous region on the lines of Sicily or Sardinia. (See The Origins of Maltese Statehood: A Case Study of Decolonization in the Mediterranean, 1999, 2nd. ed. 2000, ch. 12: "Oltre Mare: the Italian Option").

The Italian consul, later consul-general, at the time was Dottor Onofrio Messina, while the holder of the Chair of Italian at our then university, Professor Antonio di Pietro, allegedly had Mintoff's ear. (See the documents mentioning the MLP's "piano" and "scopo" in Censu Tabone: The Man and His Century, 2000, 2nd. ed. 2001, p. 157.) Although Malta still was not independent, Italy was at that time supporting Britain's request to join the Common Market.

In a recorded interview at the Casino Maltese, the late Police Commissioner Vivian De Gray expressed no surprise at any Mintoff plan for some kind of integration with Italy in the early 1960s. He referred to an incident in the late 1940s when Mintoff had come up with the proposal that Malta should integrate with Italy. (Malta's Quest for Independence: Reflections on the Course of Maltese History, 1999, p. 251 et seq.; The Origins of Maltese Statehood, op. cit.).

As Dr Guzè Cassar was present with Dr Arthur Colombo when Mintoff had informally come out with this suggestion, I personally checked it out with Dr Cassar, shortly before he sadly passed away. He was not surprised either. Mintoff always felt, he confided to me, that Malta was too small and should form part of a larger whole ("Mintoff dejjem hass li Malta kienet zghira wisq u kellha tkun parti minn xi haga akbar").

As Christine Coleiro has shown (A Propitious Partner, 1997), in the 1970s and early 1980s Italy once again played a prominent role by Malta's side. At times this strategic friendship irritated the Nationalist Party in opposition, when systematic, largely unchecked and indeed unprecedented political violence had raised its head (and then, after 1981, when it was the PN in opposition which represented an absolute majority of the electorate).

Aldo Moro in particular, perhaps wisely, had tried to keep an open line with Mintoff (until the former's kidnapping and assassination by the Brigate Rosse in 1978). This much, and a little more, was confided to me by the then Shadow Foreign Minister, Dr Censu Tabone, during my recorded encounters for his biography.

Comparisons are odious but it is fair to mention, too, that Britain poured a lot of money into Malta, especially during the post-war and decolonisation process, and to somehow make up for the run-down, at least to some extent.

This is no place where to go into the details of such contrasting complexities in historical, cultural and political experience, but I would say that on the whole Italy and also Britain have been the two main contributors, in different ways, to Malta's development, in the later case especially after the Second World War, in the lead-up to independence, and afterwards.

While the unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable creation of a dependent economy is no revelation, to castigate Britain simply for causing or creating under-development, in a reactionary post-colonial vein, strikes me as an ideologically barbed back-to-front generalisation. Modernisation apart, there certainly are many grains of truth in it, as with every colonial experience, but one cannot over-simplify. Such mutterings have been heard for a very long time, in Malta too.

The truth is that Malta took off in a big way after Borg Olivier's very cautiously negotiated independence package deal, notwithstanding the prophecies of gloom and doom we had, not least from British and pro-British sources. For various reasons assistance to Malta from other countries such as Germany, France, the US and of course Russia, were not, with some exceptions, in the same league, while relations with the Iberian powers, including Spain, so strong in the past, became rather fossilised until recently.

This is not to suggest any "crumbs under the table" mentality whatsoever; but the fact is that Malta is a new state, 38 years old, emerging from neocolonialism, with scars going back to the Second World War still in evidence. Bilateral and multilateral relations in a legal sense, other than the old Anglo-Maltese ones, are a post-colonial development; how these may be affected by EU membership remains to be seen.

Supporting Malta, italianità or not, was in Italy's interest, as it was in Britain's, to ensure continuing good relations. In Italy's case, there was neighbourliness; in Britain's, after decolonisation, making the most of what could be retained from a long, unequal relationship during the best part of two centuries. In the end, cultural and even ethnic affinities came to be somewhat shared, while strategic interests combined after 1945.

Ambassador Memmi's most telling and revealing point, in his cordially and diplomatically worded response to Professor Leone Ganado's concern, lies in the following sentence: "What I would like to stress at this stage is my firm conviction that following Malta's membership of the European Union - to which move Italy is giving its full support in Brussels and elsewhere - the Italian contributions to Malta will not fail to proceed, in the various sectors and with unchanged intensity."

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