National interest, Labour style
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National interest, Labour style

When the Opposition leader extended a hand of cooperation to the government to help handle the unfolding post-Brexit world, he did so aware of dormant and unutilised expertise within his party’s ranks that once helped Malta successfully navigate the financial storm that peaked between 2008 and 2011.

Simon Busuttil cited national interest as the reason behind his move, knowing that once the UK invoked article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, what would follow would be two years of intense discussions that would lead to its exit from the EU. Uncertainly will be around for quite some time yet. The International Monetary Fund has foreseen lengthy and complicated negotiations of new trade terms with the EU. These are unchartered waters for everyone and the political fallout in the UK does not help.

Credit agencies had warned that Malta was among the countries that stood to lose the most from a Brexit. Exports to the UK, investment in Malta and tourism are among the areas of concern.

The government has assured that each of its ministries had its own contingency plan, prepared months in advance. It was rather short on details, however. Putting on a brave face may be the best the government can do at the moment, given the stakes, the uncertainty and the unfolding circumstances that have left the whole of Europe stunned.

Former British prime minister David Cameron has left it up to his successor, Theresa May, to kick-start the process of negotiating an exit agreement. This would, more or less, coincide with Malta’s rotating presidency of the European Council during the first half of next year. The talks are likely to be conducted by the European Commission acting on a mandate from the Council.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Malta was “ready to play broker” in Brexit talks. “We are very well positioned and trusted by both sides,” he said. Naturally, such statements ignore the UK’s decades-long relationship with the EU and that Malta, as a member State, is not an objective and indifferent outsider but a country expected to protect and promote the EU’s interests, which it shares.

More recent, Dr Muscat added ominously that Malta was not seeking “spoils of war” from Brexit. Every country tries to promote its own interests and to make the best out of situations but, sometimes, things could always be said a bit better.

As for the Opposition leader’s offer, the Prime Minister said Dr Busuttil should stop badmouthing Malta if he really wanted to work with the government on Brexit. His reaction indicates that the government would rather go it alone than involve the Opposition. Labour may not be prepared to share any credit in an election year.

To snub the Opposition leader, Dr Muscat chose to invoke old Labour-speak from the 1970s and 1980s, when nation and government were considered as one, when national interest was equated to partisan interest and when all dissenters were branded as traitors.

Such belligerence from the government does not augur well. Things can turn unexpectedly sour with negative economic repercussions for Malta.It would be best for the government not to close the door on any help from the Opposition.

As former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi wrote in The Sunday Times of Malta: “I hope that our Prime Minister will follow up on the leader of the Opposition’s offer to cooperate at all levels… in the best interest of our nation.”

That depends, of course, on how one defines the national interest.

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