Vince Farrugia, kingmaker who ran small business lobby, dies aged 77

Small business leader who ran for Europe on PN ticket, dies aged 77

Vince Farrugia, former GRTU director-general
Vince Farrugia, former GRTU director-general

The former director-general of the Chamber for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, Vince Farrugia, has died aged 77. He was a long-time director of the GRTU. 

Businessman Mario Debono, who heads the Chamber’s pharmaceutical sector, paid tribute to Farrugia – a former candidate for MEP who ran on the PN ticket in 2009 –  who he described as a “giant”. 

“Words cannot describe the stature of this man amongst small and medium business owners. He was a mentor to many, a safe harbour for the many small businesses that sought his help, a consensus builder on many an agreement with governments, and someone who was never afraid of any challenge, even the most onerous,” he said. 

Farrugia, an economist hailing from a Labour background, had led the national environmental agency IDEA during the final days of old Labour. In the 1970s he led the Investment Promotion Unit in the Malta Development Corporation (MDC) which was responsible for implementing the policy of import substitution and finding export markets for Maltese factories while restricting imports in to Malta. 

But he found fertile political terrain in the 1990s as the defender of small business at the helm of the GRTU. At times rabidly protectionist, at times a defender of free markets, Farrugia owed his success to a sharp sense of brinkmanship and shifting of allegiances. 

He could ‘sound Labour’ by railing against Brussels over its environmental and health rules, or by defending Sunday rests for shopkeepers. Yet deep at heart, he was hostile to socialism or State intervention in the economy. 

When it suited the interests he defended, he could be a feared force: one former ally who later fell out with him was Sandro Chetcuti, who called him a “second Mintoff”. 

Chetcuti went on to face charges of grievous bodily harm after an alleged assault on Farrugia at the GRTU offices. Chetcuti, today president of the Malta Developers’ Association, had originally been charged with attempted murder after a brawl with Vince Farrugia inside his GRTU office in 2010. He was eventually found guilty of slightly injuring Farrugia.  

In the 1990s, the GRTU was a key peg in Alfred Sant’s ‘new social alliance’, which catapulted Labour to victory in 1996 by supporting the removal of VAT. His effort ensured small business rewarded Labour in their quest for electoral power. 

But in 2003 he was instrumental in backing Eddie Fenech Adami’s national movement for EU membership – and that included accepting VAT and the removal of protective levies. 

His opposition to VAT in 1994 broke a historical taboo, leading the GRTU – a union of traditionally Nationalist-oriented traders and small businessmen – in an unholy alliance with the General Workers Union. It was the first time a business association marched in a general strike with the unions against VAT. He was shortly hosted as a columnist on the GWU newspaper L-orrizont. 

But Farrugia was a hard nut to crack. As the economy deteriorated under Labour, he instantly fell out with Sant but remained critical of EU membership after the PN was re-elected to power. When he started participating in the pre-accession consultations on EU negotiations dealing with business and enterprise, his euroscepticism started to melt. 

He resumed his role as kingmaker in 2003, by joining the 35 civil society organisations then supporting Eddie Fenech Adami's bid for membership. He nearly resigned in 2006, claiming Nationalist-leaning elements had tried to exclude government critics from the GRTU council. 

He repeatedly clashed with Nationalist minister Austin Gatt, but his worsening relationship with Alfred Sant’s Labour continued even with Joseph Muscat’s decisively pro-business turn. 

And while Farrugia could be an obstacle in Labour’s bid to win small business, his decision to run on the PN ticket for MEP in 2009 was the final nail in the kingmaker’s coffin, fatally dented his reputation: he failed to get elected, with just 4,056 votes. 

Farrugia also represented the GRTU in Brussels, in the European Economic and Social Committee. 

In 2013, at 69, Farrugia stepped down from the GRTU after 20 years of service. His comment to MaltaToday at the time of his exit came replete with his view of himself as a force to be reckoned with: “If critics start kicking at the leader when he is down... well, you know how it is, it’s what they did to Pope Benedict.”