‘Not just a face on TV’ | Miriam Dalli

Miriam Dalli’s prolific media career places her at an automatic advantage in the forthcoming European election. But has she been too tainted by her past antipathy towards the EU?

MEP candidate Miriam Dalli (Photo: Ray Attard)
MEP candidate Miriam Dalli (Photo: Ray Attard)

Next month’s European elections comes at a pivotal time for the European Union, which – in all states but Malta, it would seem – is currently battling a tide of negative public opinion.

International coverage of this election predicts a historic win for the Eurosceptics across the board, with parties inimical to the EU expected take up to 30% of the EP’s 757 seats. This may not be enough to upset the pro-EU balance maintained by the larger parties (including Labour’s own Party of European Socialists), but it certainly reflects a growing disenchantment with the European project among citizens at large.

Yet at the same time, the feeling on the ground in Malta – at least, among the major parties – is the complete reverse. Labour is now more keen than ever on ditching its past ‘Eurosceptic’ label once and for all; and its campaign to date has taken pains to claim the European Union as its own territory. There is, however, a small snag. Several of the party’s candidates are themselves remnants of the same Eurosceptic label currently being jettisoned. One – former prime minister Alfred Sant – was the architect of Labour’s anti-accession stand in 2003. And Miriam Dalli, the radiant former television presenter turned EP candidate, was his chief mouthpiece during the referendum campaign.

Doesn’t this send out mixed messages on Labour’s attitude towards Europe? And more to the point: is she worried that her former stance might be used as an electoral weapon against her in the campaign?

“It is definitely a weapon that is used, as you put it,” Dalli begins almost with a sigh. “But it doesn’t necessarily have the intended effect.”

Miriam Dalli argues that the Nationalist Party’s traditional reliance on Europe as an electoral strategy may now be wearing thin. “To me it’s a closed chapter. Ten years later the EU is now our natural home… in the sense that we are a member state. It is a reality.”

Does this mean she regrets the stand her party took in 2003, and which she herself transmitted to the people through her position on Super One TV? “I don’t say ‘we were wrong’. Back then I sincerely felt we were not prepared to join. Today we can see how there were some positive things that came out of Europe. It doesn’t mean that everything coming out of Europe has to be positive, though. Europe decides on a lot of things that have a direct impact on the lives of citizens, including Maltese families, and it pays to be vigilant and not to just accept everything because Europe says so.”

This, she adds, is why the PN’s strategy of reminding people of her own former anti-membership stance is unlikely to work this time round. “I talk to a lot of people – families, businessmen, corporations – and they are concerned about how they may be impacted by decisions taken in Brussels. Who is better placed to defend the rights of Maltese citizens than the people who from the outset had adopted a cautious approach to European affairs? As opposed to the people who have repeatedly told us that what the EU says is always good, because the EU said it…”

As examples of the people she now meets on a regular basis, she cites the air traffic control sector, which is concerned with how they might be affected by the Single Skies directive: a European Commission initiative by which the design, management and regulation of airspace will be coordinated throughout the European Union (ECAA area).

Likewise, the health sector has cause for concerned. “I met a company which produces hospital equipment, and they explained how they were affected by EU legislation banning PVC, which gives third countries a competitive advantage.”

Elsewhere, she argues that Malta’s financial services sector is constantly in need of defence against competition from within Europe. The same applies to the gaming sector.

“Malta is attacked in these areas because we have been successful. A small country like Malta has shown that it can become a market leader in certain areas. But we have to be careful of European initiatives that do not necessarily attack our industries directly, but indirectly through other areas of legislation.”

In the case of both the financial services and gaming sectors, such legislation could include the fourth Anti-Money Laundering act, which includes a specific section on gambling, with particular reference to match-fixing and legal online betting. All this has possible repercussions on Malta’s thriving but vulnerable sectors. “You have to pay attention to all the legislation that is coming out, not just the directives which regulate any given industry.”

Meanwhile, it is not just the Labour Party’s attitude towards which has changed, she reminds me, but also people’s expectations of the EU. “You can still be in favour of Malta as a member state, but also recognise that some things might not make sense for Malta.”

Predictably, her chosen example involves immigration: the sleeping volcano of an issue that has consistently proved Malta’s biggest concern when it comes to EU-related affairs. “We had a voluntary agreement [to resettle asylum seekers], but we can all see that this is not working. Likewise the directives in place are not suited to Malta’s needs. You have to be humane, we all agree on this. I have concerns of my own, especially regarding the situation of unaccompanied minors in detention. But we also need practical responses to real problems.”

These, she adds, have not been forthcoming under existing protocols. Singling out the Dublin II convention, she argues that this in practice translates into asylum seekers being forced to remain in the first point of entry to the EU: something which is not in the interest of either the asylum seeker or Malta. “I agree with the argument that, once an application is processed, and asylum within the EU has been granted, the beneficiary should be free to travel anywhere in the EU.”

But she concedes that the situation has improved, in the sense that Europe is now ‘listening more’.

“What I saw as positive was the setting up of the Task Force Mediterranean, featuring Italy, Malta, Greece and another 14 countries, to co-ordinate border surveillance in the Mediterranean. Another good development was the fact that the EU has now included immigration, alongside terrorism and organised crime, in the common EU defence and security policy.”

But resolutions, on their own, are not enough. “Am I content with these improvements? No, a lot more still needs to be done.”

It remains questionable, however, whether the European Parliament is the best-placed institution to deal with such issues. Many of the regulations in place are international treaties that cannot be rescinded by a parliamentary vote. Besides; recent experience – in particular the EP debate on Malta’s citizenship scheme – has demonstrated that EP resolutions may not, in practice, be all they’re cracked up to be.

If elected, Miriam Dalli will be one of only six Maltese MEPs out of 757. And judging that the Labour contingent currently enjoys a majority of four seats to the PN’s two, it proved unable in practice to block a recent resolution condemning the Labour government’s controversial IIP scheme. To compound this situation, the resolution in itself proved toothless; as we all saw, the IIP scheme was approved following amendments, rendering the EP resolution obsolete.

Is the uncomfortable reality, then, that Maltese MEPs are simply powerless to make a difference in Europe?

Dalli shrugs. “Mathematically, the fact that we have only six seats makes it impossible to have the same level of influence as larger countries. But you can’t look only at the work of the plenary. MEPs can make a big difference in their work within committees and within the parliamentary group.”

That said, she acknowledges that the recent debacle also conveyed to the party just how much harder it has to work. “There is a lot of groundwork that needs to be done, evidently. We need to work harder at lobbying, within our own group and I’d venture to say within other groups too.”

At times the parties themselves give the impression that the EP serves mainly as a launch-pad for local politics, or as a convenient solution to local political situations. Both present party leaders cut their teeth in the European parliament; PL deputy leader Louis Grech vacated his seat to buttress the Labour electoral machine; and even the candidacy of Alfred Sant could be interpreted as a ploy by Muscat to ‘accommodate’ a former leader who could in time prove troublesome (just as Mintoff had earlier troubled Sant).

Doesn’t all this devalue the role of an MEP? Doesn’t it argue the case that the position rally is part of a gravy train that serves ulterior motives to the parties?

Dalli smiles. “Let me play the devil’s advocate on this one. If it is true that Muscat is trying to neutralise Sant, it’s not a very good way to do it. Sant could trip Joseph Muscat up from the EP, too…”

She likewise dismisses the gravy train argument. “People have that perception, it is true, but I think it’s because they don’t really know how much work is involved. And the more committed you are to representing people’s interest, the more work there will be. I would want to bring more to the European table through my candidature. I certainly don’t expect it to be easy.”

That said, Dalli’s past as a television personality in her own right – not only as a newsreader, which brought her face into every living room in Malta and Gozo, but also as a presenter of talk-shows such as TX – may also have given her campaign a helping hand. How confident is she of her own election to the EP on May 24? And could it be that her previous media presence may have hindered more than helped her chances, by reminding people of ‘the other side of Labour’?

Dalli resists answering the first question, pointing out how “a week is a very long time in politics, and there are still five weeks to go”. But she suggests that her media presence may have ultimately worked to her disadvantage. “Visibility on the media helps, I’d be lying if I said otherwise,” she admits. “But from my experience in door-to-door campaigning I’m finding out that it is not enough to simply be recognised. You also have to meet people and talk to them. And they have to talk to you. Otherwise you’re just a face on the TV.”

Moreover, her role as lynchpin for TX projected the opposite image from that which a candidate would want before an election. “On TX I was the one asking the questions. The protagonists, the ones who had all the answers, were always my guests. And I had to keep a balance as the show’s host. I couldn’t express an opinion of my own. But people expect politicians to present the argument, not ask the questions. For this reason I have had to make the transition from the person asking, to the person answering.”

The effect, she adds, was beneficial to her personally. “I’ve learnt a lot from meeting people these past few weeks. You start seeing things from different perspectives… asking yourself how some people can live on as little as €400 a month… or how they cope with sickness or other problems. As someone who intends to represent Maltese families in the EP, I cannot realistically tell them ‘I can’t help from Europe’.”

Interestingly, Dalli attributes the aforementioned Eurosceptic challenge to the same overall concerns… arguing that this makes the PN’s strategy of tarnishing Labour MEPs with the Eurosceptic label all the more risky.

“We talk about EU scepticism, and how it’s growing, and so on, but… is this a good thing? A bad thing? Is it a reaction to European bureaucracy? Will it create problems to pass legislation through parliament? Or will it serve to keep the EU on its toes?”

Dalli pauses as if trying to answer her own questions. “I will say this. Euroscepticism arises from the EU’s failure to address issues that are of fundamental concern to citizens. For example, youth employment…”

The EU’s failure to create jobs for millions of its young citizens, she reasons, coupled with policies that are perceived to favour big corporations against citizens and smaller businesses, has driven an assorted amalgam of special interest groups together… even if they have little in common with each other.

“We also have to see how this grouping with come together after the election. It’s a very diverse group, which includes the extreme right, nationalistic groups from various countries, people who favour protectionism for their own industries… there isn’t an automatic common thread between them all. It’s difficult to see how they will align themselves on particular issues.”

For all this, she concedes that Malta’s European election will be fought primarily on local issues. “And the result will be interpreted as a verdict on local issues, not on the EU. This is in a sense understandable. It is the first test one year after the election, and both parties have targets of their own. The PL faces this test after a win, the PN after a loss. The PL wants to retain its majority, the PN wants to win a third seat – significantly, I haven’t heard Busuttil claiming he wants a majority of votes. Yes, there has to be a European dimension, and I believe our party is giving that in its campaign – we want a better Europe, not just a better Malta – but the reality is that many people will use this election to send a message to the parties.”