The EU must recognise the realities of Mediterranean member states | Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi

It is imperative the EU gives due consideration to the Mediterranean perspectives

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to address the MED7 meeting for European Affairs Ministers of the Southern European Union Member States. The meeting addressed various themes which are currently at the top of the European Union’s agenda, such as the Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021-2027. This discussion on the EU budget is being held in parallel with the discussion on the European Commission’s proposal for a new recovery instrument, or the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan, which is aimed at assisting Member States recover from the economic distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the meeting, I had the opportunity to highlight the successful containment of the virus and the steady fall in the transmission rate which dropped below 0.5 in the Maltese islands. This achievement is the result of a co-ordinated approach by the Maltese authorities and noted that this allowed our health authorities to authorise the easing of restrictive measures which had to be introduced over the past three months.

The coordination and sharing of information on respective exit plans and transparency in respective epidemiological data was extensively emphasised.

As an open economy, Malta has been heavily impacted due to its reliance on tourism. Yet, as a result of the most generous stimulus packages offered by any European Government, the unemployment rate was kept at a low in Malta. This package will be further enhanced by other measures that will be announced tomorrow by the Minister for Finance in a mid-year special budget. All these stimulus measures will complement the European Commission’s Recovery Plan announced last week.

The proposed EU Recovery Plan

The Government believes that the Recovery Plan contains both positive elements, as well as elements which require caution, such as the fact that the allocation criteria for newly established EU funds, like the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the React-EU Fund, seem to be punishing those Member States which made significant and painful efforts in the last few years to reduce unemployment levels. In this regard, I emphasised that GDP statistics do not tell the entire story of an economy and that the specific circumstances of individual member states should be taken into consideration when calculating the level of recovery aid being attributed.

Our geographic reality and heavy reliance on the tourism industry should not be overlooked. These permanent structural handicaps expose us to higher risks and increase our vulnerability, and as a matter of fact might result in a longer recovery period.

There is an ongoing controversy within  various exponents on the financing methods for the new recovery instruments. This is another area where the Government is advocating the Union should tread with caution. The so-called “new resources” that the Commission wants to acquire to finance these instruments will inevitably lead to the imposition of new taxes and subsequent disproportionate impact on local economies.

Migration

While delving on disproportionate pressures, I had the opportunity to present Malta’s issues on the migration crisis in the Mediterranean region. In recent weeks, Malta, through its Minister for Foreign and European Affairs has been constantly speaking to several counterparts, including the Vatican, third countries and multilateral organisations, to explain the impact of a failed EU migration policy that has left Malta facing disproportionate migratory pressures alone.

Many of our counterparts appreciate the efforts and sacrifices we had to endure, and understand our frustrations, however, only a few partners are being helpful. With the current trends and numbers, our reception centres are well beyond their capacity and there is very little the Maltese authorities can do with the limited assistance being provided. While many are calling for the disembarkation of the migrants on vessels outside Malta’s territorial waters, pledges for relocation remain scarce or absent.

We look forward to the Commission’s proposal of a new European pact on migration and asylum, which should be based on the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, and provide tailored assistance to most-affected Member States.

The Government is ready to discuss a comprehensive approach with a long or medium-term solution, but Malta needs assistance imminently. The current focus should therefore be on the prevention of flows, mostly through cooperation with countries of origin and transit. Hence, Libya’s stability and cooperation remain crucial. The European Union must have a wider outlook on this phenomenon and more attention should be given to our southern neighbour continent, Africa. This is a key element in our future endeavours towards a comprehensive settlement to this huge problem facing our region, and mostly Malta.

It is imperative the EU gives due consideration to the Mediterranean perspectives. A stronger response to the realities of the member states in the Medierranean is of essence and definitely a step in the right direction.

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