He garnered a staggering 23,000 votes in the 2004 elections and then hopped across the channel to take a seat in the Italian parliament. But is ARNOLD CASSOLA anywhere close to the critical mass of five years ago?
Back in 2004, despite his sizeable 23,000 vote count Arnold Cassola had failed to get elected as the first Green Maltese MEP by a few votes. Subsequently he was elected as an Italian MP on the new list of foreign-born Italian candidates (he claims Italian nationality from his father’s lineage) but after the premature fall of the Prodi government, he contested again on a red-green ticket only to lose his seat in Montecitorio. And now he is back in Malta, where he has been elected AD leader and is once again one of the party’s two candidates for the next June European elections. So how desperate is he seeking his place in the European Parliament?
As Cassola wants to convey, it is not the seat that is driving his ambition, but being “in the centre-stage” of political activity. “I am desperately in love with politics. I like to try influence politics and I will use any means to influence politics for the common good. Therefore I do politics. There were times when I was extremely well paid, while there are times when I get zero money for what I do. Life goes in cycles.”
He insists his seven-year experience at the European Parliament as secretary-general of the European Green Party and in the Italian parliament cannot be discounted. His participation in the European Affairs Committee of the Italian parliament surely gave him the experience to interact with Italian politicians like Interior Minister Roberto Maroni – currently featured in a tit-for-tat with Malta over the two countries’ responsibilities in rescuing some 150 migrants that were stranded at sea on a Turkish cargo ship. “I can see through Maroni when he comes up with the immigration issue as an electoral ploy and how his party, the Lega Nord, have no regard for human beings when they use the immigration card to stir emotions on this issue.”
He admits it is strange for him to be a party leader that is also contesting the European elections – certainly on the Maltese stage, him being the only leader to do so. “It might be strange by Maltese criteria. But it is something which has been happening always in Europe. At present you have actually MEPs who are leaders of their own party. You have Cem Ozdemir who is the leader of the German Green Party, Caroline Lukas is the leader of the English Greens, Claudio Fava is the leader of the Italian Sinistra Democratica… until six months ago you had the Prime Minister of Slovenia Borut Pahor who was a sitting MEP.”
But how would have Cassola reacted had Joseph Muscat or Lawrence Gonzi contested the election as Berlusconi will be doing in Italy? “It’s not my problem. If they think it is for the good of their party it’s their decision…”
Cassola insists his candidature was subjected to an open democratic process in his party. “We made a public call for candidates interested in contesting with AD and the party members approved AD’s two candidates in a secret vote.”
Would he remain AD’s leader if he gets elected? “I leave that decision to AD members who can decide on such a matter in the party’s Annual General Meeting next October when my present mandate expires.”
And what will happen if he is not elected? “It is AD members who have to see to that… in the event of not being elected we have to see the quality of the result. Let’s be frank, if we get 2% of the vote the result will be a flop.”
So what would be a respectable result for AD?
“AD is what it is. It is not one of the big parties. But it can rally a significant portion of the vote in elections where the government of the country is not at stake.”
Five years ago when he got nearly 10% of the first count vote, Cassola was so near but still so far from getting elected. Will this result discourage potential voters this time round? “On the contrary, they should say there were so few votes missing that all we have to do is add a few to them.”
But is there a risk that instead of voting AD, many will register their protest by not voting at all? “Certainly. I meet people who say they will not vote. These could be hardliners of both parties. But they could also be pale blue and pale red voters who could easily vote AD. There is a certain feeling of apathy among the electorate. But ultimately everyone’s vote is sacred. And you can’t force anyone to vote. People decide for themselves.”
And what does Cassola tell these people? “Whether it’s 10 people who vote or 100,000, we will always have five people elected in June and possibly a sixth one taking a seat in January if the Irish do not say no to the Lisbon Treaty. If you don’t vote others will be deciding for you.”
While in 2004, AD’s main appeal was towards pale blue voters, this time around AD will be appealing to all “reasonable and rational people”, Cassola says, describing his trump card as “20 years of consistency and credibility… We are not a party full of contradictions. We are not a party where one candidate says I am in favour of car registration tax and another says no, where one candidate favours spring hunting and the other is against.”
By fielding Alan Deidun, a respected environmentalist with a track record as a lifelong critic of MEPA decisions, it would seem the PN is attempting to disarm AD of its environmental battlecry. But Cassola says he is happy to see that both the PN and the PL have endorsed environment themes. “It is great as it had to be us to put these things in the political agenda.”
He also praises Alan Deidun on his track record as an environmentalist. “But going to protest in front of the Nadur cemetery as if Europe is going to change that, does not make sense. Deidun should go to the Prime Minister, who is in charge of MEPA. The same applies to his stand against the Mosta valley development.”
Cassola describes the PN’s strategy as a “game” in which you have the minister saying one thing and a candidate saying something completely different. “You have Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici saying ‘don’t touch Libya’ and candidate Frank Portelli saying the exact opposite thing.”
But is this not a positive development in Maltese democracy in the sense of a healthy intra-party discussion? “So we are going to have a lot of healthy discussion while Mosta valley is destroyed, the Dwejra monster still there, and the Nadur cemetery still built,” Cassola rebuts.
Then again, even AD seems to be playing the political game by toning down their credentials as a progressive Green Party on the immigration issue. For example AD claimed that its concerns on immigration were vindicated during a parliamentary session dominated by PL leader Joseph Muscat’s plan of action, which questioned Malta’s international obligations and even suggested that Malta should consider using its veto on matters not connected to immigration to get its voice heard. “We certainly were not referring to these proposals. We abide by international rule of law. And the reason why we strongly support the Maltese government in its recent standoff with Italy and Maroni’s stupidities is because the Maltese government has the rule of law behind it.”
So in what way was AD vindicated?
“It was a decent debate because MPs were coming up with proposals in a decent and civilized way and were largely going in the same direction. Certainly however, declaring that one will use the veto as an instrument whenever one does not agree with others does not work in politics. One can play the tough guy once but then the cry wolf syndrome will rebound on us.”
Simon Busuttil has criticised the European Greens and the Socialists for voting to grant migrants the right to vote. “Simon Busuttil is not correct in saying this,” Cassola says, pointing out that the report proposes voting rights for legal migrants with residence permits and that this should take place in local elections only. “This would not only apply to recognised refugees who have lived in Malta for some time but would also grant the vote to US, Australian and Canadian businessmen or workers living in Malta.”
Cassola also insists this proposal was included in the report presented in Busuttil’s name after it was amended at the committee stage – right before the final vote. Although Busuttil voted for an amendment to remove the reference to voting rights, he never disowned the report which included the proposal.
Cassola appeals to politicians of all sides to stop using illegal immigration as political football to “stir up hot air to get votes”. So where does he stand on immigration?
He starts with the principle that the basic human rights of all human beings should be respected. But he also affirms that the European Greens have been the foremost proponents of responsibility sharing between member states. “It was the report presented by Green MEP Jean Lambert which actually started this process leading to the acceptance of the responsibility sharing principle by EU member states,” says Cassola, while making it clear that AD can never agree to sending migrants back to Libya as this country has not signed the Geneva convention.
“We cannot send people to unsafe places not governed by international law, but we have no qualms on sending back illegal immigrants from Tunisia or Egypt where there are no such problems.”
In the past months AD has shifted its attention to social issues, addressing workers’ rights and parental leave. One of the major topics of AD’s European campaign is a Green New Deal. Does this represent a shift in AD’s priorities? “It is more a shift in emphasis to take away the perception that we were only environmentalists. We have always linked the environment to the social dimension and job creation. We think that this economic crisis offers Malta and Europe an opportunity to re-orientate investment into the creation of new jobs linked to renewable energy.”
Another issue featuring in AD’s campaign is the introduction of divorce. But why is AD raising an issue over which the European Parliament has absolutely no jurisdiction?
“We cannot introduce divorce in Malta from the European Parliament. But I can go there and present a resolution in the European Parliament which will not be binding on Malta but will get the majority of votes.”
Apart from supporting divorce legislation, Cassola insists that the State should set up structures to prepare people for marriage. “But unfortunately there will always be broken marriages and we would like to give a possibility to those who would like to divorce in Malta. After all the Maltese government already recognises the divorces granted in other countries.”
Cassola himself was part of a red-green alliance in Italy. Does he see the possibility of such an alliance between Labour and AD? While he does not exclude this possibility, he considers it remote.
“I cannot talk about the future. I don’t know what can happen in 10 years’ time. I can only talk about this election where we have to get the votes of people on the basis of our credibility as a Green Party and that we are different from the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party.”
But Cassola leaves a window open, saying that politics can still be full of surprises. “Would you have imagined six months ago that a Christian Democratic Prime Minister would have appointed as President an aspirant leader of the Labour Party?”