Funds for political parties? Sounds a lot like ‘State Aid’, to me…

Political parties have succeeded in benefiting only themselves, while ‘distorting the market’ through decades of maladministration…

It’s obviously a coincidence… but it still strikes me as significant, that those two otherwise unrelated issues – ‘State-funding for political parties’; and ‘State-funding for commercial enterprises’ – seem to have both suddenly cropped up at more or less the same time.

Just yesterday, the European Socialists tabled an amendment (on the initiative of Labour MEP Alfred Sant), which “called on the European Commission to pay due attention to the impact of state aid decisions on the connectivity of island and peripheral regions of the European Union…”

OK: you do admittedly have to read in between the lines, a little – and it’s not exactly surprising, either: this is, after all, the same Alfred Sant who also wrote ‘Silg Fuq Kemmuna’; ‘Min Hu Evelyn Costa?’; etc., etc... – but even without knowing perfectly well which ‘peripheral island region’ he specifically had in mind… you will still instantly recognise it as a reference to our beleaguered national airline, Air Malta: and, more specifically, to the European Commission’s umpteenth refusal of a much-needed injection of tax-payers’ money – that is to say: OUR money – to actually save it.

All in the name of ‘European Treaties’, naturally: which, as the Commission website explains: “generally prohibit State aid, unless it is justified by reasons of general economic development…” [because] “…a company that receives government support, gains an advantage over its competitors…”

Now, here I shall have to make a Herculean effort to resist a digression – not, as you are about to see, with very much success - because even if I do (for a change) broadly agree with the stated aims of those EU regulations: I also find them a just little hard to swallow, at a time when Malta genuinely risks ending up without an airline to even service it… AT ALL!

And I mean that quite literally, by the way. It may have escaped the Commission’s attention: but now is not exactly the best of times to be in the aviation business ‘for purely commercial purposes’, you know. Leaving aside that most of Europe’s air traffic capability has been more or less grounded, for the better part of two years – and not all airlines actually survived that experience – there is the small matter of an impending financial crisis, brought about by the long-term effects of the same pandemic…

… oh, and also by an ongoing WAR (slap-bang in the heart of Europe, too!) which may yet, for all we know, escalate in all sorts of unpredictable ways…

Bottom line, I suppose, is that… in between the crisis that is currently gripping the global aviation industry; and the possibility that ‘airlines’ may soon be required for other reasons, apart from tourism… like, for instance, ‘evacuating Maltese citizens from war-torn countries’. (For as I recall, there was only one airline which actually did that in 2011, when bullets were flying at Tripoli Airport. And I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Ryanair…)

No, under such circumstances I would NOT be to over-eager to place further limits, on the already-paltry number of airlines that do still service the Maltese islands, in spite of everything (though for how much longer, remains to be seen.)

Least of all, however, would I impose such limits on the only airline which actually has a national obligation to keep this country connected to the rest of the world, at all times… and (more importantly still), regardless of whether it actually makes a ‘profit’, or not…

Truth be told, that would be the very last airline I would choose to casually stand by – band-aid in hand – while it slowly bleeds to death. BUT… that’s just my own opinion; and I’m not exactly the European Commission, am I?

Certainly, I do not share that institution’s quasi-dogmatic obsession with ‘Free Market Economy principles’, merely for their own sake; nor will I probably ever understand, how such decisions can be taken only on the basis of ‘how they might affect the profit/loss margins of private companies’ (which would - let’s face it - be the first to just abandon Malta altoegether, the moment it is no longer profitable for them…)

But, oh dear: so much for my ‘Herculean effort’, huh? I almost forgot all about the other of the two issues that cropped up this week: ‘state financing for political parties’.

Now: you will surely not need any explanation as to WHY there’s been so much talk about that, recently.

Let’s just say that, after Bernard Grech revealed the shocking extent of the Nationalist Party’s own debt – coupled with other, equally damning indications of the Labour Party’s ‘financial woes’ – there has been so much talk about it already, that Prime Minister Robert Abela eventually decided to do the unthinkable… and actually answer a journalist’s question, at a press conference!

In case you’re interested: his reply can be generally summed up as, “Read my lips: NO STATE FUNDING OF POLITICAL PARTIES!’

In the smaller print, however, there was also the following, tell-tale proviso: “The operations of political parties should follow a sustainability model. […] This is achievable through the commercialising of party clubs… […] the Labour Party is following a model, whereby clubs were to be partly utilised for political purposes and partly commercialised, in order to make operations more self-sustainable…”

In other words: his entire argument is that ‘State funding for political parties’ is not necessary… because political parties can always sustain themselves financially in other ways: including, by operating along purely ‘commercial enterprise’ lines… just like ‘any other business’, in fact…

I mean: talk about ‘business as usual’, will you? But at least, Abela did help to demystify the connection that so clearly exists, between those two ‘otherwise unrelated’ issues I mentioned earlier. And just to make it that much clearer still: let us, very briefly, compare the Air Malta situation, with the political parties’ current financial state.

Naturally, I won’t go into too much detail regarding exactly HOW those three entities – Labour, the PN, and Air Malta – all ended up in the financial mess they are now in. Suffice to say that, in all three cases, it was largely down to consistent financial mismanagement – all arising from purely political considerations, that had nothing to do with ‘business’ at all – that was sustained for far too long, and for all the wrong reasons.

But there is, of course, a small difference. Like it or not, Air Malta IS very much a commercial enterprise, at the end of the day. As such, it IS (and is meant to be) in direct competition with all other airlines, operating to and from this country.

Political parties, on the other hand, are very emphatically NOT supposed to ‘act and operate like commercial enterprises’… and even less, are they supposed to be ‘in competition with the private sector’ (and for what should be some pretty darn obvious reasons, too: I mean, how can you possibly ‘compete’, against something that also has the power to re-write all the rules of the game, any old time it likes?)

… and this, on its own, also explains why the same European Commission that always stops to Malta from trying to rescue its most vital, strategic national asset… suddenly sees nothing at all wrong, with countries like Germany (and, let’s face it, most of the EU) happily subsidizing their own entire political establishments, through public funds.

Not to paint too rosy a picture of European politics, naturally; but broadly speaking, it’s because ‘political parties’, in those countries, do not generally also double up as ‘major commercial players, in their own right.” (Or at least… not quite as blatantly, as they do here.)

And this is partly also because – how can I put this? – there are also certain things called ‘LAWS’, in those countries, which govern issues such as ‘party financing’ (Note: they exist here, too, by the way; though you’d be forgiven for never actually noticing)… and in some of those countries (Germany, in particular) those laws also happen to be VERY strict indeed.

So as long as political parties generally abide by those regulations… and (more importantly) as long as the subsidy itself does not cause any active distortion, to the precious ‘Free Market Economy’ that the Commission seems to worship so much….

… there is, quite frankly, no problem with ‘subsidising political parties’ at all.

The problem certainly does arise, however, when you live in a country where:

a) There are ‘party-financing laws’, yes… but which seem to be universally ignored (not just by political parties; but also, by all the entities that are supposed to actually enforce them);

b) There is absolutely nothing to stop political parties from engaging in purely commercial activities, of the kind which place them in direct competition with the private sector (with results that have demonstrably ‘distorted the local market’ before: look under ‘media ownership’ for further details); and lastly,

c) Where we now have the Prime Minister (no less) telling us that Labour’s response to its own financial situation, will be... to act MORE like a commercial entity, instead of LESS. In other words: to further blur the lines that are supposed to exist, between ‘politics’, and ‘free enterprise’…

Under those circumstances: any difference that may once have existed, between ‘State-funding for political parties’, and ‘State-funding for commercial enterprises’, simply evaporates before your very eyes.

Except for one, of course. For where political parties have succeeded in benefiting only themselves, while ‘distorting the market’ through decades of maladministration… Air Malta has at least managed to provide an invaluable national service, while doing exactly the same thing.

And yet… which of those two does the EU actually choose to clamp down on, ‘to protect the Free Market Economy’? No prizes for guessing the correct answer…