EU issues are Maltese issues too | Roberta Metsola

Singled out for attack by Labour, Roberta Metsola emerges as a Nationalist frontrunner for this year’s European elections. What does this tell us about Metsola, the PN and Europe?

Recent polls surprisingly place Roberta Metsola at the forefront among Nationalist candidates in this month’s European parliamentary elections, and second only to former Prime Minister Alfred Sant across the full spectrum of political parties.

Significantly, she is currently outperforming her closest runner-up David Casa, despite having only occupied her EP seat for one year compared to Casa’s two full terms. She also leaves former foreign minister (and veteran of the 1980s) Francis Zammit Dimech trailing somewhere in the distance.

Clearly, the 34-year-old lawyer and mother of three must be doing something right, either in her personal campaign or in her work in five EP committees: Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Consumer Protection, Organised Crime and Petitions. And while surveys and polls are open to interpretation, it is safe to say that Metsola represents a younger and ‘newer’ face of the PN… and in a sense also of Maltese politics as a whole. She is among the first of a generation of politicians who started their careers against the backdrop of Malta already firmly anchored in the European Union; and though brief, her experience as MEP so far has certainly put her in the national spotlight… even if to be held up as an object of public opprobrium, as was the case with the recent EP resolution on the IIP ‘cash-for-citizenship’ scheme.

Her success in opinion polls may therefore be a reflection of a hunger among the Nationalist electorate for more European-oriented MEPs… as well as people who show a combative spirit. But on both counts, this also points towards an apparent contradiction in the Nationalist Party campaign.

So far this has not been a battle fought on European issues. Metsola’s own PN has urged voters to use this election to pass judgment on Labour’s first year in government; and its billboards have to date likewise focused on exclusively local issues: government nepotism, etc. And unlike its outspoken MEP candidate from Gzira, the PN has meanwhile also acquired a reputation for sitting on the fence on a number of issues.

Isn’t all this ironic, seeing as it was the PN which had initially championed EU accession? And couldn’t her own popularity, at the expense of older party stalwarts, also be viewed as an indication that the PN may be out of touch with its own electorate?

“I would like to see more EU issues discussed locally,” she begins; and promptly surprises me with a rather blunt assessment of the PN’s apparent reluctance to campaign on the same level.

“Let’s not forget that the PN spoke about European issues in the first MEP election… and lost,” she remarks pointedly. Nor is this situation unique to Malta, she adds. “European elections all over Europe tend to be contested on local issues. But it also depends what you mean by ‘European’ and ‘local’ issues...”

Roberta Metsola here outlines a theme to which she will return throughout this interview. In the present political context, there is no real distinction between ‘European’ and ‘Maltese’. That, she argues, was the whole point of Malta joining Europe in the first place: a point that the Labour Party has yet to fully take on board.

“One thing to bear in mind that around 80% of Malta’s legislation now comes directly out of the European Parliament. In a sense this means that whatever we talk about has a European angle. My job as an MEP is in fact to determine the European angle of any given issue; and to see what, if anything, can be done about it at European Parliament level…”

As an example, she cites the LNG tanker at Marsaxlokk. Ostensibly this is a local issue, yet it has environmental and security ramifications that are also of concern to the rest of Europe. “When the issue was brought to the fore, I asked myself if there was anything that could be done about it through the EP. If there are tools I can use… why not use them?”

As the only Maltese member of the EP’s petition’s committee, Metsola soon found the tools she was looking for, and submitted a 3,000-strong petition calling on the European Commission to investigate any risk to public safety. The proposal has yet to be debated.

Elsewhere, Metsola finds herself having to screen endless articles of legislation to determine what impact, if any, it may have on Malta. “Since joining the EU, Malta has had to adopt legislation concerning data protection. One of the rules – pushed heavily by the Germans at the time – was that all companies of a particular size were to employ a data protection officer…”

Metsola agrees with the idea in principle, but argues that the logistics of the original proposal would have translated into a death knell for many local businesses.

“Take a company the size of Lufthansa Teknik, or BOV. Yes, having a data protection officer in such cases is necessary and feasible. But if we’re to take the case of a small shop, already struggling to stay afloat… that’s a different story.”

Malta being overwhelmingly dominated by SMEs, Metsola argues that it was in the national interest to counter any adverse repercussions on the local business community. “As an MEP I worked to make sure there were exemptions in the law for small companies: exemptions that take local realities into consideration.”

For all this, she remains better known for her similar interventions on the IIP scheme. She is credited with (or blamed for, depending on one’s perspective) originally pushing the proposal to have this scheme discussed in parliament. The result was an almost unanimous vote to censure the Maltese government over this issue.

I ask Metsola if she is concerned with the outcome of that particular tussle. It could easily be argued that the IIP scheme hurt the Nationalist Party more than Labour in the long run. The PN can claim credit for the amendments that eventually brought it in line with the Commission’s proposals… but in the end, the resolution for which Metsola and her colleagues worked so hard was almost immediately superseded, and the scheme itself ‘endorsed’ by the Commission despite the EP’s reservations.

This, in turn, raises questions about her own political judgment in pursuing the vote. It also exposes the limits of the EP’s effectiveness: with worrying consequences for prospective candidates who base their campaigns on their own ability to influence European legislation.

Interestingly, she plays down her own involvement in precipitating the discussion. “The citizenship issue was not pushed only by the Nationalists. It was first talked about in October; and by December MEPs from all groups were coming up to us, asking us what was happening, what it was all about. Questions were raised by German and French MEPs at a group meeting. The issue itself involved my committee [Justice and Home Affairs], and that meant that it landed on my desk. I worked on making sure that Malta wasn’t tarnished as a country, that the sale of citizenship remained the sole focus of the resolution.”

Really? That’s odd, because her critics pointed out how the PN delegation – including Metsola – fought even with their own political allies to shoot down a proposal that would have removed direct reference to Malta in the final resolution. As a result, the same resolution (her critics, mostly Labour MEPs, argue) came across as a condemnation of Malta, and only Malta: despite the fact that other EU states had similar schemes in place.

Metsola denies this charge. “No, the resolution clearly singled out the act of putting a monetary value on citizenship. It was applicable to all such schemes, but there was only one which constituted an outright sale of citizenship at the time, and that was Malta’s.”

This, she insists, is why Malta was singled out; and the Labour government could have avoided the criticism by thinking the same scheme through properly in the first place.

Metsola also accuses Labour of employing double standards when it comes to EP debates: having employed similar tactics at EP level against initiatives by the Nationalist administration. When still an MEP, Joseph Muscat had circulated a petition among Marsascala residents to block EU funding for the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant. If successful, she adds, this would have derailed an injection of 70% of the total cost, which exceeded €21 million.

“Did the PN call Joseph Muscat a traitor when he tried to block funding for the Sant’ Antin waste recycling plant? Did we claim he was attacking Malta? No… the Maltese government respected the Opposition leader’s right to speak his mind. But when I spoke my mind, I was called a traitor… something which goes directly against the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

The criticism she endured over the passport scheme did more than just expose a certain hypocrisy in the Labour camp. Metsola suggests it also revealed the Labour Party’s deep-seated suspicion of the EU as a conglomeration of ‘foreigners’ intent on harming Malta. Patriotic knee-jerk reactions that claimed to ‘defend the national interest’ were ultimately steeped in the same old isolationist views that had first prompted Labour to campaign against EU accession.

“If the Labour Party still views the European Parliament as an institution full of ‘foreigners’, it resonates as a reflection of its original anti-EU stance,” Metsola reasons, coming back to her earlier point about how Maltese issues are in fact European, and vice versa.

But at the same time, the outcome of the European Parliament’s censure was that the scheme went ahead regardless, albeit with modifications that do not really address the concerns raised by the EP. Doesn’t this also confirm that actions by the EP – and, by extension, its members – are ultimately ineffective?

Once again, Metsola disagrees. “I would have preferred a five-year residence period instead of only one year; but once there is a tangible link between the applicant and the country, it no longer remains the same.”

The changes – which she reminds me that the PN had all along been proposing – were eventually made under pressure from Europe… putting paid to any criticism that the EP vote made no difference at all. And the difference it made, she continues, was crucial in that it addressed the underlying principle at stake.

“Before, in the scheme as it was originally presented, the only factor was money. What message does this send out to Europe? That it’s okay for rich people to buy European nationality, but not okay when poor people wash up here on a rickety boat, after risking their lives at sea?”

All the same, it remains a fact that Malta’s contingent consists of only six MEPs out of a total of 751. And the same polls which place Metsola ahead in the race, also indicate a higher than usual percentage of non-voters and undecided. There seems to be a growing perception that this election is itself at best inconsequential. Metsola, however, argues that the size of the delegation is not necessarily representative of the extent of its influence on the parliamentary process.

“In practice it doesn’t work that way. Let me give you an example. In July the EP passed a resolution calling on Hungary to reform its constitution and bring it in line with European values…”

Viktor Orbel’s Fidesz party, she reminds me, is a member of the EPP alongside the PN’s two MEPs. “I voted in line with the Socialists on this one. I did not follow an EPP directive. I could not ignore the fact that the Hungarian government was threatening human rights… among other things, trying to close down TV stations...”

The EPP itself would later drop its directive and join the chorus against Orbel. The resolution was eventually approved with 93% of the vote: comparable, in fact, to the IIP condemnation. Metsola concludes that: “Hungary has more MEPs than us, but this on its own didn’t sway the vote.”

Here she seems to be suggesting that the key to successfully operating in Europe also involves the actions and behaviour of the government at home… which should ideally avoid situations where it would be pilloried by the EP, as both Hungary and Malta were in separate resolutions over different issues.

But individual MEPs can also have a direct bearing, for two reasons: one, in the sense that they form part of an influential political grouping which has strength in numbers; and two, through individual efforts to secure backing and lobby for Malta’s interests.

“If you sit alone in the European Parliament, your influence will be negligible. This is the situation facing the far right in the EP at the moment. Marie Le Pen sits alone with her father [Jean Marie le Pen], while the rest of the far right parties are fragmented. As a result they have almost no impact on EP legislation. If, on the other hand, you sit with a group that has political weight, then you can have a direct effect…”

This is however a dangerous argument for a Nationalist candidate to make. Before the last EP election, the PN had campaigned on the strength of forming part of the ‘largest European political family’. The EPP went on to lose a number of seats in that election, and with them its status as European heavyweight champion. In this election it is likely to lose still more seats, with most pollsters predicting a Socialist takeover. From this angle, both Metsola and the PN seem to be indirectly urging voters to vote for their political rivals…

“The way things are predicted to shape up in the European Parliament, it no longer makes sense to talk about rival political groupings. It’s more like a big mass at the centre. In this scenario, the EPP will remain one of the core political influences, whether it has more or less seats than others. But whoever gets elected will be part of large influential group.”

For the same reason she argues that it makes no sense to adopt a dualist approach to the work of the European Parliament. “One thing both Nationalist and Labour delegations want to see is a cross-party resolution on immigration. This can only be possible if all the major parties agree to back it. Whoever gets elected will have to work together to achieve this in practice. And being a smaller number, Maltese MEPs have to work harder…”

This, she claims, is the ultimate difference between the Nationalist and Labour approaches to the European Parliament. “One question that should be asked is: why is John Attard Montalto not a member of any committee? I get attacked for taking a position, by people who do not take any positions, or sit on any committees. Yet we are only six MEPs. We have to be present everywhere…”