If at first you don't succeed... | Marlene Mizzi

Labour hopeful Marlene Mizzi is confident that perseverance will eventually pay dividends on the one issue that has arguably caused the most disillusionment with Europe: immigration.

It hasn’t been the most exciting election campaign in history, but the build up to next Saturday’s vote has nonetheless been characterised by all the usual pre-electoral jolts and shocks. Labour has lost a ‘star candidate’ to scandal within less than a fortnight of the election and there are indications that the Nationalist Party is making inroads into the extraordinary majority that propelled the Labour Party into government 15 months ago.

Yet the news for Labour in general – and incumbent MEP Marlene Mizzi in particular – is not all bad. Polls indicate that a recent surge in PN support will not be enough to upset its overall majority, and the same polls also place Mizzi fourth in the race, suggesting (all other things remaining equal) that she is on course for re-election.

Still, I find the former Sea Malta chairperson in a cautiously apprehensive mood. Visibly buoyed by the survey results, Mizzi reminds me that apart from the usual challenges of campaigning, she also faces the invisible hurdle of Malta’s unwieldy electoral system.

“Labour is sticking to its electoral slogan, ‘positive energy’,” she replies when I ask her about the atmosphere within the PL campaign right now. “And polls do give you energy. They serve as a psychological booster. At least,” she adds with a laugh, “they don’t depress you. But I have to be realistic. The alphabet remains an important factor. My surname places me in the middle of the list. This creates an automatic disadvantage, as has been seen in so many elections.”

Mizzi tasted this first-hand in 2009. Despite polling 5,000 more first-count votes than John Attard-Montalto, the latter inherited the majority of Claudette Abela Baldacchino’s votes and consequently overtook both Joseph Cuschieri and Mizzi, who eventually occupied the third and fourth Labour seats respectively. She eventually took her place in Brussels only last year in the casual elections to replace Edward Scicluna. In the process she became Malta’s first female Maltese MEP.

How does she account for her success to date? Mizzi suggests that being a relative newcomer to the political scene has advantages of its own. She points out that the timing of her involvement in politics was hardly auspicious, either for herself or for Labour. “I became a Labour candidate after the 2008 election, which the Labour Party had just lost. My participation was therefore out of conviction, not convenience. I didn’t join the team only when I saw the finishing line. I joined and had to run the race out in full.”

This in turn helps to consolidate the perception of her as someone truly committed to a political cause. More specifically, Mizzi also views her own candidature with the PL as part of the transition from a previously anti-EU position.

“I was asked in 2009 [at the height of the EP campaign] on TV how I had voted in the 2003 referendum. I had no hesitation in replying that I voted ‘yes’. I imagine the idea behind the question was to try and embarrass me or trip me up, but I can’t see why I should hide this fact. People have a right to know what politicians believe and stand for. I have been consistent on this all the way…”

Marlene Mizzi may have been consistent in her attitude towards EU accession, but the same certainly cannot be said for the party she represents. Isn’t she worried that Labour’s roundabout turn on Europe following the 2008 election may dent its – and by extension, her own – credibility?

“I don’t think there is any credibility issue under Joseph Muscat. Even the fact that Muscat was an MEP before becoming party leader has helped to dilute the perception of Labour as a Eurosceptic party. If the leadership hadn’t changed after 2008 it would have been a tougher nut to crack.”

Another possible advantage for the Mizzi camp is the fact she is already strongly associated with the European Parliament, despite only occupying her seat for one year. Few can deny that the recent controversy surrounding the IIP ‘cash-for-citizenship scheme’ - for which she emerged as a foremost defender on the European stage – gave her considerable visibility.

Mizzi is clearly proud of her efforts to derail a pan-European condemnation of Malta. And though she may have been unsuccessful in the short term – the EP resolution was carried by an overwhelming majority, and supported even by the Socialist bloc she herself forms part of – the way the issue eventually resolved itself seems to have paradoxically vindicated her position.

At the same time, however, the experience may also have been a wake-up call to the Labour delegation in Brussels. After all, the vote also illustrated the sheer inefficacy of the EP to actually make a difference in any given issue. Even though Malta was ‘censured’ by 93% of the parliament, the scheme was endorsed by the Commission within a week of the EP vote, largely ignoring the thrust of what proved to be a toothless resolution.

Doesn’t this also suggest that the EP is in fact a powerless institution within the structures of the EU? And if so, why should the electorate attach any importance to these elections?

Mizzi shakes her head. “I believe the EP is effective in a number of ways. The problem with this particular issue was that, from the outset, the Commission had stated that this was not within the competence of the parliament to decide. This was a national issue, and the European Parliament should never have got involved with it at all. All the brouhaha was for nothing. In the end Malta still got what it wanted… and all the other countries which have similar schemes have retained them as well.”

This latter detail, she adds, reveals the true nature of the debate last January. “I was not surprised that the other political groups voted in favour of the resolution. With so many countries having schemes of their own to protect from competition, it was obvious that this was going to happen.”

But what about the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Labour’s supposed allies in Europe? She shrugs. “Hannes Swoboda [S&D President] is Austrian; Austria has its own scheme, which is among the most liberal of the lot. We are all, at the end of the day, competing for the same ‘rich few’…”

At the same time, however, the issue also delineated the limits of the Labour Party’s sphere of European influence. Labour has a majority of four seats to the PN’s two. Yet from a minority position, the Nationalist MEPs managed to mobilise the entire parliament, while the Labour delegation – despite being double its size – seems to have been unable to sway a single vote.

Mizzi however rebuts the widespread perception that the debate underscored the efficacy of Nationalist MEPs at the expense of Labour. “It has been very well marketed to the effect that the PN delegation succeeded in swaying all the political groupings to their side. But this is not what happened at all.

“The MEPs did not ‘persuade’ anyone; as I said, the other groups were defending their own countries’ interests against competition. It’s like pushing a car downhill. They needed no persuasion to vote the way they did. We, on the other hand, persuaded our group to support an amendment which would have removed mention of Malta from the final resolution. And the reason we did this was so that we could focus on the content.”

Closing an eye at the 11 references to Malta, she adds, the resolution in itself was not objectionable. “At the end of the day it called for a common EU approach to citizenship. I have nothing against that per se. Had the resolution not singled out Malta for criticism, I might have even supported it myself.”

But the PN MEPs objected to Labour’s proposed amendment, and the rest is history. “That’s when I was certain that the agenda was simply to embarrass the Maltese government, and had nothing to do with the IIP scheme. And this is consistent with how the PN delegation has always acted on this issue. Where were Simon Busuttil and David Casa when eight other countries introduced schemes that also monetised European citizenship? Why didn’t they object to any of the other schemes? Why only Malta’s?”

Answering her own question, she claims it was because they did not, in fact, have anything against the sale of nationality until it was Malta’s Labour government that tried to do the same thing. “Though I suspect the real reason the Nationalists were so angry was that they hadn’t thought of it themselves.”

Nonetheless Mizzi is confident that by aggressively pushing for a condemnation of Malta, the Nationalist MPs ultimately only hurt themselves. “Other MEPs, including the PN’s own group, were shocked by their attitude. I remember one MEP from the EPP group [which also includes the PN], with whom I shared a taxi, telling me that he was flabbergasted to see how enthusiastic they were to speak against their own country. He said he had never seen anything like it before…”

The same issue may have also hurt popular perceptions of the EU back home in Malta. We all saw how keen the EP was to discuss Malta’s citizenship scheme last January and, conversely, how reluctant it has always been to discuss matters that are of genuine concern to the Maltese: in particular, immigration, which both Mizzi and the Labour Party have consciously elevated to the number one issue of this campaign.

Marlene Mizzi in particular has been outspoken in criticising the EU for failing to respond to Malta’s repeated pleas for solidarity on this issue. But what, in practice, does she expect the EU to do about Malta’s immigration concerns?

“Immigration is a complicated situation and it needs complex solutions. In the long term, something has to be done about the situation in the countries of origin. The European Union sends billions of euros to Africa, yet this has not stopped thousands of people from fleeing their home countries to reach Europe. This raises questions that need to be answered. How is all this money being used? Are citizens benefiting from European aid? It certainly doesn’t look like it…”

Recently Mizzi formed part of an EP delegation to Ethiopia and Nigeria, where she met and discussed these issues with local parliamentarians. “These people feel they have no future,” she says pointedly. “Where is our money going? They don’t know. Clearly, the present policy is not working. The EU must also ensure that whatever aid is sent to Africa creates a better future for its people. It is not enough to just throw money at the problem, like they do with us…”

Malta has, by Mizzi’s own admission, benefitted from EU funds connected directly to immigration. If, as she insists, money is not the answer what other tangible assistance does she expect?

“I’m not objecting to the money. We’ll take the money, and we’ll put it to good use. But we have to be realistic. It hasn’t stopped migrants from coming, and it didn’t stop hundreds of people dying in the attempt.”

Mizzi insists that what is really needed is institutional reforms– a reform of the Dublin II treaty, for instance – but this in turn raises uncomfortable questions for Labour. The S&D group (like, for that matter, the EPP) has no intention of altering the status quo. Mizzi nods. “Why should they? It’s like the IP scheme. They are defending their own interests.”

At the same time, here in Malta we have been hearing the same mantra for around 10 years now. Both Labour and Nationalists MEPs agree that Europe has to adopt a ‘responsibility sharing’ agreement that is not on a voluntary basis only. The EU has consistently returned the same answer. No. Yet Malta has consistently stuck to its guns, despite the fact that they seem to be misfiring.

This raises two separate questions. One: given the evident reluctance of the EU to budge from that position, this can only emphasise the inability of Malta’s six-seat delegation to actually make a difference on a European level. So why should anyone who feels strongly about immigration vote this election, if the EP steadfastly refuses to listen?

Two: isn’t it time we changed the record slightly, and modified our demands? We have after all been consistently refused for years. Has it occurred to the local political establishment that its strategy may not be working simply because it’s the wrong strategy under the circumstances?

In answer to the first question, Mizzi replies that this election may indeed make a significant difference in this issue, in that it is the first of its kind in which the electorate indirectly also elects the President of the European Commission.

“If Martin Schulz [former president of the European Socialists] becomes Commissioner, he is committed to push for a common European policy on immigration. Surely this will make a difference, not just to Malta but to all the other doorways to Europe; Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, etc. This is why I have always maintained that immigration is a European, not a Maltese, problem.”

Elsewhere, she points towards evidence that Europe is changing its attitude towards the issue, even if it took the deaths of 400 people off Lampedusa to bring it to its senses. “There have been a number of positive developments. The setting up of Eurosur was one, as was a change to the rules of engagement of Frontex. Things are moving. Unfortunately it had to take a tragedy for that to happen - it’s a bit like fixing a road only after several people have already been killed in accidents.”

As for the repeatedly ignored calls for solidarity from Europe, Marlene Mizzi resolutely stands her ground. “The fact that we haven’t been successful to date doesn’t mean we simply give up. We should be pitbulls on this; and if we’re not successful, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.”