Recovering the PN’s ‘heart and soul’ | Therese Comodini Cachia

Apart from representing the PN at the European Parliament, Therese Comodini Cachia also chairs the PN’s policy for a, which are meant to herald in a ‘regeneration’ of the troubled party

There is a certain irony in the position of a Nationalist MEP. The PN had championed the European Union as a cause célèbre for well over a decade; a strategy that successfully steered them through at least two elections. But for all its past claims of ownership of the once-divisive EU question, Europe has proved a troublesome political arena for the Nationalists.

The last European election seemed to hammer this point home: the PN managed to claim a third seat for the first time ever; but on closer scrutiny the result also showed that it had not shifted its position by one inch since the catastrophic defeat of March 2013.

The third seat in question is now occupied by human rights lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, who finds herself in a dual role within the party. She also chairs 10 ‘policy fora’, recently launched by the PN with the declared aim of “opening the party up to new categories of people.”

Having eventually found her office at the labyrinthine European Parliament in Brussels, I ask the MEP to comment on the mixed signals of the election result that catapulted her here. Is it galling that the PN has never managed to score real victory at the EU level, where is has always felt strong?

“I think there were a lot of reasons for being defeated at an EU level. It was still too close to the general election; people who had switched to Labour were still going through that catharsis of, you know: ‘I have a chip on my shoulder with the PN’… there was also a hell of a good choice of candidates on both sides: I think the candidacy level in the European election was quite high…”

All very true, but there was also another factor in this election. The PN had only just changed its leader; and following a leadership change it is reasonable to expect a surge in support for any party. Yet the election result indicated that the choice of Simon Busuttil did not affect the PN’s electoral approval rating at all…

“I think the majority of people thought that with a change in leadership we would get a better vote. But the result of the general election did not only signify a change in leadership, in the sense of ‘changing the person’. To me it signified: ‘change the leadership style’. We needed to get our political style in line with the people, to reconnect with the electorate, get thought and vision back on board; and also get a heart and soul back to the party. That takes much more than just one year to do…”

Here she confesses that her earlier reference to ‘people with a chip on their shoulder’ might also have applied to herself, and was one of the factors that enticed her to get involved with the PN.

“Let me be very honest. Before I accepted to assist the Partit Nazzjonalista by becoming a candidate for any of the elections, I was one of those who thought: ‘these people [the Nationalists] will never learn’. Not that I ever bothered going there myself with a project and telling them ‘you should do this or that’. I never did that... but I automatically obtained the attitude that they never learn.

“Then I decided, OK, if that is my attitude, I’d better stop complaining and try and do something about it. I think that was one of the reasons I said, yes, let me give up some of my profession to provide a service. And I have to say I haven’t been disappointed so far. Things do move slower than I would like, because politics is that way. In politics you have to persuade not just one person but a lot of people. So things take time…”

At the same time there seems to be a difference in the way that our two parliaments – national and European – actually work in practice. The EPP is the largest political grouping in Europe, but the balance of power is such that it needs support from other groups to get anything done. Malta, as we know, is more of a ‘winner-takes-all’ scenario. If I can broaden the net of this discussion: does she see any influence of Malta’s experience as an EU member state in the way we do politics here? Reason I ask is that it still seems pretty unchanged on the polarisation front…

“Let’s say that I would like to think the EU is having a beneficial effect, on different counts. Because I would really like local politics to become less confrontational. That would help bring about an enormous social change, and better social unity. That’s how I see it. If we stop being so confrontational with each other, and if we started really addressing issues from all the different perspectives of each stakeholder… rather than, ‘this is blue, this is red’… I think that would benefit every Maltese and every Gozitan. But there’s another element I’d like to have spilt over from here to back home: and that is the way things are done…”

Comodini Cachia argues that the political process itself is the biggest difference between the two political realities in which she now finds herself.

“For example, when we [in the EP] come to regulate, we have an impact assessment procedure. You check whom it is going to affect, and how it is going to affect them. If it is a commercial regulation, you check the cost that you’re going to bring about. And you always ask yourself the question: is it necessary to legislate? What is the position of the stakeholder? Back home, I find we sometimes do policy by waking up one fine morning, and saying: ‘oh, I was at this conference and I heard this pretty good idea. Let’s legislate and come up with a policy’.

“To me, policies are not made in that manner. They are made by identifying the stakeholders, keeping in mind the common good, trying to reach a balance, and not trying to satisfy everyone. Because stakeholders will have conflicting interests. So at the end of the day you are there as a policy maker to find a balanced view which would hopefully bring benefit to the common good…”

All along, however, there is a fly in the ointment. It’s all very well to talk about regeneration… but how can a party be expected to renew itself, when so many of its prominent figures are still associated with the former administration?

“This parliamentary group has worked a hell of a lot, and I’ve seen a difference between this group – which includes people who were previously in the cabinet – and the parliamentary groups of before. We’ve had a couple of members who do not only react to the government, but have also come up with innovative ideas or new legislation...”

As an example she cites Claudio Grech; but I object that Grech is himself one of the ‘new faces’ of this opposition. He sits alongside others such as Tonio Fenech, who speaks for the PN on economy issues when he had been rejected as economy minister in the last election. How can the electorate expect a different approach from the same people?

“But the same electorate has also voted in some of the old cabinet. That is up to the people to decide.  As a party we can’t just say: ‘OK, he’s out, the other one is in’…”

That’s a fair point; but it also results in a situation where the Opposition cannot really criticise the government on a number of issues. We see this all the time: whenever the Opposition speaks out, the government responds by reminding us of how the PN had handled the same issue when in power…

“But there’s something wrong with that attitude,” she replies. “The whole point is that you get elected on the promise that you are going to do better. So, now, please do much better…”

At the same time this situation is also proving to be the PN’s Achilles’ heel. Having so many old faces in the shadow cabinet leaves it susceptible to precisely that reaction…

Comodini Cachia here tries another tack. “The PN’s parliamentary group is currently nine seats fewer than the government group. And each person there has something to contribute. We need each person to contribute. And they are working very hard on that contribution. So no, we can’t afford to have even one of them dropped out right now. The people can decide later.

"Meanwhile we’ve also created a parallel system, which is the policy fora. There is a lot of cooperation between the parliamentary group and the policy fora. We have complementary roles: because obviously the shadow ministers often get bogged down in reacting to the government; they get side-tracked in the short term. But the party also needs to prepare itself with a vision, with long-term ideas. That is where the fora are working. But obviously we need to work together…”

Meanwhile there is another issue: on practically all major policy areas there is hardly any difference between the two parties. I will mention only one, because it remains a foremost cause for national concern (though recently overtaken by the traffic). Immigration. So far we have heard the same mantra from both Labour and PN: ‘the EU needs to do more’. I imagine this means that Comodini Cachia will be expected to also do more, being herself part of the wider European package.

Does she feel let down by the EU on this front? And given the consistent failure of the European Union to agree on a common policy, are we talking about an issue that is beyond the combined capabilities of 28 member states to address?

“I think that of all issues where the European Union can be argued not to have delivered – and there aren’t many, for accession did fulfil expectations on many fronts – immigration would be the sorest point. And I do share the concern.

“I have concerns at two levels, European and national. You asked me if I felt let down. I would say that, at both levels, we have not managed immigration properly. And we need to manage it properly, not just by talk and financing. The EU has financed a lot, I would say the majority of the expenses associated with immigration.

“It has predominantly financed returns of migrants to their home country… migrants who were not eligible for protection, and who could be returned… it has given us finances to set up reception and detention centres. But to me, that is not ‘managing immigration’. I want to see concrete action.

“And I know you’re probably thinking, ‘oh no, she’s coming up with burden sharing again’… Yes, at some point that will come up; but that, to me, is just talk. We all know we can only achieve burden sharing if the 28 prime ministers, at council level, accept it. As an MEP I am not willing to wait for those 28 prime ministers to have a coffee and agree, without doing anything in the meantime. I want the EU and parliament to work on specific causes of immigration. This is why for example I spoke in favour of the ‘Mos Maiorum’.”

Though it sounds like a Maori war dance, ‘Mos Maiorum’ is actually a joint EU operation against human trafficking.

“The title is completely bonkers, but let’s leave that aside. Yes, human trafficking is part of what is turning the Mediterranean into a sea for the dead. I’m saying: OK, while those pretty prime ministers sit for a coffee to try and reach a conclusion…. which to be frank I don’t see happening… I as an MEP feel obliged to work on the causes now. If we’re going to address human trafficking, we need to have the data. I don’t want the data to be collected through profiling systems; but we need to know how human traffickers are working, and what their strategies are.

“We need to know their countries of passage. We need to identify where they are coming from. Only then can we try and collectively address the problem. Now, I am not naïve; I know that to address human trafficking we need to get all 28 member states on board. Because they are going to have to chip in the finances.  But each of those countries suffers from this, too. We see human trafficking on the sea; but Germany would probably see it through passage on land. So we can really do something about this, but we need to get hold of the data.”

This raises the question: what can actually be done about this, or any other issue, through the European Parliament? One thing we all learnt from recent experience is that EP resolutions are not exactly very effectual. The almost unanimous condemnation of Malta’s IPP scheme last year was a classic case in point: condemned by the EP, yet it went ahead all the same. This may incidentally have dented the reputation of the EP, because it became visible that the parliament had no real power to block the scheme…

“It also dented the reputation of [Commissioner] Viviane Reding, I think….”

Interesting. Is that because she consented to the scheme so soon after the EP censure? “I think so. The commission and the parliament weren’t on the same wavelength. Even when she addressed parliament to the result... Although when you look at the requirements, she insisted on an effective one-year residency. Fine, I would have wanted more. But she didn’t even get that...”

But doesn’t this just confirm the perception that the EP cannot really change anything? Coming back to immigration: what has it achieved so far?

“It depends on what you would call achievements. Parliament has already passed resolutions asking for burden sharing and a number of things…”

Without any visible results…

“But on immigration, the EP did push the Commission, especially the foreign affairs delegate, to try and enter into agreements with third countries, which we see as countries of passage, to see whether the EU could help them establish reception centres there. Whether we could establish a procedure for applications to be received there, and then the trip to whichever country would be safe. That would help Malta…”

Yes, it does sound like a good idea. But we hear a lot of ideas these days, and very little in the way of action to follow them up. So what’s the stumbling block with this one?

“I think the Commission has taken the idea on board, but obviously they would have to debate it around a political negotiating table. Now: can you imagine the EU dealing with Libya today? Who will we deal with in Libya? Maybe in Malta, because we see so many officials from Libya, we think there’s a government. There isn’t. We can’t really deal with Libya on immigration just yet: which is very unfortunate for Malta, as Libya is undeniably a country of passage.

“But what about Morocco, Jordan? Jordan has taken such a large number of refugees because of IS. We can do a lot with these countries. But that is why I told you, don’t expect me to speak about burden sharing. I prefer to talk about what can be done right now.”