Might as well face it, we’re addicted to EU funds

Strange, isn’t it, that the local roads minister would take all the flak for slowly turning Malta into one, giant metropolitan turn-pike, while the European Commission – which not only approved the strategic plan, but also financed up to 75% of it – doesn’t even get criticised at all?

Around 20 years ago, I remember reading an interview somewhere with The Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal. At the time, I was more interested in details like how she came up with the riff of ‘Gigantic’ (her only credited song-writing effort with that band) or why, exactly, The Pixies split up when they did…

But part of the interview was also about heroin addiction and how – in her own experience – it affects people in more ways than just the obvious.

In Kim’s case, it affected her travelling patterns (and, consequently, the band’s touring schedule). She would consciously try to avoid places where she didn’t already have a dealer in the neighbourhood or, at minimum, know where to find one at short notice. And there were other examples… all of which amounted to roughly the same thing: helplessness.

In her own words, addiction reduces you to the equivalent of ‘an old grandma’… unable to do anything at all, without automatically reaching for the meds in your handbag.

I imagine it’s no coincidence that a similar sentiment also underpins Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’: ‘You can’t sleep, you can’t eat […] your will is not your own…”. And you’ll find echoes of it in lots of other songs about addiction, too, like The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’… where ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…’

Coupled with another lyric from the same song – ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’ – it captures both the inability to ever actually do anything; and the inability to take any decisions of one’s own.

And the addiction doesn’t have to be to drugs, alcohol or love, either. Take Malta’s addiction to EU funds, for instance. Just last week, it was reported that Malta now has to scramble to change its entire national energy strategy because the EU decided to withhold funding for the Malta-Italy gas pipeline project.

To quote from the article: “In 2019, Malta’s attempt to get finance for the €400 million pipeline was punished by the EC’s de-prioritisation of gas projects to move fast on climate change targets. […] Now that it has lost out on the last disbursement of the €23 billion CEF founds, Malta will have to change tack on its energy plans because the next PCI list in 2021 – the fifth – will be more stringent on gas projects. This means it will have to go for a hydrogen-ready system, so the proposed pipeline will have to be able to transport hydrogen…”

Already, both the ‘dependency’ and the ‘helplessness’ are clearly visible. Meanwhile, there are also those other projects which did go ahead, precisely (and arguably only) because of EU funding.

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, for instance, was recently interviewed by Reno Bugeja on this newspaper’s portal: and he twice took the opportunity to repeat something he had announced as long ago as 2018, i.e. that “European funds […] will be partially financing the infrastructural projects of the Marsa-Ħamrun Bypass, the Marsa Junction Project, Buqana Road, the Central Link Project and the Santa Luċija tunnels….”

Given the criticism that was (and still is) levelled at some of those projects, you can see why Borg would have been keen to remind us of all of that fact today. Strange, isn’t it, that the local roads minister would take all the flak for slowly turning Malta into one, giant metropolitan turn-pike, while the European Commission – which not only approved the strategic plan, but also financed up to 75% of it – doesn’t even get criticised at all?

But such, I suppose, is the unfairness of life. The question I would be asking (if I were Ian Borg) is: would any of those projects even have been contemplated at all, were it not for our insatiable appetite for freebies from Brussels? And would we have been capable of financing projects of that magnitude, without the largesse of hundreds of millions of euros in European funding?

Clearly, the answer is ‘no’ and ‘no’ respectively. And there you have it: ‘No EU funding, no project.’ That is why at least three of those roadworks projects have already been finalised – the Santa Lucija Tunnels just last Sunday – yet plans for a gas pipeline to Sicily have had to be scrapped altogether, to be replaced with hurried preparations for a whole new energy strategy that must be finalised by later this year without, it must be said, any guarantee that the EU funds will actually be forthcoming, even then.

We are, in a nutshell, left dangling from a string. Oh, and please note that we no longer even have the luxury of choosing our own means of powering up the country, either. No, siree, ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’ and in this case, the European Commission gets to decide whether we go for gas or hydrogen (with no other options even considered, it seems). Even if, by its own admission, its “sustainability assessment of candidate gas projects had been ‘suboptimal due to a lack of data’…”

As you can see, then, it only takes a little tweaking to Robert Palmer’s lyrics, to make them entirely applicable to this very scenario.

‘You can’t lay down gas pipelines to Sicily; you can’t build roads… your national budget is not your own…’

Might as well face it, folks, we can’t do anything, as a nation, without a regular shot of European money pumped into our veins like an opiate.  And yet – though it already feels like another age – it wasn’t that way at all until just a few years ago.

Sticking only to the energy sector: Malta somehow managed to finance, and build, two entire power stations from scratch, between the 1950s and the late 1980s, both times when the economy was in no way comparable to what it is today (with or without EU funds).

In the 1970s, we embarked on a national project to build reverse-osmosis plants around the coast, and to this day, RO still provides the bulk of our daily water needs.

We managed all this, and more, without a single centime in European Union funding though there were (and still are) alternative sources of finance, naturally. And yes, we indebted ourselves quite considerably on some (but not all) of those projects, too.

All the same, however: embarking on national infrastructure projects used to be considered ‘doable’, back in the days before we got so used to bringing out the begging-bowls in Brussels.

Now, the simple fact that Brussels says ‘No’, automatically means it cannot be done… at all.

How, exactly, did we manage to get ourselves into such a humiliating position? For that’s what addiction is, too… on top of everything else, naturally. It is also humiliating to reduce your body to something so utterly helpless and dependent; and by all accounts, drug addicts do end up doing very humiliating things, in desperation for their next fix.

Admittedly, ‘changing their national energy strategy’ might not be one of them. Nor would ‘embarking on humungous road-improvement projects’… at a time when we should be trying to reduce vehicular traffic, instead of increasing it.

But for a nation state to do such a drastic thing, at such short notice… simply because, on a whim, the Commission decided to stop dangling its carrot before its greedy, salivating snout… I don’t know. It smacks just a little too much of ‘desperation’, to me.

And that’s before looking at the enormity of the demand itself. Hydrogen. Nothing against the most abundant element in the universe, of course… but if the EU is suddenly going to get all ‘picky’ on us in 2021 (though it wasn’t anywhere near as fastidious back in 2008, when approving the plans for a heavy-fuel power station…)  why hydrogen, exactly? Why not, say, solar or wind (or a combination of both): which are not only just as abundant… but, in fact, limitless?

And if they must insist (however arbitrarily) on a ‘hydrogen-ready system’… why not also allow a transitional period, as, after all, it had done between heavy fuel oil and gas? So that maybe the infrastructure we already have in place, might actually remain usable for at least a couple more years?

But that, I suppose, is also why it is so unwise to allow oneself to get addicted to things in the first place. Those are all considerations that matter to the Maltese government, not to the European Commission. And – as should be more than obvious, by now – the Commission takes decisions on the basis of its own concerns, not ours.

This is, in fact, part of what we bargain away, each time we cede more national decisions in exchange for a quick shot of cash. And it’s the same sentiment that underpins all those rock anthems about addiction, too: ‘Our will is not our own’; ‘We are all just prisoners here, of (in this case), someone else’s device…’