First published on 17 April 2018 in The Times Of Malta
Britain’s friendship with Malta is so long and so rich that it would be easy to take for granted. The award of the George Cross in 1942 by King George VI to bear witness to the nation’s “heroism and devotion” following the second siege of Malta is only the best-known episode in a story that spans the centuries: the joint enterprise of ridding Malta of the French garrison in 1800, the islands’ part in the British Empire, their crucial role as a supply station in the First World War, their valiant endurance against the Axis powers in the Second, their long service as the home of the British Mediterranean Fleet, and accession to the Commonwealth on gaining independence in 1964 are testament to a true partnership.
These bonds of history and affection are not confined to the past. In a survey I conducted before the EU referendum I was pleased to see that fondness for Britain among Maltese people lives on. Asked to rate how favourable they felt towards each EU member, respondents in Malta gave a higher score to the UK than to any other country – a higher score, indeed, than we received from anywhere else. Offered a range of positive and negative words and phrases to describe the British, Maltese participants most often chose “cosmopolitan,” “polite,” “open-minded” and “respectful” (a much more flattering selection than that made by some of our other European partners). More than three quarters said they would like the UK to remain in the EU – well above the average of other member countries – and the Maltese were the most likely of all to say they were willing to see changes in the terms of the UK’s membership if that would keep us in the club.
It is not surprising, then, that some in Malta were shocked and disappointed, even hurt, by British voters’ decision to leave the European Union. Was the UK, with its maritime heritage and long history of engaging with the world, turning in on itself and away from its old friends?
I don’t think this is the case at all. To understand why, we need to look at the reasons behind the result. My research at the time found the three most common motivations for leave voters were the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK; that leaving offered the best chance for the country to regain control over its borders, which many felt had been lost under free movement; and that remaining would leave the UK with little say over how the EU expanded its membership or powers.
This third point is one on which British voters differ from many of their continental counterparts. In the Europe-wide survey I mentioned above, I found Maltese people to be happier with their EU membership than those of any other member state – and the very best of luck to them. But British voters have always had a rather different view of the EU than many others in Europe. They never liked the idea of “ever closer union” that remains the ambition of its leaders. While people in Britain are happy to trade and work with other countries on common problems, we never had much of an emotional connection to the EU itself. While some Europeans see the EU institutions as profound symbols of unity and progress, for Brits the relationship was more transactional. In the end, British voters decided the costs of membership outweighed the benefits – not that they wanted nothing more to do with their friends and allies. It became almost a cliché during the campaign to say that leaving the EU doesn’t mean leaving Europe, but that doesn’t make it any the less true.
I advocated Brexit, warning of the EU’s ambitions for further integration in crucial areas like tax, spending, foreign policy and defence. But as someone who invests and does business around the world, not even my critics would accuse me of being a Little Englander. Britain has never been an inward-looking country and has not suddenly become one. The government will be looking to conclude new trade deals around the world as swiftly as possible once Brexit is complete. Our ties go well beyond Europe, and our post-EU days are likely to see renewed interest in partnerships like the Commonwealth, in which Malta has recently had a prominent role and whose Heads of Government Meeting takes place in London shortly.
I am confident, then, that in its new era Britain will value old friends as it forges new alliances. As far as I’m concerned, Malta falls into both categories. I have started spending a good deal of time here in recent years (and my plane even more so, having been involved in a small mishap at the airport just after Christmas). But I first set foot in Malta in 1953, travelling with my parents on a passenger ship from Mozambique to London, my father having completed his first stint as a colonial officer in Nyasaland, now Malawi. On each visit I make new friends, always finding people to be warm and welcoming, and enjoying a certain comforting familiarity about the place that anyone coming from Britain would recognise.
The ingredients of this familiarity – driving on the left, beer served in pints, English as an official language, to name just a few – are not down to our fellow membership of the EU, which represents just fifteen years out of an alliance lasting more than two hundred. The half a million British people who visit Malta every year are not about to stay at home in their soggy deckchairs. Affiliation to a Brussels-based political organisation has not defined our shared history; neither will it determine our future.