The recent amendment to the Maltese Citizenship Act has been discussed ad nauseum and yet, despite our Prime Minister’s insistence that the scheme roll on ahead, there does not yet seem to be anywhere near enough general consensus on this potential landmark in Maltese history. I cannot help but feel that amidst all the rehashed arguments and petty political banter surrounding the debate lies something of fundamental importance and it is this that I shall be tackling in this article.
When looking at the amount of money that could enter the island’s coffers as a result of this initiative, I cannot see how even the most ardent of Dr. Muscat’s critics can refute that, if only on a purely economic basis, the new citizenship project will yield positive results for the Maltese Islands. If the latest figures are correct then if ten people apply for citizenship within a year, they can be expected to collectively part with €11.5 million of which €4.55 million will end up in a national development fund, €3.5 in local property investment and €1.5 million in local bond and shares investment. For a country like Malta that is trying to develop in line with major European cities despite its heavy dependence on tourism as a source of income, this recent amendment to the citizenship act is like some financial manna, a significant injection into the Maltese treasury at the cost of….
Of course here is where the problem really begins- for the majority of the dissenters to the amendment do not take issue with the financial implications of the scheme but with something deeper and more abstract, namely the possible negative consequences it can bear for the Maltese identity. However, interestingly enough, a recent debate held in the KSU Common Room by international lecturer Ellis Potter on the meaning of this ‘Maltese identity’, which was well-attended by students and lecturers, proved inconclusive in regards to a final agreeable definition for the concept in question. Rather, it may have proved conclusive in its inconclusiveness, as oxymoronic as that may sound! For while we all hold our own individual notions of what it means to be Maltese, it does not seem as though it possesses an objective reality in and of itself.
It would seem, therefore, that any attempt to define ‘Maltese-ness’ in one broad and sweeping statement will inevitably prove futile as one will always find exceptions to it. If one sticks with the common definition of ‘Maltese-ness’ as somebody who possesses at least one Maltese parent, what would be the status of foreign babies who were adopted by Maltese families and who grew up on the island? Is such a person more Maltese or less Maltese than a person whose parents are both Maltese but who has never set foot on the island? Certainly, it would seem that one cannot reduce ‘Maltese-ness’ to an attribute held by owners of a Maltese identity card and passport. While these future foreign passport-buying millionaires will, for all legal intents and purposes, become Maltese after the transaction, the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to the amendment makes me believe that it is unlikely that they will be instantly welcomed by the Maltese society as Maltese and not as outsiders.
So where does this leave us? I personally think that we can do much worse than make use of Benedict Anderson’s theory on imagined communities (1983). In a nutshell this theory states that, for any community to function smoothly despite none of its members knowing the identity of most of his or her other co-members, all of its members must imagine themselves as being part of the same union that transcends its individual constituents. Or, put more simply, every Maltese citizen must believe that every other Maltese citizen also sees him/herself as Maltese for Malta to exist as a nation in the first place! It is important here to note that such a claim of the ‘Maltese identity’ being ‘imagined’ does not in any way mean that it is fake or a lie but rather that it possesses no objective reality outside the collective minds of the people who identify themselves with it.
It logically follows that an imagined community exists under constant, if sometimes distant, threat of getting ‘un-imagined’ and therefore ceasing to exist. One of the fundamental ‘rules’ of the modern nation state is that one cannot choose what nation one belongs to- one is typically born a member of a particular nation and dies as a member of that same nation. Of course naturalization is possible but the very fact that one has to live in a country for a certain number of years (5 years in Malta’s case) before one can apply for citizenship can be translated into the fact that one must live and act as a proper member of that nation’s imagined community for a certain amount of time before one can be allowed to join it officially.
True membership is certainly something that has not (at least until recently) been conceived of as accessible through a cash payment. The double-edged truth about money is that it creates a standard through which the value of ‘objects’ can be asserted. By stamping a price-tag on Maltese citizenship, the government is effectively placing it on the market. Bizarre as it may sound, the value of Maltese citizenship can now be equated to the value of 54 Rolex watches.
While it is true that the citizenship scheme will boost Malta’s economy and while it is extremely likely that any interested buyers are not interested in the Maltese passport per se but rather in the European rights their ownership of such a passport will yield them, the mere fact that Maltese identity will soon become a marketable product will result in it entering the Maltese national consciousness, perhaps resulting in an identity crisis, and do we not already have enough of that as it is?!
Whether it will ultimately prove beneficial for Malta to start swinging away from the Maltese imagined community and towards a European one is another argument altogether but, as a final note, I have to add that this new citizenship amendment has certainly stirred up powerful emotions in several Maltese people. How sweetly ironic it is then that in a modern capitalist system, where the freedom of individual choice is so strongly valued, something like national identity, that is not usually supposed to be chosen at all, is still capable of inspiring such deep and pure emotions within us.