What happens in Strasbourg | Joseph Cuschieri

Joseph Cuschieri finally gets to give MaltaToday a piece of his mind, over dinner. It has taken five years, but the Labour MEP is finally interviewed by this newspaper about his work in the EP and Labour’s record.

Joseph Cuschieri
Joseph Cuschieri

We’re midway on a flight to Frankfurt when an Air Malta steward squats by the aisle seat and asks both my colleague and I, who happen to be reading the same book, how we like it so far. For a second I think he might be referring to the inflight service and what could only have been a soup of gravy with a side of meatballs. But it turns out to be Guze Stagno’s ‘What Happens in Brussels...’, whose characterisation of Labour constituents on an all-expenses-paid trip by a fictional MEP to the capital of the EU has us in broad smiles. “You know, it’s all true,” the steward tells us unprompted. “I see this almost every month,” he says of the stereotype canvassers on the Brussels-Bruges junket that MEPs tailor as an ‘orientation visit to the European Parliament’.

As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to Strasbourg to meet an MEP – Joseph Cuschieri – on an orientation visit for hacks like myself to see up close the kind of work he does in the EP. It’s been five years since Cuschieri stood up MaltaToday on an interview ahead of the European elections. This is a sure chance to finally pick his brain.

But I ought to digress to tell readers that Cuschieri and I will, over dinner the next evening, trade a few animated barbs. It seems my manner of questioning had him discount me as “a Nationalist”; then he bluntly rubbishes my newspaper, the reason – I find out soon enough – because he felt slighted by some unfair lampooning in the past; I call him ill-mannered, tell him he is unable to handle the press after having stood up a MaltaToday journalist for an interview back in 2009. I won’t go into the details of this tit-for-tat, except that thanks to the diplomatic intervention of my colleague and Cuschieri’s own resourceful assistant, as well as the catharsis of the Riesling he orders, the tiff soon subsides into a jolly old political kiss-and-tell, the kind of banter that journalists live for. Stagno would have loved to be the hovering sommelier at this table. But what happens in Strasbourg, stays in Strasbourg.

To be sure, the rough edges of Joseph Cuschieri – self-styled as ‘the voice of the Maltese worker in Europe’ – belie his intense dedication to the party and his job as head of the Labour delegation in Brussels. He is a pure Labour crusader, part of a young but loyalist cadre that appears at odds with the polished young Turks that Labour’s ‘fourth floor’ strategists recently recruited to ply the floating vote.

He has now definitely immersed himself in European politics, evidenced by his awareness of the ideological gap between European socialists and the provincialism of the Maltese MEPs (while there, he voted against a report on abortion, which means that in the evening he had to suffer the questioning of his socialist colleagues).

What’s more, the past five years have been unhappy times for him. He was practically on his own to campaign for the inclusion of Malta’s sixth seat in the eventual enlargement of the EP that finally took place in 2012. It seems this kind of adversity may have begotten a mix of bitterness and mistrust of critics, as well as of the independent press.

It won’t do him any favours, I tell him. But I doubt he’ll take my advice. Earlier in the day, his eyes roll when I tell him that although I’m Sliema born-and-bred like him (we lived a street apart), I’m a Floriana supporter (long story). “One more championship and FA trophy than you’ve ever won,” Cuschieri jovially enunciates into my recording device as we bring the interview to an end and I make light banter on football rivalry.

He has not yet read Stagno’s ‘Brussels...’ but I do ask him what he makes of the japing characterisation of Maltese MEPs as glorified tour operators sending voters up to the EU institutions.

“Every MEP gets to invite 100 persons every year for familiarisation visits, around 550 per legislature. I’d say the demand is of 50,000,” he smiles. “I try not to disappoint anyone. But it’s impossible,” he says, hinting that constituents will do what they can to blag a Brussels trip.

“But the worst thing is the impression that this is some sort of holiday. Or who thinks that an MEP is some sort of travel agent giving out tickets... I think it would be a disservice if we had to put across the idea that MEPs exist only to get people up to Brussels [on holiday]. I think it would be better if it didn’t exist anymore.”

As a latecomer to the EP, Cuschieri is now already facing a new election campaign even though his name does not yet appear on the official Labour list – yet. “It’s hard catching up in the middle of a legislature. I started work half-way through the legislature. I’ve gone in for it with much enthusiasm and I’m finding my feet now,” he says, giving a nod to his foreign staff whom he says have always had his back.

His campaign for the sixth seat, awarded to Malta under the Lisbon Treaty but not enforced due to the delay of a ratification by the Greeks, led him to make some bold statements in the run-up to his induction to the EP: in the midst of the Greek bailout talks, Cuschieri called on Malta to deny the debt-afflicted state money under the EFSF lest they green-light the enlargement of the European Parliament.

He disputes that his demands were insensitive. “Today we are talking about using our government’s veto on irregular immigration, after all.”

“Malta was amongst the first governments to sign the [enlargement] protocol, but we didn’t apply much pressure on other states to sign it. Some 18 colleagues of mine and myself feared that we wouldn’t get our seat and that Malta would lose its sixth seat. Our pressure enabled to get the protocol signed.”

Cuschieri says that since having stepped down from the Maltese parliament, he has had to face up to political themes and issues that affect various countries, differently – a far cry from the straight-laced affairs of the House of Representatives. “The legislative process here is much more technical and it gets analysed thoroughly before making it to the final vote in the plenary – there are more political groups and compromise plays a big part in decision-making, sometimes even using MEPs from different groups to make laws.”

This takes me to his handsome MEPs’ salary (some €100,000 annually taking into consideration other grants and allowances) and I ask him whether – after the honoraria saga that had damaged the reputation of the Gonzi government – he feels that even Maltese MPs should be paid a generous honorarium and become full-time MPs.

“It shouldn’t necessarily be full-time. What I think is that Maltese MPs should be better occupied with their work, for example split up into various committees,” he says, taking as an example the myriad committees that the EP uses to discuss various laws. But how can they be more occupied with work while retaining a part-time role and also their careers?

“It has to be a gradual process. Maltese MPs are already occupied with various delegations abroad, and this means taking personal leave from their jobs or cancel time on their professions. I think MPs should be better used through more and better committees,” he says, even though he doesn’t agree with a full-time profession for Maltese MPs. “It’s not just about being better paid. Maybe allowances can be pegged to attendance as long as they get better human resources with which to work.”

So does he agree with a proposal to pay MPs only on their attendance record? And if they had to be paid better salaries, why shouldn’t the electorate expect that well-paid MPs also serve them on a full-time basis?

“Let me be blunt. I disagree with talk on pegging the honorarium to members’ attendance. As things work out in parliament, you cannot even control it: an MP can just walk into the Chamber, go round the benches and have the Speaker spot him so that he can mark him ‘present’, walk on behind the Speaker and just walk out of the Chamber. The House should not work that way.”

Additionally, he says MPs don’t even attend sittings where the subject matter being discussed does not concern their particular area of expertise (something that also happens in the EP). “So they should be doing something else, working in committees for example. I find it amusing when they say that, the Prime Minister didn’t attend some 30% of the last sittings. Don’t they see that he has been on foreign visits – isn’t that ministerial work?”

The biggest drawback of a full-time parliament, he says, is that it will discourage people from the legal and medical profession and other career-minded individuals from entering politics. I suggest to him that the choice is easy: either go in for politics or stay in private practice to reap those rewards. But Cuschieri disagrees, saying it would be the political class to lose out on professionals and businessmen who feel the need to stay in touch with their careers.

I bring up the subject of the Labour cabinet ministers’ declarations of assets. Was he surprised at the kind of wealth declared on the register by some ministers?

“I have no envy for anyone who has made a success of their life. Good luck to anyone who has worked hard and reaped success.”

Doesn’t he feel that the MPs’ and ministers’ declarations of assets lacks the necessary kind of rigour to truly assess an elected member’s wealth and whether this wealth affects his loyalty to constituents? “It’s pretty much the same inside the EP too. The declaration of asset form is not detailed at all. Here we do it every five years, and in Malta we do it every year. I also followed the declarations of assets supplied by Nationalist members, and those who did not. I say that it should change and become stricter.”

Cuschieri takes the asset declarations as a cue to suggest that experience has shown that many people who have entered politics in Malta were people who had already amassed a certain kind of success in their private careers. But I tell him that it’s this kind of dilemma that Joseph Muscat was faced with when he allowed parliamentary secretary Franco Mercieca a ‘waiver’ from the Code of Ethics to allow him to continue his ophthalmologic surgery. Where do Mercieca’s loyalties lie: to his political role or his career?

“There are laws, and there is the code of ethics. The most important thing is the electorate’s judgement. If your loyalty is not towards the electorate, when the time comes it’s the electorate that will decide. It’s the electorate’s responsibility, and they vote wisely as we know.”

And what about the responsibility of MPs and ministers and prime ministers to lead by example? Isn’t the electorate rightly disappointed that Mercieca got a ‘waiver’, or that energy minister Konrad Mizzi’s wife was awarded an envoy’s role in Asia, or that so many Labour volunteers and benefactors appear to have been appointed on boards and commissions, when the keyword from the ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ philosophy was meritocracy?

“So should have Labour left all the Nationalist men and women who served on these commissions and boards for years, and just had a Labour cabinet? It seems that’s what the Nationalists would have wanted. I remember the changes that took place after 1987... it is obvious that a change of government precedes this kind of change, especially with a party that has long been in Opposition. It needs people of trust.”

Does it also need people of trust like Lou Bondì, Jesmond Mugliett or Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando (respectively, Labour’s bête noire of the public broadcaster now appointed on national festivities committee, and former MPs targeted over graft allegations by pre-Muscat leadership). Is that meritocracy?

“It’s the prime minister’s judgement,” Cuschieri – who certainly disagrees with the Bondì appointment – says. “You can disagree with [Muscat], like I did. And then there are former MPs on government boards who have a lot of experience. This is also meritocracy.”

If anything, Cuschieri says he would have carried out the changes faster, saying a party needs absolute control on the situation when it is elected to government. I ask whether this was only down to the political opportunism of new Labour, with former ‘enemies’ like John Dalli (former Nationalist minister and European Commissioner) appointed as an advisor on health policy. “In politics the criticism is towards the political attitude of the person... we respected him as a European Commissioner, as much we respect the present commissioner [Tonio Borg]. The tobacco debacle was an unhappy matter, a very uncomfortable matter, for the entire Maltese delegation here. It was a burning issue and we wanted to see that somebody who is accused has the right to defend himself.

“I don’t think Dalli was given the right to do so, and I think there was the intention from the very start not to give him that right. The Maltese delegation here contributed to ensure, at the very least, that he got the right to defend himself. Whether he is right or not is another matter.”

As things stand, the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint Dalli as a consultant on health policy now is under attack because the allegations of trading in influence against the former commissioner in the OLAF investigation, are still under investigation by the Maltese police, and not yet closed. So has ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ been a strategy to take in any adversary of the Nationalist government, within the Labour fold?

“No. We are putting that very slogan into effect in Malta. And even with the involvement of people like Dalli. Because it’s not that these people fell out with the Nationalist government, but it was the Nationalist government that fell out with them. Which is why the present government is doing the right thing to use their talents.”

We finally turn to irregular migration, and what is expected to be one of the more dominant issues in the forthcoming 2014 elections for Maltese candidates. Cuschieri says he will keep on insisting that migration is a European problem, not just Malta’s, and that mandatory burden-sharing remains a key plank of Labour policy. We briefly mention the attempted pushbacks last July, and whether this affected Malta’s reputation inside the EP.

“I think it was a stand that showed the government was not ready to just allow anything. I didn’t see any negative feedback here. It wasn’t an ‘attempted’ pushback: it didn’t happen, and the government did not breach any international law. As we know the only pushback that happened took place back in 2002,” Cuschieri says.

“In reality, there were those who were taken aback by the Maltese government’s position. I would have condemned the government if a pushback had taken place, but it made a strong stand and I praise that, because migration is firmly on the European agenda. Unfortunately, even as a result of the tragedies that took place: and it is a misfortune. People had to die for an urgent discussion to take place inside the EP.

“But it’s not a question of money anymore. It’s our size that cannot cater for this kind of influx... do we want Malta to be a cage for irregular migrants?

“Not ever. It’s unfair to asylum seekers, because who can justify an 18-month detention period for somebody who has survived that kind of voyage? I believe that anybody who is granted protection or refugee status does not need to stay in Malta necessarily: and other states have to take a share of this responsibility.”

Disclaimer: The author was on an expenses-paid familiarisation visit to the European Parliament on invitation of Labour MEP Joseph Cuschier