The man who said ‘No, no, no’ | Alfred Sant

Former Prime Minister and Labour MEP ALFRED SANT is basing his last electoral campaign on ‘defending Malta’ – mostly from ‘the hypocrisy of the Nationalist Party’. But how much of that is really a defence of his own party’s record in government?

Former Prime Minister and Labour MEP Alfred Sant
Former Prime Minister and Labour MEP Alfred Sant

Allow me to start by quoting something you said as Opposition leader in 1995: “Government’s economic policies are becoming increasingly liberal [...] There were elements in the country’s economic policy that served to reduce workers to just another factor of production.” Would you agree that those words are just as applicable to Joseph Muscat’s economic policies in 2019?

Not really. There has been a huge difference since then; today, there is an emphasis on redistribution of wealth. That was not the case 25 years ago. Even in the context of how, for instance, VAT was being planned and implemented, there was no forethought that this was going to create a distribution problem, in terms of the wealth being created. But today, it is clear that, while there is a liberal policy as far as business is concerned, the distribution side of things – in terms of opportunities, welfare, and jobs ‘paying something more’ – is there. That’s the fundamental difference…

All the same, today’s Labour policies are very different from what they were, even a lot more recently than 1996…

Socialist policies have to be different today, because… things have changed. Over the last five or six years, the rate of growth has been unprecedented in post-Independence Maltese history… and I would say even before. So, the conditions in which you have to work, to move forward, are completely different. These are uncharted waters…

Does that justify a Socialist Party lurching towards the right, though? Another thing Labour used to complain about in the past was ‘precarity’ [prekarjat] in employment. Today, unions complain about local businesses and industries hiring cheap, imported labour, often with little security of tenure. Isn’t that the same concern?

I don’t think so. Had you asked me about the situation in Europe, I would have said ‘yes’. But I am not convinced it applies to Malta, today. In the past it was a different story. The amount of precarity I encountered while doing door-to-door visits in Fenech Adami’s day: women, hanging onto their jobs by a thread; being exploited by employers […] I’m not saying exploitation doesn’t happen today. But it’s not the same as the precarity we complained about in the past. It would be an exaggeration to compare the situation today with the situation back then… 25 years ago or more…

There is reason for raising that quote, though. Politicians tend to say one thing when in Opposition, and another thing when in government…

Obviously…

In your case, you seem to be praising the government for its ‘liberalism’, when you had criticised past governments for the same thing.

Not exactly. There are liberal policies, and neo-liberal policies: by ‘neo-liberal’, I mean ‘no holds barred’ liberalism. Malta may be enacting liberal policies, at this point; but I don’t think they are ‘neo-liberal’ policies. The unions are still quite strong in this country; but as happened in Europe, the private sector has taken over. I don’t agree that it’s a ‘government policy’: it is a European trend. Over the past 10 years, the ILO [International Labour Organisation] has been critical of the EU for flouting collective agreements. It never happened to this extent before. That’s the environment we are living in. We’re members of the EU, and we reflect European trends as well. Having said that, the emphasis on redistribution – which the government is doing; perhaps not 100% well – is something to reflect upon. If I support Muscat’s government – which I do – I do it on this basis: i.e., given the conditions we’re facing, they’re doing quite a good job of balancing the different voices, under a liberal management which is also under stress because it is part of the Eurozone.

I simply think Joseph Muscat is doing a good job. He’s still young. He still has other things that he can achieve. And that’s why I think he should stay on

You said ‘not 100% well’. Could you elaborate?

One thing that I criticise is that, basically, we’re focusing too exclusively on services. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Malta said, ‘We’re going to industrialise. We’re going to invest in manufacturing.’ That was our development model. And it’s no longer there. We are focusing on services. Services have taken over the economy. And this government – accepting the model that came through as a result of EU accession – is making a success of that model.

One of the most consistent criticisms directed at you is that, as party leader, you had campaigned against succession, though you now highlight the ‘benefits of EU membership’. Would you admit that there is a contradiction between Alfred Sant before 2004, and Alfred Sant in 2019?

There’s no contradiction. I am not ‘highlighting the benefits of EU membership’, for crying out loud. I am accepting that we are now EU members. And I’m saying that we have to make the best job out of it. Now, most of what I said before we joined the EU, has happened. Agriculture is… doomed. Manufacturing is down by 50%. And we are tied to services. As far as developments go, our trade-and-goods deficit with the EU has tripled. So, what we said, happened.

But just a minute ago, you said that Malta’s economic success ‘came through as a result of EU accession’…

Had we not joined the EU, we would not have gone onto a growth path. We’re still on a growth path. But look at the first 10 years of membership, and you will find that growth rates were sometimes even lower than before. Look at investment: where we had been told there would be a bonanza. Private investment slumped. So basically, I was right. But that’s beside the point. Now that we are members, we have to make the best of it. So that criticism you mentioned is completely out of point, in my view. Irrelevant…

Let’s turn to the actual campaign. The PN recently criticised Labour for being part of the ‘Socialists and Democrats’ grouping that favours tax harmonisation: which is part of Frans Timmermans’ manifesto in his bid for the Commission presidency. How can Labour reconcile its tax policies, with its membership of a political family that holds the opposite view?

We are members of the S&D because we are socialists. On quite a number of points we are for the socialist programme: for instance, ‘making Europe a social Europe’. On other points, we say ‘No’. European socialist parties, as a conglomerate, are in favour of tax harmonisation: which means setting taxes, within certain limits, right across Europe for corporate positions. We have said ‘No’ to that right across the board. ‘No, no, no’. Look at our voting records; look at the statements I made in Parliament; it was always ‘No, no, no’. Look at the statements I made within the S&D – actually, you won’t be able to, because it’s not public: but it’s there. I told them: ‘No, we disagree with that.’ So our position is that: we are members of the S&D, but we disagree with tax harmonisation completely. We won’t take it. And the mechanisms of the S&D – of all political groupings, actually – permit that. All European parties approach [their EP political grouping] in the same way. For instance: the Irish within the EPP disagree with tax harmonisation; the French are all for it. Because it is not just the S&D. There is a majority across the entire European Parliament which approves tax harmonisation. That includes quite a number of EPP members: though it’s not in their manifesto, they believe in tax harmonisation, and have voted for it repeatedly. And the Nationalist MEPs have actually voted for a resolution on taxation that makes that very demand. That’s the hypocrisy of Nationalists I was talking about…

OK, but it still doesn’t address the concern with tax harmonisation becoming a reality: if, for instance, Frans Timmermans becomes Commission President. What power does the Labour Party have, as one member of an enormous political alliance, to stop it from happening?

But the same concern already exists today, with an EPP Commission President. Juncker is EPP, no? He’s been pushing for tax harmonisation, too. But this is also the reality we’re living in. Once we joined the EU – and it wasn’t my choice, but we joined the EU – we have to accept that discipline.

By that reasoning, we also have to resign ourselves to the loss of tax sovereignty…

No, because that depends on other factors as well. There is the question of ‘unanimity’ on tax issues, which is played out at the Council. It’s not played out at the Commission, or at the European Parliament. In fact, what’s really bad about what the Nationalists did, by voting for that tax resolution of 13 December 2017, was precisely this: they voted to scrap the unanimity rule on issues of taxation. They voted to remove the ‘stop’ that was blocking tax harmonisation…

‘Unanimity’ also implies that Malta is isolated on this issue; and that our only option would be to veto any tax harmonisation proposal at Council level…

So what? Miriam Dalli, Marlene Mizzi and myself were the only three people, within the S&D, who voted against that resolution. So what, if we’re isolated?

But Malta seems isolated on other issues as well. You yourself are basing your campaign on the need to ‘defend’ Malta’s interests against criticism: which is coming from all sorts of directions (not just the Nationalist Party). Is this really a case of ‘defending Malta’, though? Or are you really defending the Labour government’s record?

If you’re elected to the European Parliament, and you’re facing European issues, in my view you have to do two things. One: of course, you have to promote European issues that are consonant with what you believe in, as a party in Malta. Like social issues, for instance. Beyond that: given the experience of the past five years, we need to concentrate on really defending Malta’s interests. That’s what all the other [MEPs] do; that’s what we should be doing as well. What are Malta’s interests? What has fuelled our growth; what protects our environment, and way of living; and what makes sense, in terms of our Constitution. This is the ethos I would like to see. That’s what I’ve been pushing for. Of course, the emphasis recently has been a lot on ‘protecting Malta’. I think you know the reasons for that quite well. We’ve already mentioned tax harmonisation; then there are the attacks on the way the governance of this country is being carried out… which are exaggerated by certain people, and certain trends. And the way the Nationalist MEPs have been behaving over the last three or four years: exploiting these issues for political mileage…

Let’s take a practical example. Recently you revealed that you had blocked an EP discussion on ‘Egrant’, shortly before the 2017 election. Given that the magisterial inquiry was far from concluded at the time: wasn’t it in the national interest for that matter to be discussed?

[Laughing] By the European parliament? Before an election? Come on! It was mobilised on a partisan basis, through and through. It was simply an input into the political debate in Malta, based on a propaganda approach by the EPP. The problem with the European Parliament, on these ‘rule of law’ issues, is that it is not objective. If there is one thing you have to really be objective about, it is how to assess violations of the fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law, etc. Are you going to let it run on the basis of someone like Roberta Metsola, on behalf of the EPP? Then coming with the ‘Rule of Law’ committee to ‘investigate Malta’? Come on. […] When that discussion on Egrant, during a Maltese election campaign, was postponed until after the election – so the discussion was not ‘killed’; it still took place, after the election – yes, I think it was in the national interest to do that.

Still on the subject of Egrant: your public statements so far indicate that you have ‘full faith in Joseph Muscat’. Do you have the same faith in Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri?

That is not something which I have to discuss.

Why not? Mizzi is Tourism Minister. He is part of Cabinet…

I am not responsible for tourism, sorry.

You’re not responsible for the Prime Minister’s portfolio either, yet you discuss your faith in him…

The Prime Minister is the leader of my party. Come on…

Ok, let me close with a question regarding your rapport with Joseph Muscat. I can’t help noting that it contrasts with your own experience, as a younger prime minister whose government was brought down by an older former party leader. Does that experience in any way inform your support for Muscat staying on? Is it a case of not wanting to do to him, what Mintoff had done to you?

No. I simply think Joseph Muscat is doing a good job. He’s still young. He still has other things that he can achieve. And that’s why I think he should stay on. It has nothing to do with any of that.

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