The 'eurorealist' | Alfred Sant

Alfred Sant’s career has seen him lead the Labour Party for over 15 years, the country for a short-lived two-year stint and he is now aiming at a seat in the European Parliament.

Alfred Sant hopes to extend his rollercoaster political career by serving as one of Malta's six MEPs. The thought of seeing the former prime minister address the European Parliament might make some voters who remember his dogged resistance to EU membership wince. Most Labour loyalists will be enthralled.

As I enter Sant's office in Birkirkara, I suddenly, and unexpectedly, find myself in an oasis of calm in the middle of the urban cacophony of Malta's largest town.

The old townhouse, situated in a quaint backstreet just off the hectic Valley Road, is adorned with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a pretty garden where an Indo-Chinese peafowl roams around freely.

I ask him how many books he owns, to which Sant - a prolific author himself - tells me that he owns thousands of books which he considers as his own "children".

Trying hard to shift my attention back to the interview, I start off on the wrong foot. Before tackling Europe, I ask him what he thought of the revelations by his former adversary, Eddie Fenech Adami, on meetings the former PN leader had with Sant's old nemesis Dom Mintoff in 1997, a year before the former Labour leader brought down Sant's government in 1998.

"No comment," is Sant's terse reply. I attempt to make up for the bad start by asking whether he'll follow suit and write his own autobiography.

"Maybe...why not? I had already started writing one some 10 years ago and I had published a book which goes all the way to 1975. But these kind of projects are normally written in the latter years of one's life and I'd rather believe that I have a few more years ahead of me," Sant says with a smile.

For the first time in 27 years, the former Labour leader does not have a seat in Parliament. I wonder whether looking from the outside, he is seeing the party he once led drift to the right. "I have no problem with Labour's policies. They levelled similar accusations at me in the past when I was charged with being a rightist, so I know the ropes."

However, does this endorsement extend to the controversial citizenship scheme? "The prime minister himself has acknowledged that things could have been done differently. However, Parliament has decided and all the controversies in recent months were superfluous."

The Individual Investor Programme will see wealthy foreigners obtain a Maltese passport for €650,000 the purchase of a €350,000 property; and a €150,000 investment in bonds and stocks.

Critics have lambasted the scheme, which government has claimed will reap up to €1 billion revenues which in turn will be invested in social and educational projects, as being unsustainable and a neoliberal policy.

But Sant, an economist by profession, disagrees. He argues that private and public investment has been on the wane for over 20 years.

"The problem with this country is that the rate of investment - both public and private - is weak, and as a result, whatever is said, we are witnessing a progressive deterioration in welfare services. Health is not free, education is not delivering enough and there are no funds to make up for these shortcomings."

The Harvard graduate adds that successive PN governments installed a feel good factor "at all costs," and had a "money no problem" attitude which resulted in money going to "consumption instead of investment".

"We are now in a position where the country cannot refuse any kind of investment. As long as investment increases, it's immaterial whether it's going into the social sector, infrastructure or economic productivity.

Following a brief interruption by the peafowl, which apparently gets agitated when strangers are around, we turn our attention to the forthcoming European Parliament elections.

Who would have thought that 11 years after leading a fierce anti-EU membership campaign, Sant would have contested European elections, standing a very good chance of becoming the first former Maltese prime minister to serve in the European Parliament.

He explains that he was first asked to contest the European elections by his successor at the helm of the party, Joseph Muscat, five years ago. However he decided against throwing his hat into the ring for a number of reasons which are, however, no longer valid this time around.

"Five years ago Joseph Muscat had asked me whether I was interested in contesting the 2009 European elections, but I had refused on three counts. Firstly, I had just recovered from cancer and I wasn't sure how long I would live. Secondly, I was an MP in the Maltese Parliament and once I had a mandate I wanted to complete it to the full. Thirdly, I erroneously thought that there wouldn't be any interesting developments on a European level."

However, now that he's overcome his illness and no longer holds a seat in Parliament in Valletta (while he also believes that interesting times do in fact lie ahead for both Malta and the rest of Europe), if the people elect him, Sant is convinced that he "can give his contribution".

In 2003, Sant led a zealous campaign against Malta's EU accession and failed to recognise the referendum result, which gave a clear verdict in favour of EU membership. How has he now decided to vie for a seat in Brussels? Isn't it paradoxical?

"There's absolutely no problem in this. Contrary to what some say, I have never been against the EU. I believe that I am among those who have studied and followed the EU's political social and cultural developments the most, from the very beginning."

Reminding me that his first job was a five-year stint at Malta's embassy in Brussels in 1970, the 66-year-old Sant explains that since then, he has followed the developments of Malta's relationship with the EU and the union itself ardently.

"When it came to deciding whether Malta should join the EU, we argued that the country would be accepting the EU's regulations lock, stock and barrel and we also argued that the disadvantages outweighed the benefits, and we had bound ourselves to respect the people's verdict in the general election. And that's what we did. There's no contradiction but it's an evolution of thought which is coherent with Malta's national interest."

He adds that once Malta is a full member, the national interest now demands that the country makes the best out of membership.

"I am offering my services at a European Parliament level, with the aim of doing my part in maximising the benefits and curtailing disadvantages. Also, advantages should be shared by all, and not enjoyed by the elite alone while the rest of the country carries the weight of membership on its shoulders." 

In recent weeks, Sant has embarked on an intense campaign with a series of visits in Malta and Gozo and huge presence on conventional and new media platforms. What does it feel like going back to basics after more than 20 years? "The biggest difference I have encountered in this campaign is that I'm not used to leading a personal campaign, because I was previously spearheading the Labour Party's campaign. The last time a led a personal campaign was prior to the 1992 general election."

As we start discussing the European Union and where the bloc is heading, Sant ditches his trademark telegraphic answers and his knowledge and passion for the subject come to the fore.

But does he consider himself as a Eurosceptic, and would he feel comfortable in the 'Europeanist' Socialist group?

"I've always viewed this talk of eurosceptism as bogus. I consider myself as a eurorealist because byn the same measure, who argues for more Europe can be described as a eurofanatic. What's in a name after all? I consider myself as a realist because you must look at the EU's inception. I view Europe as being different from the continental realities that are China and the US, because it is a Europe of nations. You are European because you are a Bulgarian citizen and the other way round."

He adds that for this reason Europe lacks the mobility the US has and is facing growing economic and unemployment problems. "We have to depart from the fact that this is a Europe of nations. More Europe is not the solution because over the last two decades European unity got stronger but the same cannot be said of Europe's performance."

This sense of realism is also evident in Sant's refusal to look beyond 24 May, because as he puts it "it wouldn't be the first time that I've been stung in the past".

Sant believes that Europe - especially the eurozone - is on the wrong track in its attempts to regain flexibility. "Europe is carrying out an internal devaluation, cutting social services and employment conditions, under the great euphemism of 'increasing flexibility' in the labour market."

He says that this model is not being accepted by many countries, and is "fuelling anti-European and nationalist currents along the way".

Describing these nationalist forces as dangerous, the former prime minister says that such factions on both sides of the political spectrum are reacting to how things are developing in Europe.

Mainstream parties, Sant says have allowed populist parties to gain ground by implementing policies which have led to social decline in countries such as Greece and Portugal. "There is a need for a new realism which sets off from recognising nationalism in the positive sense and move away from neoliberal policies."

Why hasn't the left addressed such concerns? "People are not goods. Cultural differences come lumped with a certain amount of strain and stress. The neoliberal solution is to ignore this reality because they stand to benefit from precarious job conditions and a race to the bottom."

He adds that the left is silent on such issues because its internationalist nature kept socialist and left wing parties from making a distinction between neoliberalism and real social conditions, leaving behind a giant vacuum.

What is the alternative to austerity and neo-liberalism? "I disagree with the idea of having no borders and no protectionism, in the sense of no management of trade flows. To be fair, Pope Francis is one of the few to address this. These matters, including capital, need to be managed politically."

By management, Sant means the relaxation of the Maastricht criteria and more subsidies, state aid and protectionism and he insists that "more Europe will not resolve the problem, we need to seek solutions which are coherent to the fact that this is a Europe of nations."

His formula includes the removal of what he calls "fetishes" which restrict state aid and ties member states to financial targets set over 20 years ago.

Relaxing such stringent regulation will result in greater investment, Sant says, adding that European leaders from the right and left, such as former Italian prime minister Mario Monti and French President Francois Hollande, both argue that rules for investment should be changed.

However, he says that such attempts are blocked, mainly by Germany, and Europe is in a "straightjacket".

For years, the former Labour leader has stressed the need for the modernisation of the country's structures, in both the public and private sector, allowing the country to reach a balance of trade. Can Malta achieve this as an EU member, I ask?

"We might face a problem as a member of the eurozone, where in an increasingly federal EU structure, the centre will drain resources from the peripheries. According to the optimal currency zone theory, if there is a lack of transfers from the centre to the peripheries, these end up under the cosh."

Malta is one of a handful of EU countries opposing the introduction of a Financial Transection Tax (FTT), a small tax - for instance 0.1% - levied on every amount exchanged by financial institutions. However, the European Socialists are among the FTT's most ardent supporters. Where does Sant stand on this?

"If it is considered as part of a Socialist strategy, I'm in agreement because it does not make any sense at all to have a financial services sector abscond from everything. But, the sector makes up 10% of GDP in Malta, growing indiscriminately at the expense of industry and to a certain extent, tourism. So, in this case I do not agree with the introduction of FTT because it is not in the country's best interest at the moment."

I ask him what he would like to be remembered for. "I always believed that Malta could be self-reliant, in a sense that it can live off its own resources. I have never been impressed by talk of obtaining funds from here or from there. I have always believed in investment, hard work, training and earning a living... but this mentality never gained any ground. I remember civil servants who years ago told me that Malta could only survive if it obtains external aid. In subsequent years, Mintoff and Fenech Adami had such a mentality and I always looked at this as something which had to change. We need leadership structures, which I have always advocated, that allow us to live off our own resources and abilities. Not only locally but also in our foreign transections. But this concept is not very popular in Malta."

Why? "Deep down, the Maltese always sought autonomy but never freedom and independence," he says, acknowledging that he belongs to a minority... which sees things differently.


A bit complicated are you in your analysis, Dr Sant? Euro realist...WHY NOT? better than eddie-gonzi-simon euro fanaticism...which is making one to vomit!!!!! AND you sure look safer than the anti-Maltese PN hopefuls.
Dr. Sant tieghla sparat in nazi ghandhom biza minnhu ghax jafu kemm hu tajjeb ghal dak il mistier, dak l'Ewropa jafa mil bidu sa tmiem ghax ghamel zmien twil jghix hemm, u kien jghid lil dawk il Fat Cats ma tridx tghidilhom kollox Yes Sir, l'ewwel Pajjizna u mhux kif iridu huma imma kif irridu ahna. Good Luck Dr. Sant.. You are the Best to work there for the Good of our Country.
A successful bid of AS for a seat in the EU parliament is ample proof that in politics, the key is to last and time can have a wisdom effect as he will be making a comeback not only at national level, but mostly at EU level with even weighted reach out for himself and Malta. Unless his past Partnership concept meant that the best partnership with the EU is full EU membership, there are many foot soldiers of the yesteryears EU membership campaign who must feel at loss and struggle to understand that AS is vying for a seat to represent us in the EU Parliament. However, "... with the aim of ... maximizing the benefits and curtailing disadvantages..." and making sure that "...advantages should be shared by all, and not enjoyed by the elite alone while the rest of the country carries the weight of membership on its shoulders", his presence and credentials will hopefully positively enhance the Maltese delegation within EU institutions.
Joseph MELI
Furthermore,that 'deep down ' he is really very shallow!
Joseph MELI
Could the obscene pay scale,along with the myriad of other financial perks attached,of a MEP possibly have any influnence or bearing on Sant becoming a latter-day 'eurorealist?'
Taf meta kien rejali dan. Meta qal in-nies biex jivvutaw Le ghall-Ewropa imbaghad huwa astjena u hareg il-vot mill-but biex jurina li huwa qatt ma kien cert fuq l-Ewropa u dahaq b`dawk kollha li kienu kontra l-Ewropa. Ghad fadal xi mignun ordnat li jemmen jew li jissogra jivvota lil dan il-giddieb prim!