We have to make Europe work for us | Peter Agius

Nationalist MEP candidate PETER AGIUS admits that Malta’s membership in the EU – while beneficial, overall – has been detrimental to certain sectors: mostly because Malta has failed to make full use of the European potential

At a glance, your campaign seems different from that of the two main parties (including your own, the PN). You are focusing more on European Parliamentary issues… while local issues seem to have taken centre stage everywhere else. Would you agree with that assessment?

I don’t see it in terms of ‘European’ and ‘local issues’. It’s more that we need to see how local issues can be solved through European tools. Because virtually all local issues can be made better, or worse, by using Europe in the correct, or incorrect, way: either through EU funding, or by modifying European legislation, or creating local opportunities via our European platform. I would like to see more discussion on how we can make better use of our status as EU members. Nonetheless, I do think the issues touched upon in this campaign are, in fact, European issues, or issues which have a European dimension… with a few exceptions, such as this late emphasis on Egrant – which is something we battled in the past, and that I think we shouldn’t battle again. We shouldn’t do a ‘replay’ of the last election; we should focus on how to get results from Europe for the Maltese. 

In practical terms, however: do six Maltese MEPs really have the power to make any tangible difference, in a parliament of 750?

Yes, they do. Because when we elect MEPs to the European Parliament, we elect them with a mandate to change the European Union. MEPs have the power to change EU legislation: by lobbying in committees, then voting in committees, then voting at the plenary… I’ve seen first-hand what an extraordinary power this is, and what benefits it can bring if that power is wielded by competent hands. Because we have to bear in mind that: OK, here we’re stuck in our little ‘Colosseum’… but there, you need to convince the Germans. You need to convince the French, the Poles… and it’s easier said than done. 

Could you give examples of areas where you think Malta can get better results from the EU? Or where you see yourself making a difference?

Some of our legislation is just copy-and-paste [of European laws] without taking into consideration what certain specific sectors need. Bee-keepers, for instance; or farmers, or fishermen. These, however, are relatively easy things to address. It’s a case of simply notifying the Commission on how we intend implementing that legislation; and I’m confident that solutions to most problems can easily be found. But we need MEPs also to sensitise European institutions on the implementation of EU law. If you’re sitting on a committee with Italian, French, Spanish MEPs… you could just have a chat with them: ‘These are the sort of problems we are facing. what can we do about them?’ So much can be achieved just by being there, and using the institution informally. But legislatively, you need to be there to modify legislation. For example, European funding is enacted by one big chunk of legislation called the ‘MFF’ [Multiannual Financial Framework], which sets the targets, the objectives, and the sums/amounts; but then, every sector depends on a specific piece of legislation to push funding. Modifying the MFF is a hard job. That’s something that governments are mainly in charge of. But changing the specific agricultural regulations, when it comes to applying EU funding, is a different story. To give a specific instance: [in EU law], ‘organic farming’ is so rigidly defined, that virtually no one can grow organic food in Malta. We are so small that, if the field adjacent to yours uses pesticides once… that’s it, your farm is no longer ‘organic’. So, we can focus on modifying certain definitions, or including, let’s say, provisos or ‘exceptions’ which are suitable to small island states, or small economies…

Your campaign has placed considerable emphasis on agriculture. Last week I interviewed Alfred Sant, and one of the points he made was that Malta’s agriculture was ‘doomed’ by EU accession. Doesn’t he have a point? EU membership has not worked out well for Malta’s farmers, has it?

I disagree. Look at Malta’s dairy farms; from there, you can see whether Sant is correct or not. The cow farmers organised themselves – also with government participation, because government is a shareholder in KPD – and attracted 40 million euro in EU funding. Their farms today are technological: I have seen robotic milking machines in action. And they are producing the same amount of milk of 15 years ago, with half the number of cows. So, productivity went up; their holdings grew; and they are better off today. 

That’s just dairy farmers, though. What about pig-breeders, or farmers who grow cauliflower, cabbages, etc…?

In those areas, we need to look at what could have been done, but wasn’t. What works for one sector might work for others. We need to look into models and strategies that have succeeded, and apply them there. In other areas, we succeeded in protecting the market…

But ‘market protection’ is precisely what went out of the window when we joined the EU. That was part of the deal, wasn’t it?

Joining the EU doesn’t mean neglecting your local product. The ‘gbejna’ is a good example. The application for ‘D.O.C.’ recognition for the Maltese gbejna has been pending for three years. You cannot be in a competitive market, and then not take the measures to legitimately promote your product. So, there are things which can be done, within the EU legislative framework; and the EU gives us the tools to promote our products abroad. Something which has never been used by this government. When you speak to people at the Commission, they tell you that Malta is the only member state to have never used the regulation of 2013, on the promotion of agricultural products abroad. So, it’s simplistic to say that ‘it’s because of the EU.’ We cannot look at our challenges like this. We have to see how to make the EU work for those sectors. This is why, at the beginning of my own campaign, I drew up an analysis of our EU membership. Where is it working, and where is it not working? Because we have to admit that, 15 years down the line… some sectors of society are worse off within the EU. We have to start from there. Farmers are the classic example; then fishermen; ‘rahhala’; hunters and trappers… but also small businesses. There are sectors of the economy that are suffering the single market, not enjoying it. So today, we have to realise that… we took a huge step forward by joining the EU. It was fantastic for Malta, overall. But then there are pockets which are suffering. And it’s not fair, for the rest of us to be clapping and having a party… while these guys are going bankrupt. That’s one thing. The second thing is implementation. The benefits of EU membership will not reach us, unless government is making sure that the rights are trickling down to the citizens. Recently, we transposed the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] in Malta. People got to know about in on the news, only three days before it was introduced. This regulation had been negotiated by government up to three years prior to coming into force. There was a huge transition period before implementation. In other member states, governments used that transition period to communicate with citizens about the effect of GDPR from months beforehand. Then they applied EU funds to have training sessions with all the local businesses. Malta was the only country which did not use the funds to inform businesses about GDPR. I have this from European Commission sources.  So basically, we need to make the EU work for us, by modifying legislation in Brussels to suit us better...

Onto the PN’s campaign: Adrian Delia has declared that this election is a ‘referendum on abortion’. You were EP representation office head, and should know that the EU has no authority to impose abortion on Malta (and that, in any case, we negotiated a protocol safeguard). How honest in the PN being with this abortion strategy?

It is honest and accurate. Let me tell you why: migration. Would you agree that migration is one of the EU’s most important competencies?

Not really, no…

What do you mean, no? Migration is surely one of the EU’s main competencies?

So why has the EU done so little about migration in the Mediterranean? Why does Malta have to resort to bilateral agreements every time there is a crisis?

I’m giving it to you as an example.

I know: I’m challenging your example…

My point is that migration was not an EU competence at all, until the Tampere Council in Finland in the 1990s. The environment is another case in point.  It is a major EU priority, but it was only declared an EU competence in the 1970s. So while it is true that abortion, right now, is not an EU competence… if the European Socialists are pushing for it to become an EU competence, then we do have a problem. And with a Maltese prime minister sitting on the Council, who was in Madrid, and did not object to the wording of the European Socialist’s manifesto…

This, too, is part of the issue. The PN expects everyone to object to everything, on the basis of a single, isolated reference to abortion. Why should the PL renounce a PES manifesto, even if it disagrees with that one issue?

Are you serious? You would expect a politician to disagree with something, but give it the go-ahead anyway?

By that argument, Malta shouldn’t have ratified the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence. That contains a reference to ‘female reproductive rights’, too…

I don’t know the details on that. 

I can assure you, it does. Meanwhile, does the PN’s approval of the EPP manifesto mean it has no reservations whatsoever about it, on anything?

We lobbied with the EPP to make changes to the manifesto. We argued in favour of more emphasis on migration, for instance. Labour did not lobby with the PES at all; they didn’t even manage to change things that were harmful to Malta, like [Timmermans’] tax harmonisation proposal. And if Muscat did not object to the abortion reference in the PES manifesto, what convinces you that he would not object to abortion becoming an EU competence?

I don’t see why he needs to, because Malta negotiated a protocol that is supposed to cover that very contingency. Was that protocol a bluff, then? 

That protocol was a declaration of intent, back then. But let’s be clear. It is government that represents us on the council. A government headed by Joseph Muscat… 

But Maltese governments are elected by popular vote. So, in that case, it would be Malta introducing abortion of its own accord; the EU would have nothing to do with it at all. 

The issue facing MEPs is whether abortion could become an EU competence. I don’t think it is dishonest to address that concern. Delia is correct to state that this is an issue that will be on the table for Maltese MEPs to discuss…

Moving on: this week you took the initiative of publishing your campaign expenditure [EUR26,500] to date, despite there being no legal obligation to do so. Did you make that declaration to expose a non-level playing field in campaign expenditure?

The amount I quoted is very basic. I can assure you that there are candidates who are spending at least threefold. But the point in publishing those accounts was to emphasise the need for integrity, impartiality and independence in the conduct of MEPs and MEP candidates. If you’re elected an MEP, and one of your roles is seeing that European rights are implemented – and maybe touching on this or that big business interest – maybe we should be more careful on who is financing whose campaign, why, and to what extent. And the fact that we only publish accounts after the election – and even then, only expenditure starting from April, when… let me put it this way: I started late, in September. Eight months ago. Other people started long before. I think it merits discussion. It is something that may affect an MEP’s impartiality.

But aren’t there already laws regulating campaign expenditure?

Yes, but the law requires publication of accounts only after an election. And after an election is… too late [fatta la zorba]. Whoever becomes an MEP, becomes an MEP. You won’t get them down from there in a hurry. Another thing I wanted to point out, is that there is a huge mismatch in terms of resources available. I have about 40 people helping me; at least 20 of them are ‘phantoms’. Ghosts. You will never see them anywhere. Why? Because they work in jobs where ‘being seen with a PN candidate’ may end their careers. It’s that serious. This is the feeling out there. I’ve heard stories of Labour candidates having three or four people employed practically full-time with them, while technically working in a ministry or government department. So… yes, I think it is a matter that merits discussion.

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