An exasperated Jean Asselborn – Luxembourg’s Foreign Affairs Minister – spoke for many when he sighed ‘merde alors!’ (fucking hell) as Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini rambled on about the need to keep immigrants away from Europe.
This week, Salvini – riding a wave of popularity across Italy – has been warned to tone down his anti-immigrant rhetoric by Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“I make an appeal to everyone to avoid political language that creates space for racist attitudes,” Grandi said, adding that “political language has become very aggressive, not just in Italy, and even if it is not aimed at being discriminatory, can give space to latent tendencies, in a society that has so many reasons to be dissatisfied, to transfer them to foreigners, refugees and migrants.”
Grandi’s warning should not only be heeded by Salvini and his right-wing colleagues in Hungary, Germany, Austria, Sweden and France but Malta’s political leaders too.
In spite of its name and its roots, since Independence the PN has never flirted with nativism and xenophobia. Current PN leader Adrian Delia seems to think otherwise. After saying that foreigners “are robbing the Maltese people of their liberty, making our elderly people feel scared in their own homes and our youths scared to walk the streets,” Delia’s advisors said he was misunderstood.
In a statement on Monday, the Party said Delia only “attacked the exploitation of people held in inhuman conditions or sleeping rough” and insisted that “he spoke positive of foreigners who have integrated well.”
Yet when Delia lumps all foreigners together and speaks of them as a threat to the Maltese identity and follows this by calling on Maltese people to stand up for their Christian values he is precisely doing what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned against.
He is using language which creates or reinforces the conditions for racism, violence and the scapegoating of migrants. By lumping all foreigners together and accusing them of being a threat to the Maltese identity he is not only echoing the racist and xenophobic sentiments which can be seen and heard in shops, offices, squares and social media on a daily basis but he is also sending a message that these perceptions are correct and justified.
And Delia’s comments are not an isolated incident. Many of his MEP candidates are exploiting these sentiments by repeatedly posting photos of homeless migrants sleeping in the open and informing voters that the presence of shops owned by foreigners is having an adverse effect on communities in Hamrun and Marsa.
I wonder what left-leaning MPs, officials and candidates within the PN have to say about this slow metamorphosis of the PN into a nativist and racist party. I’m surprised by the silence of those who in 2003 ridiculed Labour’s campaign of fear built on the narrative that joining the EU would bring an influx of foreign workers which would in turn threaten the Maltese identity and the economy.
‘Merde alors!’ indeed. But Delia and the PN are not the only ones exploiting racism for their narrow and short-sighted self-interest. The Labour government’s inexistent integration policy, the illegal seizure of NGO rescue ships and its economic model based on cheap labour are creating the perfect conditions for racism.
Labour is directly responsible for allowing the exploitation of thousands of workers by employers and landowners and for allowing thousands of third-country nationals to live in legal limbo because it refuses to introduce a fair and transparent system for the naturalisation of foreigners.
There is no doubt that the sudden influx of foreign workers, including EU nationals and others who come with a valid work permit, changes the DNA of society. And like any other change this is often met with resentment and fear, especially among the poorer members of society.
However, labelling foreigners as a threat and allowing the exploitation of workers and families by greedy employers and landowners is no answer to the people’s legitimate concerns.
It only allows these concerns to be expressed in the form of discrimination, racism, vitriol and violence and if the two mainstream parties shape their policies and rhetoric according to their short-sighted electoral interests, we’re in for a rough ride.