Joseph Muscat, Karl Izzo and sundry mates

The Opposition MPs who voted against the nomination of Karl Izzo for the ambassadorship in Montenegro went to some pains to insist their objections were not because Karl Izzo was a buddy of Joseph Muscat.

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Herman Schiavone were right to vote against the nomination and were right to underline that there are more obvious reasons to object than the fact that Karl Izzo and Joseph Muscat are mates.

It is bad enough that we have to contend with unprepared politicians learning on the job. Some would say it’s a benefit of the transient nature of holders of political office that they are not native before they start and do not have a judgement jaded by too much experience or inside knowledge.

But that argument only flies if politicians are then advised by seasoned civil servants, experts who understand their job.

And I don’t say so just because I am actually trained in International Relations and Comparative Politics. Diplomacy and the engagement of relations with other countries requires expertise and training. It’s not just something one can walk into.

Someone should have asked Karl Izzo what he’d think if Herman Schiavone say, or I for that matter, were to be appointed waterpolo coach. Looks easy enough. After all if you throw me in the water I probably won’t drown and anyway a waterpolo coach doesn’t have to swim most of the time.

You can’t fault the Opposition for focusing on this so very fundamental aspect in their objection to the appointment of Karl Izzo.

But there were many elephants in that room. (Read this Yannick Pace report on Malta Today on the proceedings in Parliament to get the low-down on what was said).

Karl Izzo is not going to be a resident in Podgorica. That means this is a part-time position and there won’t actually be a chancery in that town where at least one more full-time employee of the Maltese diplomatic service — who’s actually been to school and learnt something about diplomatic affairs — could possibly advise and prepare Karl Izzo.

Let’s face it this guy is not the first under-qualified ambassador to get a job. But the same argument about a clueless Minister supported by expert civil servants can apply to a charming but largely unprepared Ambassador supported by qualified staff.

Karl Izzo will have none of that and frankly — what with his retail business and his other interests — none of us are actually seeing him spend hours at the Foreign Office talking briefs with the Balkans desk.

He’ll be winging it.

Now add to that a number of serious considerations.

First, by his own account he knows Montenegro and has been a few times. Is it not time to understand why? Does he have commercial interests there? Does he have personal business there? Is he involved in personal business of others?

Of course his trips there could all turn out to be to try out their swimming pools. But is it more complicated than that?

Second, Malta already has some interests in Montenegro and the names that come up raise red flags immediately you hear them. Shanghai Electric are using Enemalta to build a renewable energy plant there. Konrad Mizzi is keen on the project and continues to sponsor it in spite of his transfer to the Tourism Ministry. It’s impossible to forget the arrangements made for the negotiator for Shanghai Electric by Brian Tonna, who made similar arrangements for Konrad Mizzi as well.

Karl Izzo may be entirely unconnected with any of this.

But in the context of such murkiness, is the Prime Minister’s buddy the best choice for the job?

Third, Montenegro’s government is manifestly one of the most corrupt in Europe. It does not even make the 50% score in Transparency International’s corruption index.

By his own account, Karl Izzo is buddies with one of the Ministers in that government. That’s quite possibly entirely innocent because the Minister concerned has a waterpolo background as well. But that Minister works in a corrupt government accused of shady personal interests conducted from their political offices.

Sounds familiar? That’s the point.

Fourth, Karl Izzo knows and Joseph Muscat knows, the rest of the country is unclear about the nature of their friendship. Everyone is entitled to have friends, even prime ministers, ambassadors, water polo coaches and owners of retail chains.

Without more facts neither the Opposition MPs at yesterday’s committee, nor anyone else can throw around allegations of deeper, hidden layers to the relationship. But in their business as prime minister and as ambassador surely they must be sensitive to the way things are looking out  here.

The impression we get once again is not just of a country run by unqualified people, but rather a country run by people who are in it for themselves.