One major factor weighing on the Maltese political scene in 2018 is the election of a new government in Italy which may undo the unwritten agreement on migration.
For yet unknown reasons, consecutive center-left governments led by Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Poalo Gentoloni accepted to take in all migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean including those which were nearer to Malta.
This has meant that Malta has seen no major boat arrival of migrants in the last 4 years. The Maltese and Italian governments have repeatedly denied accusations hailing from the Italian right-wing opposition, that this was the result of an agreement linking migration with oil exploration rights insisting that this was the result of close collaboration between the two countries.
But this could change as elections in Italy due by next May can bring in a new government which is less sympathetic to Malta’s migration plight.
If this happens Muscat will also lose a strategic friend at European level. Renzi is expected to bow out of the political scene if he loses. Renzi is very close to Muscat and found time to address a Labour mass meeting at the Granaries in Floriana days before the general election.
Renzi was forced to resign as Italian premier a year ago following a defeat in a constitutional referendum but may return as Prime Minister if the Democratic Party wins next year’s election..
But the latest polls show that Renzi’s Democratic Party is likely to lose the elections with the centre-right led by Silvio Berlusconi enjoying an eight-point lead over both Renzi’s centre-left and Luigi Di Maio’s populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). Renzi is unlikely to win the election following a split in his own party and the birth of a new leftwing outfit called Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal).
Still Italy’s complicated electoral system may not yield a clear winner.
The nightmare scenario for Muscat will be a government led by the M5S, which apart from being ambivalent on migration is also opposed to the TAP pipeline linking Azerbaijan to Italy which could be extended to Malta from Sicily.
A government led by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia will also include the far-right Lega Nord which in the past has insisted that Malta should take in migrants rescued in its waters. Moreover Forza Italia is also an ally of the Nationalist Party in the European People’s Party.
The best prospect for the Maltese government will be a coalition government which excludes populist elements.
Otherwise come next summer migration will become a major issue as the boats start arriving after a four year lull. If this happens the temptation to make political capital of this issue will increase for the Opposition.
This may contribute to the party’s drift to the right. With MEP elections on the horizons, both parties may end having to placate xenophobic elements which have been kept at bay thanks to the unwritten agreement.