Lurve for country

We have been warned. A pandemic of love of country is going to break out all around us once the MEP election campaign begins in earnest.

Those who ‘don’t love Malta’ (because they dare criticise the erosion of institutional independence when in Brussels) will be contrasted with those who do. Joseph Muscat is urging even PN voters to vote only for those candidates on their Party’s list who truly love Malta.

But there’s love and then there’s lurve. Lurve can thrill you off your feet and make you feel effervescent; but it’s short-term and short-sighted. It’s full of good intentions, perhaps, but also illusions.

In national life, just as at the personal level, it’s easy for lurve to be manipulated. It can cover up an exploitative, abusive relationship. It can be possessive and jealous, ever ready to see signs of betrayal. Lurve might feel warm but it spells trouble.

Distinguishing between love and lurve is not always simple. You cannot just take a leaf out of mainland Europe’s book. Our national history complicates the issue.

The distinction usually drawn in Europe is between good and ugly love. The former is called patriotism; the latter, nationalism. Patriotism is loving your country at no one else’s expense. ‘Nationalism’, as used in this context, is bigoted love. It comes wrapped in a package of disdain and hate for others. Far-right parties are nationalist in this sense.

In larger European states, with an imperial or belligerent past, the patriotism/nationalism distinction works. It’s less helpful when applied to a tiny former colony like Malta. Our past is different. We have never expanded at another nation’s expense. Historically, the main political challenge was to see that the national interest was not subordinated to that of an outside controlling power.

It’s this past that explains how we can have a centrist party called the Nationalist Party, and a Labour Party whose most famous slogan is Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox (Malta first and above all else), without many Maltese seeing anything too wrong with either. The colonial context changes everything. It’s this past, too, that makes it easier for lurve to pass itself off as love.

As I listen to the candidates asking for my vote, I know what I’ll be looking for. I would never trust the judgment of someone who believes love means sticking by the country, right or wrong.

That belief is based on the idea that there is a hard boundary between Maltese society and Europe, such that it inevitably harms Malta’s self-interest to report bad governance to European institutions. Of course, good sense and circumspection are always needed. But the idea that the European institutions are not part of Malta’s life is based on a mistaken understanding of Maltese identity.

Giorgio Borg Olivier had it right. He deliberately chose to make his first trip overseas, as prime minister of independent Malta, to the Council of Europe. He began his speech by saying that being at that assembly felt like a homecoming.

To be Maltese is to feel that Europe is home. Europe doesn’t dilute Maltese identity and interests. It magnetises them. It offers us the possibility of developing our potential in ways we otherwise could not.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) isn’t foreign; it’s our court too, an authority recognised by our Constitution. It would be absurd to say that a Maltese citizen who appeals for justice to the ECHR is a traitor, because any quarrel with the State should be settled at home.

It’s the same with the institutions of the European Union. They’re ours – the soil in which our democracy, liberty and equality take root. Any belief that pits our self-interest against our fundamental values has to be wrong.

Critics of MEPs like David Casa and Roberta Metsola like to say that no other country has MEPs that criticise their own State in Brussels. That’s an odd factual error to make. The European Socialists have been – rightly – principled critics of the way in which Hungary and Poland are being governed, steadily departing from European values. The Socialists have been urged to take that stand not least by their Hungarian and Polish members.

Love of country cannot be divorced from love of justice. Loyalty to the country is intertwined with loyalty to its highest law, the Constitution.

Lurve for country, however, demands blind loyalty abroad – not to the Constitution but to the State, no matter how reprehensible or dysfunctional its behaviour. Its idea of national self-interest legitimises an abusive relationship between State and citizens. Lurve turns the ship of state into a ship of fools.

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