With just days to go until the island casts its vote to select the next six MEPS to represent us in Europe, The Executive talks to candidates to discover the issues driving their individual campaigns.
Francis Zammit Dimech kick-starts his definition of Europe by stressing there should be no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to Europe. “We are members of the EU and I am totally set against the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that is professed by persons who still do not genuinely believe in Malta’s membership to the EU or, for that matter, in the EU itself. Scepticism is a negative force that does harm to the Union and to our own country. The EP is as much our own Parliament as it is the Parliament of the rest of the European constituencies. I see Malta as enhancing the reputation that we have built up over the past 10 years of membership of the EU precisely by being European and feeling more proud than ever before of our national identity that is enhanced through our membership of the Union.”
Zammit Dimech is also adamant that Malta can compete on a business level. “Over the past few years we have invested heavily in our system of education, in training young people and in being innovative,” he says. “The Maltese people are both talented as well as capable of adapting and rising to new challenges. I have never looked upon our people as either small bait or as lacking talent.
“Moreover the fact that, in Malta, we practically are all capable of speaking and expressing ourselves in a second – in many cases also in a third – language, as well as the fact that we are geographically placed in the centre of the Mediterranean and know how to identify and deal with opportunities in North Africa, gives us a competitive advantage that should never be underestimated. “Ultimately we need to believe in and have trust in ourselves.”
Malta’s position within the EU is obviously very important to the candidates. Asked about how he views Malta’s position, Arnold Cassola, who leads the Green party locally, believes: “We are Europe, but we are also Maltese, in Europe, a particular reality of dimensions and location that must be addressed in a targeted and specific manner. While being conscious of our size and limitations, we have the power to influence things in the right direction.”
For Cassola, it is the bettering of Maltese residents’ quality of life that he will be focusing on if elected. “This would include the total re-haul of the Dublin Rules, which are currently preventing migrants from moving from Malta to other parts of the EU,” he says. “This would enable Malta to alleviate the burden of detaining so many migrants by allowing them to proceed to other countries in Europe, as the great majority never intended to come to Malta in the first place. We’ll also work to continue empowering Maltese citizens and civil society to have a stronger role in the decision making process.”
Cassola has no problem noting the controversial issues he feels passionate about: “Racism, xenophobia, spring hunting, the illegal occupation of public land and all arrogant behaviour in general,” he says. “I will continue to fight against it.”
For Alfred Sant, Malta’s ex-Prime Minister and current PL MEP candidate, it is ‘social dimension’ that he would like to see developed.
“Europe’s social model has been greatly undermined in the past years, and that development needs to be reversed,” he says.
“The EU as such does not focus on any particular country but tries to develop continent-wide policies. It is up to all member states to contribute to the development and management of EU policies in ways that safeguard their national interest. Our partners in the EU should be aware that our national interest as the smallest member state and an island nation requires that one-size-fits-all policies be honestly scrutinised and run to ensure that they do not simply roll over and ignore the particular circumstances that define Malta’s existence.”
Rather than ‘pushing’ issues, if elected as an MEP, Sant would emphasise two main themes.
“They would include the one I’ve just mentioned – related to the need not to straitjacket all EU countries into one-size-fits-all policies; and secondly the need to ensure that Europe is built around concepts that respect fully the ideal of Europe as a ‘Europe of nations’ and not as a Europe of ‘united states’.”
Sant stresses that we also need to understand better the dynamics of the EU and the Eurozone, so that Malta can best assess how these will affect our traditional and non-traditional sectors of economic activity.
“There is a need to combine an understanding of developments in Malta with mature judgements about developments in the rest of Europe. We can compete for business by being cost effective, flexible and self reliant while seeking strategic partnerships without letting the stars get in our eyes. Malta’s business communities need to look beyond seeking EU support and establish where they want to go and how. Dependence on EU “support” is not going to get them anywhere.”
Current MEP Roberta Metsola believes Europe needs to the ‘big on the big things and small on the small things’. She also stresses that a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work but that, as member states, we do need to learn from one another.
“It is essential that we find a balance that fully respects individual member states’ competencies in particular fields, especially where there are ethical concerns. Having said that, this needs to be done without restricting what can be achieved on European level too.
“Malta’s place is at the same table as our EU partners. Around 80 per cent of all legislation implemented in Malta is first negotiated in the EP, making a strong voice there indispensable. There are only six MEP seats allocated to Malta, so it is essential that we toe the same line where the best interests of the people of Malta and Gozo so dictate. We may be the smallest national delegation, but I will continue to work to ensure that the voice of our people is always heard.
“Over the last few years, Malta has been a leader on many issues – take financial services or online gaming for example. Many EU states look to us for our experience. That is not to say that we have nothing to learn from other States – far from it. That is a crucial aspect of our EU Membership – sharing experiences, best practices and learning from the experiences of other States on any number of different issues,” she says.
Unfortunately, PN candidate Jonathan Shaw thinks that Malta’s position within the EU has been backtracked. “Until a year ago I viewed Malta as a respectable success story within the EU, garnishing huge respect from other member states. Unfortunately, in the recent year, I feel that we have tarnished that respect thanks to the current administration’s actions and attitude, which at times bordered on a euro-hostile and populist approach. As a prospective MEP I would be committed to working to restore such respect, which is well-deserved by Malta and its citizens.
“Additionally, I also hope to break down the complex and bureaucratic EU systems. Local representation offices and agencies need to have a ‘can do’ approach which push and aid local communities to tap in such support.”
For PN candidate and current MEP David Casa there are also several issues that he feels should be focused on in the years to come, including unlocking the full potential of the Internal Market and reworking for sensible-yet-proportionate regulation of the financial sector.
“I will push for real accountability, transparency and meritocracy,” he says. “We have shown on more than one occasion that, through a spirit of compromise and intelligent cooperation, Malta’s views have been taken into account and our concerns addressed. We will never be as influential as France or Germany but we have demonstrated great competence and reliability, at least in the PN years, and this has made us matter. Already after just one year of Labour in Government I feel that a great deal of this work has been undermined. This is most unfortunate.
“Now the future of Malta’s relationship with the EU depends very much on the behaviour of the Labour Government over the next four years. The first year of Labour’s mandate does not augur well. One can only hope that the trend we have seen emerge does not continue, and that this Government will approach issues that contain a European dimension with political maturity and tact.”
Also keen to promote Malta within the EU’s internal market, PN candidate Kevin Cutajar believes that the internal market is, in fact, Malta’s biggest EU benefit. “Upon exceeding to the EU, Malta’s market grew from a market of 400,000 individuals to a market of half a billion and more (i.e. the EU’s population and the population of third countries with which the EU has entered into trade agreements).
“The internal market is one single market without any borders and which gives the opportunity to a person coming from a Member State to freely trade with any other person coming from any other Member State. This is why I set Malta’s full access to the EU’s internal market as one of my priorities, if elected.
“In my opinion, the best way in which the EU can help our business community to benefit from this advantage is to constantly take Malta’s particular needs into account when making any decision and in any legislation which it adopts..”
Meanwhile, Peter Cordina, a PL candidate who was also the secretary general of the Moviment Iva campaign, believes in the importance of pushing for change. “Change is a constant element of our lives nowadays,” he explains. “Managing change is, therefore, a must.
“My approach will be to try to discern between changes which lead to genuine progress, and that which is change for its own sake, or for the worse. In all of this, it is important to factor the human element. Change can be a great motivator if properly managed, but equally a catalyst of opposition of not properly communicated and shared.
“Specifically speaking, it would be good to simplify EU procedures, as they are often so cumbersome. I would favour approaches that are friendlier to the citizen and easier to access, especially for small and peripheral countries like ours. A more effective EU would, in future, be a leaner and less bureaucratic one.”
Miriam Dalli, a PL candidate well-known for her sterling journalism work, will also be pushing for change. “Being satisfied with the status-quo isn’t good enough for me,” she states. “If elected as an MEP I would like to see the gap that still exists between the citizens and EU institutions addressed. I intend to reach out to as many citizens as possible via different means of communications. I pledge to communicate constantly about my work and to provide information about directives that will affect our citizens.”
She highlights the Dublin II Regulation as putting countries like Malta in a disadvantaged position. “In my opinion, the EU has to rectify the current Dublin II arrangement as it imposes disproportionate duress on Malta when it comes to search and rescue operations, as well as the processing of applications for refugee status or asylum. I believe that this regulation is still undermining European citizens inalienable right to have an equal shot at achieving prosperity.”
Naturally, Dalli isn’t the only candidate to raise the issue of immigration. In fact, several of our interviewees had strong opinions on the topic.
“I think the one single issue which the EU should focus on should be our problem with illegal immigration,” says PL candidate Mario Farrugia Borg. “We are approaching summer and this means that we will soon be facing boatloads of people entering our shores illegally.
“While we, as a people, remain the most hospitable in Europe, we have to put national interest first and make our position very clear: we cannot take in unsustainable numbers. There should be compulsory burden sharing and a mechanism by which requests for refugee status are processed before the cross over to Europe. This is no doubt one issue that I will be pushing.
“I also want to focus on peace in the Mediterranean, with Malta as a bridge between Europe and Africa. I strongly believe that there can be no peace in Europe unless there is peace in the Mediterranean. This is a concept that Malta has strived to make very clear since 1973. I think nobody is in a better position than Malta to make Europe understand this.”
PL candidate Charlon Gouder agrees and states that there’s no way around the fact that immigration needs to be a major focus of the next set of MEPs. “I will not just tak a stand by showing solidarity with immigrants,” he says, “but will continue to drive the strategy of the Maltese Government. I refuse to give up on this challenge as it is greatly affecting our country and the rest of Europe.
“Europe is certainly changing fast and we need to keep track of its development. The next five years will see an enhancement of negotiations with US and China on the trade front and a multitude of new developments in new areas that will depend on the new commission (which is yet to be nominated). Most of the next five years are not visible now. What is sure, though, is that Europe is at a cross-roads and we need six strong voices in Brussels and in Strasbourg to carry our flag.”
PL candidate Clint Camilleri is equally vocal on the matter of illegal immigration. “The EU must understand that this is not only a Maltese problem but a European one,” he says. “The EU is based on solidarity and hence all member states must share this burden and help to alleviate this problem.
“Although Malta is small compared to other EU countries in terms of geography, population and representation, we are still full EU members. This means that we have all the rights and possibilities to voice our concerns when it comes to legislation that could affect our country’s state of affairs. Sometimes change is not possible, other times we require assistance, and it all depends on the issues. We have to lobby hard in the EU corridors to seek common issues between neighbouring countries. Malta is a co-partner with our European members and not adversaries and this facilitates mutual collaboration.”
PN candidate Ray Bugeja, a renowned businessman and financial service specialist, is driven by economic growth and hopes to work to improve this area for Malta. “Along with that, I would like to see the incentivisation of market-target education and entrepreneurship, and the minimisation of unemployment, especially among the young. These are, in essence, one objective because they are profoundly interdependent. I found educational, work, entrepreneurial and lifestyle opportunities in Europe and I want these to be available to upcoming and future generations.
“I believe that, as an MEP, opportunities should be sought – both within and outside EU structures. I want to give Maltese businesses the same incentivising environment to be able to set up, grow and create employment.”
The economy is also a key concern for PN candidate and businesswoman Helga Ellul. “I believe we should focus on the many challenges faced by SMEs, particularly micro-enterprises,” she says.
“Additionally, I will be keen to focus on factors affecting Gozo due to its dual insularity. With Malta losing its Objective 1 status we need to ensure that Gozo will continue receiving the support it needs to ensure the economic well-being of its inhabitants. Moreover, facilitating women’s joining and permanence in the workforce is something which needs to be followed up energetically.
“The consolidation of the islands’ core economic activities also needs to be addressed. Over the years, I have observed that we are not inclined to see the greater benefits of consolidation. Maltese businesses, especially micro-enterprises, are quite insularly competitive in nature, possibly also due to the small size of the market. Having said that, we need to get out of our comfort zones and seek greater horizontal and vertical alliances. Only in doing so can we compete in a global business environment which is witnessing a strong and persistent drive towards integration, to the point of driving smaller operators out of businesses,” Ellul explains.
Fleur Vella, a PL candidate, meanwhile, has spent five years working as a senior economist and thus has a clear understanding of the industry. “When you are involved in day-to-day business you realise how all EU rules are built around the assumption that there is enough spare capacity within a company so that it can deal with all necessary checks and balances the bureaucrat feels necessary. Little does the bureaucrat, who has his or her own niche of specialisation, imagine that there are businesses persons who need to be the purchasing, finance, sales, store and project manager all in the same day.”
Vella thus wants to offer a voice to micro-enterprises so that they can communicate their special circumstances to other members of the EU.
“I want to see that laws passed to decrease the bureaucratic burden on micro-enterprises are fully implemented locally,” she says. “I also wish to advise the Government on new rules which jeopardise the operation of micro-enterprises, as well as to disseminate information about the opportunities offered by the EU to micro-enterprises.”
Employment opportunities seem to be top of several other candidate agendas too. Ivan Paul Grixti, a PL candidate and the outgoing president of the King’s Own Band Club in Valletta places the generation of economic wealth as a top priority. “Amid this, the on-going process of establishing a banking union is inevitable if we want to mitigate the threat of another economic crisis.
“Bringing into play my dual competencies as a fully-qualified accountant and a university lecturer, I know I can be beneficial to Malta in these areas. I will be an ambassador to Malta and encourage potential investors to open shop here. I also visualise Malta as the natural choice for the EU to forge links between the bloc and North Africa – which, incidentally, was highlighted by the recent Economist conference.”
Other candidates are also focused on the development of the economy and employment, including PN candidate Normal Vella. “In the aftermath of the deepest recession in living memory, the EU has to focus on growth and employment, and especially the creation of job opportunities for young people,” he says. “There is a growing problem of youth unemployment in a number of EU states which needs to be tackled head on.
“The EU has a multitude of programmes and schemes aimed at helping both individuals and enterprises. The key is how to match the programme with the needs of the recipient. This is where I feel we could be doing better. The first step has to be getting the Maltese to be more aware of the opportunities that exist. My focus will be the younger generations. They have the potential to unlock a better future and I will do my best to provide them with any assistance that they might need. Change has to be a constant feature in EU policy. Policy makers need to constantly adapt or else risk becoming irrelevant.”
Aside from immigration and the economy, numerous other issues are being brought to the fore by the candidates. Among them, PL candidate Marlene Mizzi, a current MEP, is concerned with education, animal welfare and social equality.
“As an MEP the issues which mean the most to me are the same issues that are important to Malta’s citizens. Of course I have my pet loves and hates. I have worked on ‘ad hoc’ committees concerned with the creation of work for young people, as well as on those for education and animal welfare. I would like to pursue these issues further and deeper should I be given the mandate for the next five years, especially as there really is so much that needs to be done.
“Of course, I also feel very passionate about the issue of illegal immigration and the way Malta has been left to face this issue alone. I addressed this in my very first speeches in the EP and I intend to continue to be a pest on this issue until something concrete is done.”
PL candidate Lino Bianco hopes to aid Malta’s development by focusing on specific aspects of society. “Poverty and unemployment are realities which are an insult to contemporary Europe,” he says. “Poverty among children is a punishment for a crime which they have not committed; unemployment or precarious work, in particular among youths, is undermining their well-being and self-confidence. The elderly are the foundations of tomorrow’s socio-economic capital. All of these aspects need to be addressed.
“I am interested in a Citizen’s Europe; a Europe that truly respects and promotes the fundamental rights, promotes dignity and the value of work. One cannot have a truly sustainable Europe for our children if we do not address humanity, solidarity, equality and freedom, themes which I will not shy away from addressing.”
Hoping to work across the issues that are important to Malta, PN candidate Kevin Plumpton wants to ensure that Malta is adequately represented in the EP and its ancillary institutions.
“I don’t think that it’s in Malta’s interest to have its only six MEPs politically or emotionally attached to one issue – frankly with only six MEPs representing our country, we don’t afford that luxury!” he says.
“What is of utmost importance is to work and push hard for Malta’s interest. It is important to make our voice heard there and to be very active on all major issues,” he says. “We also have to learn to pick our ‘fights’ wisely, because that would ensure that we will continue to be taken seriously as a nation. I also wish to extend my natural bearing amongst the younger generation, and work on wider sectors within Maltese society, namely the middle class tax payer, and the older generation who want to live with dignity while retaining their sense of contribution towards society.”