Like Corsica or the Azores, we can make Gozo an island of opportunity

Any vision or plan for Gozo has to depart from its very own competitive advantages and take them as a reason for particular policy directions

While the pandemic right now justifiably takes up most of the public’s attention, these economic lows are the ideal time to consider our longer-term strategies for the main pillars of our society and our economy: tourism, the services industries, the local product and – I would add – the opportunity in Gozo.

A few days back, both Government and opposition representatives were seen around Gozo. Prime Minister Robert Abela descended upon Nadur’s main square, apparently openly scorned by a few about the land registration saga affecting scores of Nadur families. It turns out the PM’s blitz visit was a damage limitation exercise rendered necessary after Bernard Grech’s prior visit to the affected homes.

Abela’s reaction to Grech’s Gozo visit points to the character of Labour’s treatment of the Gozitan challenge where village politics fills in the void on a non-existent regional strategy. The Nadur registration trauma has been in the offing for over a year. Abela had ample time and opportunity to dedicate Government resources to solve the issue without needing to run in the heels of the leader of the opposition a day after his visit to Nadur.

And yet, the Prime Minister’s reaction is simply following Labour’s modus operandi faced with the myriad of challenges surrounding Gozo. It is a continuation of what Labour has used to success in the last general election where it managed to sway Gozitans by handing out over 1,000 jobs in the weeks prior to the 2017 election. Meanwhile, scores of Gozitan SMEs which manage to run a successful business operation against all odds ended up without key workers, lost to Government’s competitive bid of lighter jobs with ample room for side-jobs.

In Gozo, more than in any other part of this country, Labour politicians clearly feel that individual favours deliver way more than public solutions. As long as they can use the public purse to dish out small favours, they can abstain from working on a long-term solution. Meanwhile, thousands of new graduates, of which Gozo produces plenty, will either settle for jobs way below their studies or will have to delocalise to Malta or abroad. Meanwhile, a proposal by the opposition to systematically allow for two days of telework for Gozitan workers was shunned and put aside for five months in the Parliamentary Committee supposedly concentrating on Gozitan needs.

The Gozitans themselves are now coming to terms with the perverse system which some of them have endorsed so far. If latest surveys are anything to go by, the tide is turning in Gozo too, with voting intentions gradually turning away from Labour. This moment of collective illumination may be an opportunity to focus on longer-term structural measures which can set Gozo, its economy, and its residents on the path to a more prosperous future where the island produces its own richness rather than systematically depending on short-term Government interventions.

When we broach the subject of Gozo, most will mention a long-term plan, a vision for the island which lays the path for all other decisions of implementation. My take is that any vision or plan for Gozo has to depart from its very own competitive advantages and take them as a reason for particular policy directions.

The PN has already committed itself to a vision for Gozo as a region with its distinct needs and decision-making structures. The main rationale behind this responds to the need for specificity above. Only if you decide with the specific needs and circumstances in mind can you reach the outcome which fits the needs of those living within that particular environment.

Applied to Gozo in an EU setting, I cannot help but compare the treatment of the Union’s VAT Directive to islands to main EU countries like Corsica to France or the Azores to Portugal. In both these cases we are dealing with cases of insularity which for the French for instance, justified the application of reduced VAT rates from 2 to 10% on a large variety of goods and services in Corsica. VAT treatment is simply one of many tools that Malta can consider when looking at Gozo as an island of particular opportunity, which valorises the comparative advantage of its insularity rather than making it its handicap.

Gozo has indeed a number of unique characteristics which allow it to offer a product different from that of mainland Europe or Malta. It is the same qualities which compel many Maltese to spend a few days in the sister Island. Most would not think of booking a hotel in Mellieħa, but they do so if it’s just across the channel in Mġarr or Marsalforn. Before the pandemic, Gozo already attracted its share of tourists. After the pandemic we must do better. What if we manage to attract permanent tourists?

In a conference on Artificial Intelligence I attended last year I learned how a number of jurisdictions were considering measures to attract the so-called ‘digital nomads’. In this rapidly evolving world, an increasing number of high-income earners and investors are no longer tied to a particular office or city, thereby making it more likely for them to move to less chaotic places as long as the Wi-Fi is good. Naturally, those with a knack for urban life will rather live in London or Paris, but those seeking the sun, sea and a tranquil village life may well opt for a corner of paradise in Gozo. Attracting these digital nomads requires tailor made measures like we did years back to attract gaming operators. Only this time, Gozo has to be the focus of it all.

I think that an increasing number of Gozitans are now yearning for a kind of politics that goes beyond individual favours to see the larger picture. They know that the larger picture, if well designed, may have a better place for them than what they can grasp with the short-term favouritisms.

I think that EU accession has produced a good deal of good for this country in general. It is however clear that the progress of the last 15 years has largely left Gozo behind. The statistics do not lie. Gozo’s GDP had grown very little by 2018, reaching just 49% of the Maltese GDP per capita (it now stands at 65.1%). It is high time we consider EU accession as a vector to exploit the Gozitan opportunity. In this, let us not repeat past mistakes of devising a strategy for Gozo through Maltese eyes.