How to lose the game in Brussels

While Brussels foresees the gradual replacement of the current fossil fuel to a less polluting variant, it does not care to do the math on the price of this transition for Malta as an island, when compared to mainland Europe

Air Malta warned air travel would become much more expensive if plans to tax aviation fuel are adopted
Air Malta warned air travel would become much more expensive if plans to tax aviation fuel are adopted

This week Air Malta issued a bold statement warning the government that should the proposed EU rules on aviation fuel be adopted, the Maltese economy will suffer a devastating loss in jobs, profitability and competitiveness.

Air Malta’s statement follows that given a week earlier by Tony Zahra, the president of MHRA, who pointed out in no uncertain terms, that the currently negotiated rules will significantly dent Malta’s competitiveness in the tourism sector.

These statements are diametrically opposed to earlier statements given by ministers Aaron Farrugia and Miriam Dalli, who in their respective fora in Brussels voted in favour of different parts of the package of new rules for aviation fuel. The ministers are actively promoting in Brussels what the Maltese industry is unambiguously stating, goes against the national interest. Did the ministers consult industry in Malta before casting their vote?

More than two months ago, I had alerted the Maltese public and the government to the threat posed to the Maltese economy by these proposed EU rules. The government reacted by hiding behind a veneer of carefully-chosen legalese to evade the main question: how on earth does a Maltese minister vote for a piece of EU legislation that exacerbates the burden of our insularity?

I remain certain that we should strive to ensure that the proposed rules accommodate Malta’s specific situation.

There is no doubt that the rules are noble in their intent. Essentially, here we are speaking of an effort for the European economy to reduce CO2 emissions and thereby contribute to the fight against climate change. Conventional aviation fuels pollute and it is hence reasonable to move towards a sustainable variant. The intention is noble, the ways of achieving it less so. This is because while Brussels foresees the gradual replacement of the current fossil fuel to a less polluting variant, it does not care to do the math on the price of this transition for Malta as an island, when compared to mainland Europe.

The thing is that while travel in the continent is generally a matter of 500-1,000km flights, travelling to and from Malta regularly touches the 1,500-2,000km bracket. It goes without saying that a measure which places a burden on the absolute amounts of fuel consumption will hit way harder those who are at the periphery of the European continent. So much so that the Royal Dutch Aeronautical Institute has published research which shows that the proposed EU rules will raise the costs of a flight in the range of €10-20 on mainland Europe but up to €60-70 for Malta.

The above is without prejudice to another obvious argument that while countries in the continent have several options for cross-country travel including rail and road, for Malta air travel is often the only viable option for passengers.

So while I strive to embrace the objective of CO2 emission reduction, as a Maltese militant in Europe I have to ask, is the European burden proportionate on my country or is it disproportionate? Are the Germans and the French carrying my same burden or am I carrying a burden way heavier than theirs? The answers have already been provided by the Dutch institute. Makes you wonder whether that report reached the desks of Aaron Farrugia and Miriam Dalli at all.

A second point which drives me mad, and which should drive equally mad anyone with a care for Malta’s competitiveness, is that the text of the proposed directive as voted for (in favour) by our Transport Minister includes an explicit derogation for the islands within the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch territories including places like Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands. So let’s get this clear – the proposed EU rules foresee exempting Madeira from the higher fuel prices because it is an island, while nothing seems to bother our administration when it comes to put the full brunt of the new rules on the island of Malta. Can you see the logic in that? The only logic I can see is that the French, the Spaniards, the Portuguese and the Dutch made sure to lobby the case for their islands while our own island was left with no one to lobby our case. No other reason for the discrimination. Madeira is after all closer to a good number of European cities than Malta is.

Some of you may think that the EU must be inconsiderate to impose such a burden on Malta. It is not so. I have worked in its machinery long enough to testify that European decision making does listen to the needs to adapt EU legislation to the needs of particular circumstances. The union is however to be seen as a train in motion which will not stop or bend unless steered strongly enough and way in advance of the needed bend. Right now, we are consistently losing the game in Brussels because we are severely lacking in our foresight capabilities and in the actors capable of putting that foresight into concrete actions.

It is generally too late to amend legislation to cater for our particular needs if we snooze off for the first year or two while the dossier is moving ahead in the committees at the European Council and the European Parliament. It pains me to see how the good amendments proposed by a Maltese Labour MEP have received no backing at all, not even from her own socialist colleagues. It pains me to see how MHRA and other major players have to discover about this massively important matter from my own Facebook posts. It pains me to see my beloved country losing the game in Brussels.

When we joined the Union we did so after a hotly debate discussion between us on all things that mattered then. That Union we joined is however largely a thing of the past. It has moved on virtually across all policy aspects except the birds.

The Union in pursuit of peace that we joined in 2004 is now a major NATO ally where food and fuel are weaponised. The previous assurances of tax sovereignty are conjugated daily into new forms of tax cooperation and harmonisation. The environmental agenda that was at best skeletal in 2004 is now muscled and reaching many other policy areas.

Let us wake up to the need to be much more vigilant, much more militant as a country when it comes to representing the national interest in Europe. I wish for the Maltese people to remain fervent in our European ambition.

That requires daily effort, across the board, across all our institutions, by all our actors.