One size does not fit all | Josianne Cutajar

To be ‘closer to the people’, you have to listen to the people’s concerns – Labour’s youngest MEP candidate, JOSIANNE CUTAJAR, on how the EU does not always follow its own advice

Labour MEP candidate Josianne Cutajar
Labour MEP candidate Josianne Cutajar

As a Labour MEP candidate, you have highlighted various issues – social inequality, domestic violence, Gozo’s connectivity issues, etc. – in articles and speeches. Yet none of that seems to feature anywhere in the PL’s billboards and electoral messages. Would you agree that there is a gulf separating the Labour Party’s official campaign, from that of its individual candidates?

Let me start by pointing out that I am a candidate for the Labour Party because I believe in the principles of the Labour Party. As a candidate, I am aware of what the PL’s campaign message is, and I agree with that message; but it doesn’t follow that I will speak only about the issues highlighted by the party. It is only natural that individual candidates will speak about those issues where they feel they can make a difference. I, for example, am someone who believes very strongly in the social dimension. Discrimination, inequality... these are issues that bother me a lot. For instance, to ensure a better quality of life for everyone, I believe we have to talk about reducing domestic violence. We have to start talking about issues of mental health. So, I firmly believe that this platform – my candidacy to the European parliament – is not just about those areas where the EU has competence. I feel obliged to use this platform to also talk about areas where, as a society, we should be working towards eliminating stigma; to raise awareness about issues I feel to be important. 

This seems to point towards an uncomfortable truth about Maltese politics today. You are the second youngest candidate in this election; the youngest is AD’s Mina Tolu, and she has also tackled issues her party had ignored. Doesn’t it say something, that the ‘underdog’ candidates are the ones talking about issues of direct relevance to people’s lives… and not the parties themselves?

I see your point, but I don’t see it as such a contrast. When it is the right forum to speak about ‘traditional politics’… I speak about ‘traditional politics’, too. But then, we have to discuss what ‘traditional politics’ means. I wouldn’t say it’s just about confrontation. Some of the billboards have also been about the Labour government’s achievements. I don’t see anything wrong with a party focusing on the good it believes it has achieved for the country. And I do speak about these things: I am proud that my party, in government, has registered its third consecutive fiscal surplus. I boast about the social benefits this government has introduced. These issues were on billboards, too…

Perhaps, but the general message is still that of two political parties lost in their own private feud, forgetting all about issues of concern to people. And my impression is that people are switching off. Do you feel this? Is it something you feel your generation of politicians should be concerned about?

It depends. It doesn’t bother me, for instance, that the two parties constantly turn the big guns [jifthu il-kanuni] onto each other. Maltese politics being what it is, that sort of thing is expected, more or less. But then again… let me put it this way: there are sometimes ‘partisan’ things that do have to be said. I don’t like being partisan, myself… but it is not a ‘partisan’ statement when I say that it hurts me a lot when Maltese politicians go to the forum of the European Parliament, only to blacken Malta’s name and harm its reputation. It’s not something I say because my party expects me to: it is something I really and truly feel. As a Maltese, I am really hurt by it. I have always believed that, if there is trouble in the family… yes, by all means, we fight about our differences behind closed doors. The same applies to this case…

Does it really, though? You talk of Nationalist MEPs ‘harming Malta’s reputation’, as though the issues they constantly raise in the EP – Panamagate, corruption, etc. – never happened. But they did happen. Surely it is the Opposition’s job to be casting a spotlight on such issues?

I can understand that the Opposition has to criticise; it is part of its function. But there are ways and means of criticising. It doesn’t always have to be destructive. In fact, I would like to be able to welcome some constructive criticism from the Opposition. It wouldn’t bother me in the least to be told what they think we’re doing wrong, and how they think we can manage better. But if the Opposition doesn’t even acknowledge any work the government has done… the Whistleblower’s Act, the reform of the judiciary, the Press Act… if they are going to act like none of that even happened, and focus only on the negative: ‘Panama, Panama, Panama; Corruption, corruption, corruption’… all coming from Maltese voices…. it stands to reason that other MEPs will start seeing only those things, too. Because they themselves do not behave like that about their own countries. At home, they fight internally as much as we do; but they don’t go to the European Parliament to undermine their own country.  So when they see Maltese MEPs doing that… it stands out. They will think, ‘there must really be something wrong, for them to attack their own country like that’. This is why it hurts; because it is not a fair picture. Another thing that irks me is that the PN doesn’t seem to realise the damage it is doing… even to itself, in the long run. It has forged a link between ‘the Panama Papers’ and our taxation system; then it pretends to be surprised when MEPs like Sven Giegold call for Article 7 to be invoked against Malta. Suddenly, they turn around and say, ‘No, Mr Giegold: we don’t agree with Article 7 against Malta’. [Pause]. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that the PN didn’t say, ‘Yes, Mr Giegold, by all means, let’s invoke Article 7 against our own country…’  But you can’t lead these foreign MEPs to the edge of a cliff, and then suddenly tell them ‘we can only go this far’. If anything, you should realise from beforehand where all this was going to go lead… and not take that path in the first place.

Nonetheless, the PN’s ‘No’ to Giegold underscores that – despite the apparent state of ‘war’ between the two parties – there is actually convergence on the broader issue of tax harmonisation. It seems as though PN and PL disagree only on the details, not on the principle. Would you agree?

Again, I was pleased to see that the PL and PN voted together on the subject of the EU’s competence in tax harmonisation. I’d like to see similar co-operation on other areas of national interest. And yes, there are other areas of possible convergence. I fail to see why we should get lost in attacking each other on an issue like immigration, for instance. Let us concentrate on where we agree. Both parties agree that the EU could do a lot more on this issue. In three recent cases, Malta had to resort to ad hoc agreements with other EU countries, to redistribute rescued migrants at sea. I think the Prime Minister did an excellent job of negotiating those agreements; but from the national interest perspective, it’s not a long-term solution. We cannot continue coming up with ad hoc arrangements, every single time. This is also something the PN agrees with, on paper. Both parties have called for a revision of the Dublin II Treaty, which is creating situations such as these…

That is true; but both parties have also been equally ignored by the EU (if not laughed out of the room) for the past 15 years. Let’s face it: how many times does the EU have to say ‘No’ to a revision of Dublin II, before finally we get it into our heads that the answer is ‘No’?

I am aware that it is ‘easier said than done’ to get everyone around the table, and reach an agreement. I’m not burying my head in the sand. Immigration has been on the EU agenda for years; so I am well aware that the EU… or, to be more specific, that certain Member States have no interest in doing any more; perhaps because they are not directly affected themselves. So yes, it is difficult. But I would never say, from the outset, that anything is ‘impossible’. We can’t allow ourselves to give up so easily. But at the same time, I do not expect the same EU that ignores Malta’s concerns about immigration, to then turn on us on another area where we are benefiting – like taxation – as if it’s the only issue that exists. It cannot be that the EU focuses its attention on Malta only when it comes to issues that concern other Member States… but then, on other issues where it is not in those countries’ interest to intervene… the EU looks the other way, and leaves Malta and other countries to fend for themselves. We have to decide: either we’re a ‘union’ in everything; or we’re a ‘union’ only when it pays some countries to bully others…

This brings us to another dimension that seems to be absent from both parties’ campaigns: the European Union. It is an open secret that the treaties will be up for revision after this election; the shape of the EU, as we know it today, may soon change… most likely in the direction of ‘further integration’. How would you, as an MEP candidate, like to see the EU develop?

What I’d like to see is a Europe that is closer to the people… and yes, I know it’s what the EU, ultimately, wants as well. But to be ‘closer to the people’, you have to listen to their concerns. And the concerns of someone from Gozo could be different even from the concerns of someone from Malta… let alone from people who live, say, in a city in Germany. In this respect, the EU operates very much on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach; and this is part of the problem. It results in individual communities feeling angry or emarginated. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t even apply from country to country… let alone to specific areas or regions within different member states. Now: I come from Gozo. I know the particular characteristics of the Gozitan community; I know what it means when we say the island suffers from ‘double insularity’. To give a random example: it’s not just a case of having to wake up at 5am to get the early ferry to work in Malta. It impinges even on issues like childcare. If I have children and have no one to keep them for me in Gozo: I would probably have to give up my job in Malta. Because childcare centres do not open before 5am in Gozo. Now, the government has already said it will look into extending childcare centre hours, so this aspect will hopefully be addressed soon. But this is what I mean, when I say that ‘being closer to the people’ also means knowing what their concerns really are…

In what way, specifically, are EU rules unsuited to the specific circumstances of Gozo?

When it comes to Gozo in particular, the EU’s rules and regulations are sometimes too generic. They do not ‘fit’. For example: I did my MA thesis in European law on maritime services [or ‘cabotage’, to use the technical term] linking the two islands. There is specific [European] legislation regulating the sector: including ‘preferential rules’ specifically for ‘small islands’. Naturally, I checked whether these rules apply to Gozo: because in my view – and I would imagine everyone else’s – Gozo is a pretty small island, at the end of the day. But I discovered that these ‘preferential rules’ – which concern subsidies, state aid, and so on – are capped according to the amount of passengers travelling from one island to the other. And because Gozo exceeded the established threshold, we don’t qualify for those rules. To me, this doesn’t make sense. It is true that many people cross the Gozo channel every day… but it doesn’t mean that Gozo is any less disadvantaged. Or any ‘bigger’ than we are, for that matter. So it is important that, when we apply these rules, we have to take into account the particular characteristics of those communities. Otherwise, we’ll only be creating an injustice…  

Earlier, we spoke of ‘convergence’ (or the lack thereof) at European level. Could it be, however, that there is too much convergence on local issues? The Gozo-Malta tunnel link, for example. Parliament has unanimously approved a motion in support of the project… when geological surveys and environmental studies still have to be concluded. How is that ‘in the national interest’?

It is worth remembering that the tunnel featured in both parties’ electoral manifestos; so the people did decide on the issue, at the last election…

Sorry to interrupt, but if the two parties promised the same thing in the manifestos, there was no real ‘choice’, was there? It’s like a referendum where the options are ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’…

But it’s a process. There are, as you say, studies going on; and while I approve of the project in principle… if the studies determine that the plans have to be changed, or that this aspect is not feasible… I will bow to the experts’ recommendations. But I see nothing wrong with two parties outlining their agreement, in principle, by means of a Parliamentary motion…

What if I put it you that it was done to: a) eliminate any political opposition from the outset, and; b) to pre-emptively pressure the regulatory authorities (PA, ERA, etc) into making the ‘right’ decision, when the time comes?

I’d say it’s your opinion, and you have a right to it. But I don’t see it that way myself. Just because Parliament approves the concept of a tunnel link, it doesn’t mean the regulatory authorities will not look into all the relevant aspects of the project – including the results of the studies you mentioned – when deciding on the case. You make it sound as if the tunnel has already happened. It hasn’t. There is a process going on, and political approval is only one part of it.

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