Politics is ultimately about people | Jonathan Shaw

Arguably the least-known quantity in this election, newcomer Jonathan Shaw (PN) talks of delivering a ‘new way of doing politics’.

In an election in which everyone seems keen on being the ‘underdog’, few can deny that the real underdogs are the relatively unknown candidates who have crawled out of the woodwork to contest for the first time. And there is no shortage of these, given that this – our third European election - has attracted the highest number of candidates so far.

Jonathan Shaw may not be a complete stranger to many in Malta’s business milieu but in politics, he may as well have just suddenly landed on a spaceship out of nowhere. I happen to be acquainted with him on a social level and, like many others, I wondered at this sudden and unexpected move. So my first question when we meet for this interview – just 10 days before D-Day, as it were – practically asked itself.

What on earth possessed you?

“That is the million dollar question,” he replies genially. “I get it from a lot of people. Truth is that I have been interested in politics for some time, but I was never active in the traditional sense of the word. I was never the type to be popping in and out of the Dar Centrali, for instance. But I have always been pro-EU and I have been active in various projects that, though not really ‘political’ posts in themselves, are connected with public policy.”

Shaw’s involvement in public institutions to date includes an early stint with the Malta Film Commission (when this first started up in the 1990s) and the Aviation Advisory Committee. “So far I have been described as a ‘businessman’ and it’s true, but then again I am not exactly a capitalist who has built an empire, either. I am mostly associated with ‘new business’- mainly online tourism and retail.”

Malta, he points out, has been successful in exploiting these ‘new’ niches, particularly in areas such as financial services and i-gaming. Shaw puts this success down not only to the foresight of the previous administration in creating the right conditions for these areas to flourish, but also to the energy of private enterprises, which identified opportunities and rose to the challenge.

At the heart of this success story are ordinary people who bring innovation to business models, and whose energy and creativity make things happen.

“I believe politics, like business, is also ultimately about individual people. My experience has so far been primarily with the private sector, and as much as we say that government has an obligation to create jobs or to foster the right conditions for job creation, at the end of the day it is the private sector that ultimately has to bite the bullet and invest.”

The same, he argues, occurs at European level. “It is not strictly speaking the EU’s competence to create jobs. The EU collates the best-practice models from among its member states and translates them into directives and standards. This is where we are heading, both locally and at EU level.”

It is up to individual member states to apply those standards, he continues, and even then it is up to the individuals involved in the respective sectors to make the most of the opportunities. In a sense the same applies to politics, where success is often down to the particular capabilities of the people involved.

“Lately I have found myself more inclined towards politics, even because – and this is part of my nature – I have a tendency to look at a situation and put myself in the position of the person involved. How would I handle this if it were my problem? What decision would I take? So it became almost natural to take that tendency one step further.”

Shaw also confides that one of his aspirations is to challenge the prevailing cynicism towards politics in general. “There is a widespread perception of politicians as being aggressive, hostile, hypocritical, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe there is a section of the electorate out there that would appreciate and understand a different style of politics.”

It would be fair to say, then, that Jonathan Shaw looks at the political milieu much as a businessman would look at a potential market - with a view to identifying a niche. But what makes his own brand of politics particularly different from any other?

He responds with an outline – not unlike a business model, come to think of it – of how he intends to operate if elected to the European Parliament.

“An MEP has to work along three dimensions. One, within the context of party and country - in my case, the PN and Malta. An MEP has to report not only to the party he or she represents, but also to the government of the day, even if the MEP hails from the opposition. It is crucial to maintain a professional rapport especially on issues that would be highly topical for the nation.”

At the same time, he adds that you can’t only represent your constituents and party. “An MEP has to go beyond this. Local organisations and NGOs are experts in their particular sectors, hence a scheduled and constant rapport is not just important but crucial.”

The second dimension concerns the broader political grouping one is affiliated with - in the PN’s case, the European People’s Party (EPP). There is a manifesto of political beliefs, aims and commitments one has to work within and again, Shaw is confident that the experience garnered from the business arena would stand him in good stead. “It is the nature of the European parliament to work towards consensus politics. For this you need to build and maintain networks and alliances.”

It is in this area that the bulk of an MEP’s day-to-day work will be concentrated, not just in the forging of such networks but also in the various committees he or she will eventually sit on. Speaking of which: has he set his eyes on any particular committee?

“Naturally it is not a question of picking and choosing your preferred committee. You have to lobby to get chosen, often against a lot of competition. But if I had to choose, I would want to sit on the EMPL (Employment and Social Affairs), IMCO (Internal Market), CULT (Culture and Education) and TRANS (Transport and Tourism).”

I point out that his areas of interest cover practically the full spectrum of European concerns. Mightn’t he be aiming a little high? Shaw responds as if there is no other way to aim but high.

“I don’t want to be misunderstood, or to come across as cocky or anything like that. But if I decide to do something, then I’d want to do it properly. I want to add value to whatever I try to do. It’s the same with my approach to business. I refuse to feel intimidated because I’m just an individual, or because I come from a small country. If I aim to be an MEP, then ideally I’ll want to be a champion MEP.”

At the same time he acknowledges that one must also be realistic and this, too, is concomitant with his overall business philosophy.

“In business you also have to understand your limitations. And Malta has its limitations which we are all too aware of, namely our size and limited resources.”

Within the framework of this reality, Shaw argues that the ability of a single individual to make a difference assumes an even greater importance.

This brings him to the third dimension of European politics - the individual level. “As an individual MEP one must also be driven to contribute to shape Europe and operate within a personal dimension with his own values, beliefs and ideas.”

Malta’s particular circumstances make this dimension arguably more crucial than it would be in the context of larger countries. “It is a fact that Malta only has six MEPs yet each one of the 751 MEPs is equal. It is then up to the individual to add value and go beyond, in our case, just Maltese issues or anything that will only interest us.”

Fair enough, but so far we have been talking on a largely theoretical level. How does this approach to politics actually pan out in practice?

“This is where emotional intelligence comes into the picture. Politics at European level is ultimately about solution-sharing. Place me in a room with MEPs, where we have to network and collaborate in order to achieve our aims… that is generally what I do, what my experience in work has all been about, really. And this is the direction the EU is now taking. We need to take stock of how the European Union is changing, and see how to cope with new challenges. And this involves adopting a European mind-set.”

Jonathan Shaw’s slogan for this election is, in fact, ‘Think European, Act Local’. Certainly he succeeds in imparting a sense of personal enthusiasm on both fronts but I put to him that his own energy and drive appears to be lacking among the wider electorate. There are indications of waning interest in this election as Shaw himself has noted in his recent press contributions, where he remarked that “we’re all a bit fatigued as it feels like we’re constantly in election mode in this country.”

Is he concerned with what appears to be disenchantment with the EU? And how does he account for it himself?

“We might have oversold EU membership as being mostly about money,” he begins. “But the reality is that it was about much more than that. One other aspect we perhaps should emphasise more is the improvement to environmental standards since accession. The state of the environment may not be perfect, true, but just imagine what it would be like if we never joined...”

Here he rattles off a list of benefits that includes, among others, the EU-funded waste recycling plant, which was only made possible thanks to EU funding. “I think most will agree that Malta has gained on the environmental front. But we have to also acknowledge that some people have been negatively affected by other aspects of EU membership. The main difference made by accession was the opening of the market and removal of trade barriers. The consumer has benefited from greater choice, price competition and other factors. But some have clearly found it hard to adapt.”

Here Shaw returns to his earlier point that, at the end of the day, it is up to the individual to face up to individual challenges.

“The biggest benefit of EU membership is the sense of belonging to a community of 500 million citizens. But that is in itself also a challenge. How do you translate the benefit into something tangible that can be felt on an individual level? This is where individual ability comes into it; being able to speak the language, to network and communicate, to be close to the people and institutions.”

For all this, Shaw’s insistence on a European dimension appears to contrast with his own party’s way of thinking and acting. PN leader Simon Busuttil has in a sense imparted the very opposite message, arguing that voters should use this election to ‘give the government a yellow card’, relegating the European dimension of this supposedly ‘European’ election to the benches.

And Shaw himself may be out of synch with his party on other issues, too, namely spring hunting.

Early in this campaign he was asked point blank how he would vote in a referendum, and his reply was an unequivocal ‘yes’ to ban hunting in spring. Yet his party has since committed itself to honouring previous promises to the hunters, which include a permanent spring season.

Did he discuss this matter with his party before going out on a limb like that? “Yes. When I was interviewed [as a prospective candidate] I made it clear that if I asked my opinion, I would say that I’d vote yes in the referendum. I felt it was important to come clean about my values and beliefs from the outset.” 

At the same time he also suggests this issue may have been blown out of proportion. “I wouldn’t want people to vote for me only because my position of spring hunting. At the end of the day I was asked how I’d vote and in a referendum you can only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s not as though I’ve campaigned against spring hunting, or collected signatures for the petition...”

Paradoxically he claims that his openness on the issue has been appreciated even by hunters, who – like everyone else – are entitled to know what views the various candidates actually represent.

But at the same time Jonathan Shaw dismisses the notion that there is any kind of ‘mould’ for Nationalist Party exponents, arguing that the idea of complete conformity among candidates representing the same party is not only an old-fashioned way of looking at politics, but also counter-productive to the sort of approach that is required in the EP. 

“We’re not photocopies of each other. And we shouldn’t be, either. Malta needs MEPs from different backgrounds and with different ideas and approaches. At the end of the day it’s like a toolbox: you need a variety of skills if you’re going to be effective as an EP delegation.”