Europe’s State Aid rules: ‘No, for Air Malta; YES, for STMicroelectronics!’

Got that, folks? So the Commission automatically said ‘Yes’, to our tax-money being squandered on subsidies for Malta’s single largest, and most successful, private commercial enterpise

A while back, I chanced upon a Youtube documentary about the history of Mississippi Delta Blues. Sadly, I can’t remember the actual title (and it doesn’t help much that there are around 50 million videos on Youtube, all on the same topic)... so I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it, as I recreate a scene that was narrated in the video by (if memory serves me correctly) Keith Richards.

It happened in London, around 1965: when The Rolling Stones invited a number of living Blues Legends - as yet unheard-of, in the the UK - to perform live on British television, and in various venues across the country.

Among those unknown artists were the likes of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Little Walter Jacobs... and these performances attracted considerable interest among a wider British public that, for the most part, had never actually heard ‘The Blues’ before.

They also evidently piqued the interest of musicians, composers, musical theorists, journalists, critics, and – in a nutshell – British musical academia, in general.  So much so, that the press conferences were almost as well-attended as the concerts themselves: and those Mississippi Delta Bluesmen soon found themselves bewildered by all sorts of questions about the purely ‘theoretical’ elements of their own music.

Keith Richards recalls a specific instance when one of them – I believe it was Little Walter – was asked the following question (which I reproduce here from memory):

“You call it ‘12-Bar Blues’... but I’ve been counting, and sometimes there are 12 bars; sometimes 11; sometimes 13; and every so often there’ll be 15, or even more. So: how many bars SHOULD there be, in a 12-Bar Blues Shuffle?”

To which Little Walter drily replied: “As many as I goddamn WANT there to be, that’s how many! Next question!”

Now: at the time of watching, I made a mental note to keep that little incident in mind. Partly because – then as now – I found it ‘funny as hell’; but also because I feel it illustrates a certain ‘truism’, about the way human beings are generally wired up.

Let’s face it: there are people in the world who (like the journalist who asked that question) feel the need for all things to be properly ‘regulated’, and ‘regimented’; and indeed, they may feel upset – possibly, even ‘threatened’ - when things do not conform to their ‘structured, orderly’ expectations...

Then, on the other hand, you have people like Little Walter – and pretty much all artists, everywhere – who do not feel even remotely constrained by any such ‘regimentation’, at all (and who, conversely, would feel equally threatened by the thought of losing their own autonomy, to a bunch of ‘goddamn rules-and-regulations’...)

With hindsight, however, I realise there is a third reason why I singled it out for memory-database storage. It also reminds me of the way that the European Commission tends to go about its own business of drawing up ‘rules and regulations’ (or – to stick to the same musical motif – how it to always seems to just ‘make up the words and music, as it goes along’...)

In fact, you could almost replace Little Walter with Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen - and shift the topic of discussion from ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’, to ‘The European Commission’s rules on State Aid’ - and the press conference would probably unfold exactly the same way, down to the last detail.

For instance: “Madame President: the European Union is supposed to have rules against State Aid – in fact, the Commission has consistently denied Malta permission to subsidise its national airline, for years now - yet the European Commission has only just approved a number of financial ‘aid-packages’ (all to be financed by the European tax-payer) that will end up benefiting only certain private companies involved in the micro-electronics sector. Would you care to explain this contradiction, please? What are the EU’s precise rules about State Aid? And who SHOULD – or should NOT – benefit from government subsidies, anyway: the private, or public sector?’

Ursula von Der Leyen’s answer? Well: I can’t tell you with any precision, to be honest (because – somewhat strangely - no European journalist has ever seen fit to actually ask her that question, before...)

... but based on the reality of what’s actually happening around us, right now: I can easily ‘fill in those blanks’, myself.

“What are the EU’s precise State Aid regulations, you ask? Well, they’re... whatever I WANT them to be, at any given moment: that’s what they are! Same goes for who ends up actually benefiting from State subsidies, or not. I decide that myself, on the basis of what I WANT... or DON’T WANT. Simple as that, really. Next question!”

Now: just in case you think that I, too, might be ‘making up the words and music, as I go along’... here are a few of the actions (which, as I’m sure you all know, ‘speak louder than words’) that the European Commission has actually taken, over the years, precisely on the subject of ‘State Aid’.

Let’s start with the obvious. Air Malta. You will hardly need reminding that every government we’ve ever had, since joining the EU in 2004 (and arguably even earlier, when we were still in ‘negotiation’ phase) has tried, in one way or another, to convince the European Commission to permit a single, one-off, sorely-needed  ‘cash-injection’, into our beleaguered national airline.

And from Tonio Fenech (i.e., mid-2000s) onwards: every single Maltese finance minister has always used the same argument to justify that request. At the risk of repeating it for the zillionth time: it was that an airline like Air Malta fulfils a vital, invaluable national/strategic function, that no other private airline can possibly to expected to provide; and which, by definition, should automatically override all other, purely ‘commercial’ objections.

Meanwhile: just to illustrate the sort of service we’re actually talking about, here... allow me to remind you, once again, that when several Maltese civilians found themselves trapped at Tripoli airport, during the post-Gaddafi uprisings of 2010 – there was only one company which put its own personnel at risk, by actually flying into Libya, and returning with all those people safely on board. (And I’ll give you all a hint: it wasn’t exactly ‘ST Micro-electronics’, was it now?)

And yet: what was the European Commission’s actual answer, to all those Malta governments’ requests for such a small - and entirely warranted - exemption to State Aid regulations?

This time, I can actually quote it for you, verbatim. They said:


Basically, they said a flat ‘NO’, in all 27 of the European Union’s official languages (28, including English). And oh, look: as a result, Air Malta has already been giving its marching orders... to be replaced, next October, by a new ‘national airline’, which we are told will be ‘managed along the lines of a private, commercial company’...

So, um... what I can say? Let’s just hope that no other Maltese civilians ever find themselves ‘trapped’, under similar conditions, while on holiday in future. Because from now on: those people are going to have to rely on the equivalent of ‘Ryanair’, to come flying in to their rescue; and – no offence, or anything – I just don’t see that ever happening in practice, myself.

But never mind all that, for now: because when one, single Maltese government agency (Malta Enterprise) submitted an almost identical request to the same European Commission, recently: only this time, asking for permission to subsidise an entirely private company – ST Microelectronics, no less! – through ‘cash-injections funded by the European tax-payer’...

Honestly, you’re probably going to think I’m making this part up, too. So instead of continuing that sentence, I’ll just quote from yesterday’s report:

“STMicroelectronics Malta will receive financial backing from the Maltese government to upgrade its production lines as part of an EU initiative to boost microchip production in the bloc. [...] Approval for the public investment arrived on Thursday when the European Commission approved up to €8.1 billion [!!!] in state aid packages proposed by 14 member states.”

In other words: suddenly, the European Commission’s answer to ‘requests for State Aid exemptions’ went from: “NO! NON! NÃO! NEIN! NIET!, etc.”, to: “YES! OUI! SI! JAVOL! YESSIRREE! WATEVA-YUSEJ...!”

... even if the same article goes on to describe the lucky beneficiary, of all this newfound ‘EU taxpayer generosity’ – and which, by the way, will also benefit from an as-yet unquantified amount of funding, directly from the Maltese government ( i.e., US!) – as:

“[...] one of the largest private sector employers in the manufacturing sector. The company employs more than 1,800 people and exports more than €700 million every year...”

Got that, folks? So the Commission automatically said ‘Yes’, to our tax-money being squandered on subsidies for Malta’s single largest, and most successful, private commercial enterpise (despite the fact that it very evidently doesn’t even NEED any such government bail-out, in the first place)...

... yet, despite having already allocated the not-insignifcant sum of €8.1 BILLION [!!!], to that purpose: the same European Commission somehow always objected to Malta’s requests to spend a much smaller amount of taxpayer’s money – around €55 million, as I recall - on bailing out what we all agree is an absolutely indispensable national asset, for the entire country...

... not to mention, an asset that one would actually benefit ALL the Maltese people, for a change: and not just those 1,800 ‘ST Microelectronics’ employees (or, even worse, that company’s annual turnover...)

Go figure...