Lessons learnt with Antonio Tajani

We cannot expect people to vote for us unless we tell them very clearly what we stand for, from environment to migration, the job market, business or our primary industries

Peter Agius is a PN candidate for the European elections

I remember clearly the day, in January 2017, when Antonio Tajani was elected President of the European Parliament – midway through the European Parliament’s legislature. It was a contest between Tajani, a friend of Malta in the European People’s Party, and the European Socialist parties’ candidate (an Italian, too) Gianni Pitella. The contest was decided at the taking of the fourth vote in a long day which commenced at nine in the morning and which saw, after twelve long hours of voting, Tajani being elected as the President of the assembly of all Europeans.

I knew that a new President would need new staff. At the time I was heading the European Parliament office in Malta, a position which I exercised with passion, as it involved what I love best, transmitting Europe and its benefits to the citizens. But, having worked in Brussels for 10 years before that on the negotiating table, it was time for me to return to the heart of European democracy. I therefore passed a message through to the President’s entourage suggesting that his cabinet should include a Maltese person, to sensibilise the mandate to the needs of smaller member states and to further diversify the staff complement around the President.

After a few days, to my utter surprise, I got a call from the man himself. It was around 9.30 pm and in a telegraphic manner Tajani stated ‘bisogna cominciare subito’ (we need to start immediately). I left all certainties behind and embarked on the new role, writing the President’s speeches and acting as political advisor for Malta, Cyprus and Greece.

With the President I was involved in his meetings with the likes of Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, amongst others. However, the best lessons I carry with me today are those gathered from incidents along the path.

When Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, ten months into Tajani’s mandate, I saw how the President immediately saw this as an affront to our own freedoms in Malta and in Europe. He drove an institutional reaction going beyond political declarations. The press room in the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, the place where all media meets to report on the workings of European democracy, was named in her honour. He honoured and remembered her in a myriad of different settings including in two main European Council summits and attended Daphne’s funeral at rotunda in the midst of the only few free days allowed to him in November.

As his humble speechwriter I drafted more than 15 speeches focusing on Daphne and freedom of speech. The lesson I gather from the above goes beyond freedom of speech or rule of law. It is a lesson I saw in many other areas with the President, and that is if you really believe in something, it is present with you wherever you go, and whatever you do. Our values and our policies are there to be shared with every audience and not to be modified according to the listener. This is a lesson I strive to implement in my own politics as a candidate for the European Parliament elections.

We cannot expect people to vote for us unless we tell them very clearly what we stand for, from environment to migration, the job market, business or our primary industries. Every stand we take risks losing us votes, and yet we should be afraid of those who play to please every view. I spoke in favour of life from beginning to end, possibly losing the ultra-liberal vote. I spoke for sustainable trapping and hunting, possibly losing the dark green vote. I spoke for the farmers, the fishermen and for measures helping their local market share possibly losing the importers vote. This I did, not only for the sake of the sectors concerned which I will strive to promote if elected, this I did also out of a duty towards those with differing views. I sincerely believe that politicians have a duty to be clear so as to allow voters not to vote for them. For the only thing unforgivable in politics is choosing a representative which turns out not to represent us at all. That is a mistake I will strive to avoid.

With Tajani I also learnt the virtue of study. I spent many a night passing over speeches with him insisting on detail, on facts, on latest statistics and data. MEP candidates need to be prepared on the subjects which may arise in a future mandate as MEPs. Political puns and turns of tongue have a role to play in heating up the crowds on TV or in political events, but these will not help much when you need to convince tens of Finns, Bulgarians or Spaniards to support your amendment to attract new opportunities for Maltese youths or Gozitan businesses. Equally so, sitting in a committee session or in a political group meeting in Brussels and in Strasbourg, we will not have party leaders at close hand for a morale boost. It will be the chosen six that have to mould Europe to fit us better in Malta, so it really is a question of going beyond the choice that the Prime Minister would force on us on 25 May, to choose between him and Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia!

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