The tourism mess

In practical terms, this means that the members of Abela’s Cabinet have the leeway to push contradictory policies

On Thursday a daily newspaper reported that the Corinthia Marina Hotel in St Julian’s is nearing maximum capacity as a quarantine hotel and that the tourism authority has had to issue a call for a second facility to host unvaccinated visitors.

At this rate we can soon be filling up all of our hotels, which is, after all, the aim of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, but hardly the aim of what should be Malta’s tourism policy.

The current minister responsible for tourism, Clayton Bartolo, has – incredibly – fallen in the same mistake of his predecessor, Julia Farrugia Portelli who remains famous for her non-explanation in a BBC interviewm of Malta’s ‘mechanisms’ to assure COVID-free holidays.

The problem is two-fold. Tourism ministers should realise – from day one – that the interests of the hoteliers and the language schools do not always coincide with Malta’s interests. They overlap, of course, but the tourism ministry should be wary when responding to the never-ending pressure made by the two sectors. They ask for measures in their own interest and the ministry should never be lured to immediately take up their demands, hook, line and sinker. It should first stop to think, more often than it does.

Secondly there seems to be no co-ordination between the different ministries on the COVID-19 pandemic. In such circumstances a ministerial task-force coordinating all Malta’s policies during the pandemic would eliminate the problem of decisions taken by one ministry, completely contradicting decisions by another.

People rightly ask how come a British couple who got the jab at home cannot spend a holiday in Malta with their unvaccinated adolescent children, while adolescents from all over Europe come to learn English in Malta (and given incentives to do so) when they are not vaccinated? This has raised many problems: a recent meteoric increase in COVID-19 cases and so much bad publicity for Malta in the media of the countries from where these students originated.

The lack of co-ordination between different ministries is almost tangible.

Malta lacks a ministerial committee entrusted with checking that all decisions taken in the pandemic do not contradict each other, with one minister imposing sanctions and another minister dishing out subsidies to those who break these sanctions...

This could eventually lead to the downfall of Robert Abela’s administration.

Eddie Fenech Adami had a right-hand man – Richard Cachia Caruana – who was loathed and feared by many ministers. But he did his job. Joseph Muscat entrusted Keith Schembri with the job.

I think he did it well, except for many other things that he did in his own personal interest, rather than in the country’s interests. But that is another story.

There is a fine line between ensuring that ministries do not contradict each other and follow the administration’s line, and imposing strict instructions that make ministers feel stifled... to the extent that all they have to do is to just follow orders from Castille.

With all his defects, Richard Cachia Caruana did this job well. Some might think that he was given too much power, but again how and when to rein in the power of such a personal assistant will always be a moot point. Moreover, he remained loyal to the administrations he served.

Look at what is happening in the UK with Dominic Cummings – who had a similar role – now attacking Boris Johnson left, right and centre. That never happened even though Richard on many occasions disagreed with decisions taken by the Fenech Adami Cabinet. Some may be surprised to read this but Richard’s loyalty to his Prime Minister was never in doubt and he would never do a Cummings.

Lawrence Gonzi used Edgar Galea Curmi in this role. With all his good intentions, however, Galea Curmi was not as efficient as RCC.

When he became Prime Minsiter, Robert Abela picked Clyde Caruana in this role but after Clyde Caruana was co-opted in Parliament and appointed finance minister, no one seems to have replaced him at Castille. There is probably someone who is supposed to be doing the job in the Prime Minister’s Office but he is so ineffective that no one knows who it is!

In practical terms, this means that the members of Abela’s Cabinet have the leeway to push contradictory policies.

For any administration, this should signal the beginning of the end – even if the process takes time.

No going back

The EU has flatly rejected a demand made by Britain on Wednesday for the rewriting the Northern Ireland protocol. This was the part of the Brexit settlement that finally sealed Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Businesses in Northern Ireland say it is damaging trade, and some pro-British groups have protested at what they say is a weakening of ties with Britain, raising concerns about a return to the violence which plagued the province for three decades.

“We cannot go on as we are,” Brexit minister David Frost told parliament on Wednesday. Minister David Frost had negotiated the protocol on behalf of the British government. Now he is saying that the UK wants a new ‘balance’ to eliminate EU oversight of the accord. He also claimed that UK already has the right to unilaterally deviate from parts of the agreement.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic was clear that the protocol could not be redrawn, saying that Johnson and Frost had negotiated it.

The protocol addresses the biggest problem of the UK’s withdrawal: how to ensure the delicate peace brought to Northern Island by a U.S. brokered 1998 peace accord by maintaining an open border, without opening a back door – through neighbouring Ireland – to the EU’s single market of 450 million people.

It imposes checks on goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the EU customs area. These checks have proved burdensome to companies and an anathema to unionists, who are fiercely insisting that the province remains part of the UK.

Despite repeated British complaints, the EU has refused to amend the protocol, fearing that the hard-to-police frontier with Ireland could allow goods not meeting EU regulatory standards to enter into its single market.

Much of what Britain has suggested as an alternative system had been rejected by the EU during the four years of talks. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has also insisted that any solution must remain within the terms of the agreed protocol.