Making Europe work for us again | Peter Agius

The European Union has changed drastically since 2004; and according to Nationalist MEP candidate PETER AGIUS, unless we adapt to the ongoing changes, we may end up in a situation where EU membership itself is no longer advantageous for the country

Photo: Jray Attard/MaltaToday
Photo: Jray Attard/MaltaToday

For a party that takes such pride in its ‘European credentials’, the PN now seems at odds with some of the EU’s basic values and ideals. The European Parliament argues that ‘abortion is a fundamental human right’ (and also, a basic element of any country’s healthcare service); the PN opposes an amendment that will permit abortion, in cases where mother’s health is at risk. First of all, are you comfortable with the PN’s abortion stand? And do you feel that an ideological gulf is opening up, between the PN and its self-styled ‘European vision’?

Personally, I think that the PN’s European vocation is still very much intact. And I also think that the way you’re projecting the EU – as if there was some kind of commitment to be ‘pro-abortion’, as part of the European Union’s ‘basic values and ideals’ – is incorrect…

It’s not just me saying it, though. Human rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović also welcomed the amendment, as a ‘positive step towards full  decriminalization [of abortion]’…

I don’t deny that a lot of EU member states do have regimes which permit abortion – and even euthanasia - and that some of those countries allow, for example, ‘abortions beyond the first few weeks’. And yes: this could create the perception, out there, that the EU is somehow ‘pro-abortion’.

However, I have a tendency to look at things more on the basis of what is actually written; what is agreed to by the member states, and signed on the dotted line. And when you look at the EU’s ‘founding principles’ – the initial treaties, upon which the Union was created – ‘abortion’, and other ethical issues, are either not mentioned at all; or else, they are mentioned to explicitly state that the EU should NOT include them, in any ‘harmonisation’ of its principles.

Then, when you look at the case-history of the European Court of Human Rights: again, there are a number of sentences which confirm that abortion is – and should remain – a question of ‘national competence’…

But this is precisely what the European Parliament wants to see changed. The Simone Veil Pact, for instance – which Roberta Metsola said she would sign, before becoming EP President – explicitly proposes including abortion as one of the EU’s ‘fundamental human rights’: which would also, de facto, make it very much within the EP’s competence, to legislate…

Bear in mind that the European Parliament has at least two different functions. On one level, it is a legislative body which has the power to draw up laws; and this is where I do everything I can, in my political work, to ensure that Malta’s interests are included and defended, in the strongest way possible, at EU level…

… but then, the European Parliament also has the right – like anyone else – to discuss any other issue or topic that it chooses. Just like Commissioner Helena Dalli was perfectly free, to propose guidelines against using the word ‘Christmas’, or Christian names like ‘John and Mary’: that was her opinion, and she had every right to express it; though she faced a strong backlash, as a result.

It doesn’t mean, however, that we – as Maltese – are ‘obliged’ to change the way we think about such issues, ourselves. Like any other nationality, we have the right to our own self-determination. So when the EP, or any other European institution, talks about abortion; it is talking about something which is not technically within its own competence, to decide.

Now: with regard to abortion, I do agree, without a doubt, that we need to have a much wider, more in-depth debate on the subject. But not because ‘the EP said so’; or because ‘150 MEPs signed Cyrus Engerer’s petition’. No, we need to have this discussion because it is a very important issue; and because, if there’s any decision to be taken… that decision will have to be taken by us, as the people of Malta and Gozo.

So it matters little, at the end of the day, what the European Parliament says about abortion. On the contrary: the less it says on the subject, the better… because abortion does not fall within its competence. If anything, the EP should be talking – and does talk, often – about issues such as transport; and how [EU legislation] negatively impacts Malta. It should be talking the environment… and how Malta is pumping a lot of sewage into the sea; about food security, and how three-quarters of our farmers, and livestock breeders, are facing bankruptcy...

Do you feel, however, that there is a ‘contradiction’, between how the PN projects itself here in Malta – which is basically ‘more pro-life, than the Catholic church’ – and how it projects itself in on the European stage? Both Roberta Metsola and Tonio Borg, for instance, changed their tone, about abortion, when addressing a European audience. Doesn’t this cause a bit a credibility problem, for the PN?

I don’t really agree that there is any contradiction. As you know, I have worked within the European Parliament for several years, and I have rubbed shoulders with many people; especially within the EPP, where I have represented the PN in many of its working groups. I have never felt in any way uncomfortable, in that environment, because of my pro-life views. Actually, there are many parties within the EPP that have similar positions to ours… in the sense that, they agree that issues such as abortion, should remain a matter of national competence.

Now: all EPP parties – including the PN – also agree that we should everything in our power, to safeguard women’s health. But we disagree that the European parliament should go any further than that, by imposing its own views upon member states. As someone who represents Malta, in a European setting – and also as a candidate in MEP elections – I feel that abortion should not be among the issues that the European Parliament (including myself, if I am elected) should be deciding upon. It should be a matter for individual member states to legislate, through their national parliaments…

But isn’t that, effectively, what the government of Malta is trying to do right now?

Yes. But the problem, as I see it, is that Prime Minister Robert Abela doesn’t have a mandate to introduce the legislative changes he’s proposing. He has every right, of course, to raise the issue of abortion for discussion – just as the EP does, like I said before. But he doesn’t have a mandate to actually legislate; and I believe that, to acquire a mandate on an issue such as this… there has to be consultation with the electorate.

Lawrence Gonzi didn’t have an electoral mandate to entrench the abortion ban into the Constitution, either. But he still tried to do that, in 2005…

Well, to be honest these principles we’re talking about – i.e., whether a government needs a mandate, or not – are not ‘cast in stone’. I’m not saying that there’s a law which requires the Prime Minister to have a mandate, for each and every single legal amendment…

But when you have a Prime Minister, who became party leader on the back of an explicit commitment – given in a recorded interview with Fr Joe Borg, on Newsbook – that ‘under his leadership, abortion will never be introduced’… it’s not just a case that ‘he doesn’t have a mandate [to introduce abortion]’; it’s that he actually HAS a mandate, to do the very opposite of what he is doing. His mandate was to ‘ensure that abortion is NOT introduced, under any circumstance’.

And this is why a lot of people – not just Nationalists; but also many Labour supporters – are increasingly of the sentiment that Robert Abela is abusing of the trust placed in him by the electorate. This week, for instance, I visited the market in Birkirkara; and I’m the kind of person that speaks to absolutely everyone, in a crowd. And I spoke to a lot of people who normally vote for the Labour Party; and many of them told me, loud and clear, that they disagreed completely with how Abela is handling this issue…

Let’s turn to the ‘Qatargate’ scandal that has recently engulfed the same European Parliament. When the EP’s rule-of-law delegation came to Malta, it concluded that ‘arrests were not enough’; and that Malta needed an institutional root-and-branch reform. Do you feel that the same could be said for the EP, today?

First of all, I can’t speak on behalf of the European Parliament. I occupy an administrative role within the EP; and as a candidate, I hope to represent Malta as an MEP. But that’s as far as my ability to speak for the EPO goes.

And in any case, the EP doesn’t need someone like me to defend it: even because I don’t think it needs any defending, over the way it handled the affair. After all, the fundamental point concerns how the EP reacted to the scandal; and [former EP vice president] Eva Kaili was arrested, and sacked from the EP, within 24 hours.

So it’s not like the Belgian police simply carried on ‘eating rabbit’, as if nothing happened…

But that’s how the Belgian police responded, not the EP…

The EP’s reaction, under Roberta Metsola’s leadership, was no different. At the earliest opportunity, the EP took immediate and drastic action. In fact, the contrast between how Eva Kaili was treated, and both Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, couldn’t be clearer…

All the same: in the local scenario, Malta was forced (among others, by the EP itself) to introduce many administrative reforms. Shouldn’t the EP do the same? And do you agree that the scandal itself came about, partly as a result of the EP’s own resistance to more stringent financial scrutiny, in the past?

Like so many others, I was shocked and disappointed by what happened… but let’s not get carried away, by suggesting that it proves that the EP is ‘dirty, or corrupt’…

That’s more or less how member states like Hungary are painting it, though. Can you blame them? After all that ‘chest-thumping’ and ‘finger-wagging’ from the EP, on the subject of ‘ethical governance’?

If you ask me, all this scandal really shows is that MEPS are human, at the end of the day; and they are just as exposed to temptation as everyone else.

But it also shows us that the institution’s mechanisms, and checks and balances, are actually functioning quite well. If anything, the European parliament gave member states an example, of how one should respond to such circumstances.

All in all, then, I would say that the events of the past two weeks show us that the European Parliament DOES have a system of checks-and-balances in place; and that – unlike the case with Malta, and certain other member states - the system DOES actually work, in practice.

One last question: among the other issues you mentioned earlier was agriculture… which, you say, is facing ‘imminent bankruptcy’. Ironically, this was one of the ‘doom and gloom’ scenarios predicted by Alfred Sant, before accession in 2004. Isn’t it true, then, that Malta’s European experience didn’t exactly turn out as ‘rosy’ as planned, in certain sectors?

I don’t think anyone wants to revisit all the controversies that arose before accession: but as you know, the question of Malta’s membership was extensively discussed – for better or worse, and with ‘flying tempers’, and all the rest of it – before a democratic decision was finally taken, in 2004, to join the EU.

But if I were to synthesize my entire perspective, on Malta’s membership in the EU today – which is also the reason why I chose to enter European politics in the first place - I would begin by pointing out that the European Union has changed radically, in the past 20 years.

We are now witnessing a war in Ukraine: where the EU has a vital role to play, because the war itself has implications on Europe’s energy-provision; its food security… this is an economic war, as much as a military one; and certainly, nothing of the kind existed back in 2004.

Meanwhile, the EU is also in the process of harmonising its taxation rules, in a way that has far-reaching implications for the local economy. Likewise, the practical impact of certain EU rules, and directives, are having a suffocating effect on many sectors: including transport – which is becoming increasingly problematic for Malta, because the EU doesn’t take into account our unique geographical situation – and also agriculture, fisheries, and others.

And so, 20 years on: the reality is that, if we’re not careful, we may well end up in a situation where being EU members, would no longer be to our own advantage: it would become something that – as the Italians say - ‘non ci conviene piu’.

But that’s because we are not making enough of an effort, to adapt to the changes currently affecting the European Union. It’s like going to a tailor’s shop; if you have a suit of clothes that no longer fits you… the tailor will shorten it from here; and lengthen it from there; until it fits again.

And we did this, when we first joined [by adopting the full Acquis Comunautaire]; and we continued adapting, for around the first 10 years after membership. Now, however, we are no longer tailoring our membership within the EU, to actually suit our needs as a country.

This is my vocation, as an MEP candidate. I want to be that ‘tailor’, who adapts Malta’s European ‘clothing’ to meet its needs.

And that’s why I visit so many factories, and farmers’ fields, and offices, and university departments, and so many other places of work, every day. To get an on-the-ground understand of what is needed, in those sectors… and to see how we can make the most of European legislation, to make our membership work for us again.