Malta in a changing Europe

This week Malta celebrated its 10th anniversary as an EU-member state, much as it had celebrated accession in 2004: with fireworks, laser shows and street parties.
Yet as we approach our third European election since membership, there are indications that the European Union is not exactly the same EU we joined 10 years ago. And it is likely to transform further still, particularly after this EP election.
This is the first election of its kind under a new framework which gives the European Parliament greatly augmented powers, including the power to ‘elect’ the president of the European Commission. And after 10 years of domination by the centre-right EPP, the parliament itself is likely to experience a seismic shift in political orientation.
Malta’s entire experience as a member state has so far been framed by the confluence of three conservative elements: Lawrence Gonzi as Malta’s prime minister, Jose Barroso as Commission president, and Jean Claude Juncker as chief of the Eurozone Group. Malta’s ability to successfully tap into European resources has up to a point been helped by this fact; although we have also seen the limitations of this otherwise cosy relationship, with particular regard to immigration.
All this is however set to change. Pollwatch 2014 now predicts an imminent Socialist takeover as the dominant party in the EP, and with the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Martin Schulz is likely to be appointed president of the EP.
With a socialist government already in place in Malta, the next 10 years are likely to witness significantly different policy directions to the ones we are used to. It remains to be seen how, in the face of considerable scepticism in the rest of Europe, the EU in its revised composition will set about addressing popular concerns: in particular, calls for a more ‘social’ Europe that is closer to its citizens, and less dominated by lobby groups representing major corporations.
There are also indications that the Union as a whole may be subjected to reform. With Euroscpetic parties set to increase their tally to 30% of the available seats, this election is likely to be interpreted as a negative popular verdict on the EU’s current policy direction. Individual countries such as the United Kingdom – whose prime minister David Cameron has called for a renegotiation of Britain’s accession treaty – are even threatening to pull out altogether. Under the circumstances, it will be difficult for European institutions to resist reformist calls indefinitely.
Such reforms may entail threats or risks to Maltese interests, but also unique opportunities. The deepening crisis in Ukraine has forced a rethink on European relations with Russia. Apart from the danger of rising hostility levels, the confrontation may conceivably lead to a reduction in European dependency on Russian gas for energy production. This in turn could result in an energy revolution towards greener, renewable energy sources… with far reaching consequences for all member states, including Malta.
For all this, our national attitude towards the European Union has remained virtually unchanged in the past 10 years. This much is evidenced by the two parties’ electoral campaigns, which both seem keen on championing European values for all the world as if these were static and inscribed in stone; when in fact they are very much in a state of flux.
Moreover, in our political rhetoric on Europe we keep referring to the EU almost exclusively as a cash cow to service our nation’s particular interests. On immigration, for instance – an issue that has always been regarded as a number one public concern – the parties seem to be locked in an ongoing tug-of-war regarding who can squeeze more funds out of the European budget. Neither party, however, has succeeded in using their international networks to secure the necessary institutional changes at European level. Both the EPP and PES have conspicuously stopped short of proposing any amendments to any of the relevant European directives or treaties in their manifestos. So even if more money is channelled towards Malta, the root causes of the problem will remain unaddressed.
On another level, one could argue that, in 10 years since membership, Malta has simply transferred its state of dependence from the local government to Brussels, and – just as in colonial days – the Nationalist and Labour parties are now pitted in a struggle to prove who can exploit the ‘colonisers’ better.
And while European funds have indeed been forthcoming – without which several vital infrastructural projects, such as the treatment of waste water sewage, would have been impossible – the basic modus operandi of Malta’s government infrastructure has remained virtually unchanged. Despite promises of a more meritocratic Malta, we have seen how political patronage remains the order of the day. Government support is still bought with largesse; the level of political intrusion into our daily lives remains much the same as before.
Completely absent from the local debate so far has been any sense of Europe as an unfolding project, a works in progress. It remains to be seen, for instance, how Malta intends to use the coming decade to work towards a ‘better Europe’; or how the present government intends to fulfil its promise to make Malta a ‘leader’ in a changing Europe.

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