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Malta Isn't Devaluing Its Citizenship (Any More Than Anyone Else...)

04/02/2014 12:17 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 10:59 BST

As my nigh-unpronounceable name might suggest, I'm (half-) Maltese. The tiny island has been a second home to me over the years, and so it was with mixed feelings that I greeted the news last week that it had put its citizenship up for sale. Other EU member states are outraged. Much of this outrage is understandable: one Romanian MEP accused Malta of double standards, awarding passports--which give freedom of movement and labour within the EU along with visa-free travel to many other countries--to wealthy Russians and Chinese, while Romanians and Bulgarians are still not guaranteed these rights, not being party to the Schengen agreement that institutes them. Humanitarian groups have contrasted this Mediterranean welcome to the decidedly more frosty reception given to boatloads of African refugees who tried to enter Maltese waters in illegal desperation earlier last year. Fair enough.

But what of the accusation that Malta, uniquely, is turning citizenship into a 'tradeable commodity', and what of the injunction, from EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, that 'citizenship must not be up for sale'? Although I agree with the sentiment, I find the judgmental fervour hard to swallow, above all from Britain's Home Office (who made it clear that they would 'not tolerate the abuse of free movement rights').

I might point to the hypocrisy Britain's immigration debate in recent months. David Cameron declared that there was 'no limit' on the number of (wealthy) Chinese students who could study in Britain, also telling investors 'if you are thinking of investing in Britain, come and find us. You will get a warm welcome'. All of this weeks after reassuring xenophobic Tories that he would bring net migration down, because under Labour 'immigration was far too high and badly out of control'. He also promised that any Bulgarian or Romanian immigrant found to be sleeping rough or begging would be deported, and that all new EU migrant's access to vital benefits (i.e. the protections afforded by citizenship) would be cut entirely. In other words, everyone is welcome to be a British citizen--as long as you're rich and planning to spend.

I might point to the eugenic way that the immigration bill itself has developed. Conservative MPs proposed amendments that would ban HIV+ immigrants. Happily, David Cameron announced that he would act 'with the greatest urgency' to allow Syrian refugees to enter Britain and rebuild their lives in safety--apparently 'great urgency' in Cameron's universe means 'after three years', and has nothing to do with the UN's intervention after months of our selfish intransigence. Nevertheless, he reassured his backbenchers that the numbers would be limited to hundreds rather than thousands (because apparently, unlike for Chinese students, there is a limit to how many we can take), and listened attentively to arguments from former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth that priority should be given to Syrian Christians (because they're worth more, obviously). Malta is derided for evaluating the rights of people financially; in Britain, people are people, and anyone can count on the protection of the state--as long as they're not dying and they believe in God.

I might point to the way the Home Office, so quick to rebuke Maltese tactics, has altered its treatment of current British citizens. Theresa May fights constantly for the right to deport criminals, and last year the number of people with dual nationality stripped of their British citizenship was more than that of the previous two-and-a-half years combined. She also tabled an amendment which would allow the Government to make terror suspects (and, some fear, political dissidents) entirely stateless, in clear contravention of Britain's obligations under articles 13 and 15 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Because citizenship is certainly not something to given out in exchange for money (although Britain does offer a fast-track to citizenship for wealthy investors--we just ask for a lot more money than Malta does), but it is something to be taken away arbitrarily.

(I might even point out that the notion of Maltese statehood is itself a recent phenomenon, only fifty years old this year; prior to this Malta was a British colony, along with a fifth of the world's population and a quarter of its landmass. Because statehood is not a commodity for sale, but it is something to be taken by force.)

The reason so many foreign powers are angry with Malta is not because it is doing something that has never been done before, but because it is being honest about what everyone else is doing all the time. Citizenship has always been reducible to a number, be it wealth, skin tone, or viral load. Britain's message has long been clear: if you're not white, rich, healthy, and politically conformist, you're not welcome (but we might colonize you). Am I overjoyed that neoliberalism has reached such a peak that the very notion of national belonging can be auctioned off to the highest bidder? No. But if Britain wants to criticize, then it might have to speak up. We can't really hear you from inside that glass house.