Unhappy days | Simon Busuttil

From ACTA to divorce, from Franco Debono to Lawrence Gonzi, from political instability in Malta to the future of the eurozone, MEP Simon Busuttil wrestles with the questions of the day.

Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil
Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil

"This is not the happiest of situations for any government to be in."

This is how Simon Busuttil describes the political climate in the aftermath of a no-confidence motion presented by the opposition which failed to topple the government but which exposed the reality that the government lacks a majority due to Debono's abstention.

But Busuttil firmly believes that the government is not duty bound to go for an election.

He points out that there are only two ways to go for an election with our system.

"The first option is for the Prime Minister to call an election and the second is for the government to be defeated in parliament. None of above-mentioned conditions have happened. Therefore the government can safely continue with its mandate."

He also rebuts the charge that the government is clinging to power describing this as a "myth."

"You cling to power if you are doing so illegitimately. In this case the government has a popular mandate to complete the legislature."

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat has compared the present situation in parliament to the post-1981 situation when the Labour Party governed the country despite not winning a majority of votes simply by virtue of having a majority of seats.

Muscat contends that on that occasion the Labour party was legally correct but morally wrong, as is the case with the government now.

Busuttil describes Muscat's comparison as "very unfortunate".

"In 1981 you had a situation of illegitimacy in terms of a popular mandate, there is absolutely nothing of this sort now. This is a very unfortunate caricature of the present situation."

But while Busuttil believes that the government's legitimacy is not in question, he warns that continued abstentions by Debono will not allow the government to complete the legislature.

When presented with a scenario in which Debono continues to abstain on money bills, and asked directly whether the government can complete the legislature in this scenario, Busuttil is equally categorical.

"No I do not... If Debono continues abstaining than the government will be in too much of a difficult situation."

But Busuttil hopes that Debono will be drawing "the natural conclusions from what I hope will be a resounding confirmation of Lawrence Gonzi and come back on board," after next Saturday's leadership contest.

I interviewed Simon Busuttil on Wednesday three days before the leadership contest called for by the Prime Minister. How can a vote in the party solve a parliamentary problem?

"There was a direct challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister as the leader of the parliamentary group and as the leader of the party. Therefore, in my opinion, the Prime Minister had no option but to go to his party and say listen, do you want me or don't you?".

But what sense does holding a one-man contest make? 

"Don't forget that this will be a secret ballot. And since it's a secret ballot it cannot be described as a gimmick and is not a useless exercise.

"Anyone can go there and vote in secrecy. He surely deserves a resounding confirmation but this is not a foregone conclusion."

Busuttil also welcomes the fact that nobody has stepped up to challenge the PM.

"He is the right person at the right time. I assume and hope that the result will be a resounding confirmation..."

But what impact can this have on resolving the political crisis which has a name and face - Franco Debono?

"Franco Debono will also draw his conclusions from that message."

Busuttil notes that Debono himself reacted rather positively to the PM's decision to seek reconfirmation.

"It shows that the PM understood that there was a challenge to his leadership and it also shows that Debono understood that the leader was drawing the consequences of that challenge."

While according to Busuttil the leadership vote will not solve everything because ultimately the difficulty lies in parliament, it could have a bearing on Debono's future moves.

"The person who put the majority in question in parliament is also part of the PN because he is elected on the platform of the PN and he can also understand that this is not gimmick because it is a secret ballot and if Lawrence Gonzi is reconfirmed resoundingly, Gonzi is also his leader."

He also invites Debono to take into account that he is one of the MPs who has mostly influenced government policies. 

"The issues raised by Debono are now part of the government's action plan and even part and parcel of the 'Gheruq Taghna' document... When you are an MP who has managed to influence government policy so much you have all the good reasons to stay on board."

While insisting that he disagreed with Debono's methods, Busuttil believes that a number of issues raised by the backbench rebel are valid and should be taken on board. 

"There are the ingredients for Franco to stay on board and with this confirmation vote of Lawrence Gonzi there will also be the climate for him to stay on board."

The government prides itself on braving through the eurozone crisis. Is there a risk that the current political uncertainty risks undermining this accomplishment because this uncertainty could affect businesses?

"To our credit Maltese democracy has reached a level of maturity where even a political crisis like this is not stopping the economy... Notwithstanding the fact that this is not the happiest of moments for a government to be in, the economy is still performing and it is important to retain our focus on that."

For Busuttil the government's fortunes depend on its economic performance.

"When we come to the crux on voting day, people will ultimately judge the government on its handling of the economy and not on the political instability... the government will be judged on its competence of government to keep the ship sailing safely in the troubled waters."

Whenever the election comes, one of the main issues will be whether the country should have a change in government after being governed by the same party since 1987 except for the two years interlude between 1996 and 1998?

Busuttil contends that while it is in the interest of the Opposition to hype the change issue, what is more important is the trust issue.

"The question people will ask in the polling booth is not I do want change but who do I trust most?"

To prove his point Busuttil makes a medical analogy.

"Would you change your family doctor if you have trusted him for five, 10, 15 or even 25 years?"

Busuttil also claims that when it comes to issues related to the country's development the Nationalist Party is more open to change than the Labour Party.

"I myself prefer the PN because I think it can deliver such changes better than any other party."

Busuttil also invites voters to ask what kind of change they want to see arguing that the country does not need a change in terms of policy and economic direction.

"If you ask the people do you want the country to change direction, I do not think they would say yes, because we are now a country firmly embedded in the European system, we are a country on a course of action which is addressing the economic crisis..."

I point out to Busuttil that Joseph Muscat is neither questioning the European direction or the economic direction of the country. 

"Therefore my logical conclusion is that his platform is change for the sake of change and not for any other valid reason."

But when it comes to civil liberties the PL is presenting itself as a more liberal party than the PN.  Is there a risk that the PN is out of synch with liberal voters and Labour exploiting this weakness?

Busuttil admits, "electorally speaking one of the best thing which could have happened to the Nationalist Party is that divorce was introduced before the election.

He also praises Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's role in ensuring that the "kind of divorce approved in the referendum was a responsible divorce... a very conservative kind of divorce which is only available after four years."

But now that divorce is in place even the liberals in the Nationalist Party can continue to feel safe in the PN.

"Let us not forget that the PN is ultimately a coalition of Christian conservatives, Christian liberals and some others who are not necessarily Christian and simply liberals, This is a coalition which has been kept since the '70s."

Still although the divorce issue has been settled, other issues like IVF legislation and gay partnerships are bound to crop up.

Would it not make sense to grant freedom of conscience to Nationalist MPs on ethical issues to resolve this contradiction?

Speaking with hindsight he points out that he would have expected the Nationalist Party to do just that on divorce while expecting the Labour Party (as a left-wing party)  to take a stand in favour of divorce.

"On ethical issues the PN could take the position of a free vote. You let people decide on the basis of conscience without telling them how to vote."

Surprisingly, one of the issues, which has lately captured young people's imagination, is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Busuttil immediately strikes his political conclusions from the ACTA debate, contrasting the "populist stand" of the PL "which stuck out its tongue according to which direction the wind was blowing" and the PN's "responsible" approach "which does not take political positions on the basis of what people would like to hear" but on the basis of "what is right."

"Although this approach might cost us votes, I am sure that it will come across positively to those discerning voters."

Busuttil points out that any serious party cannot oppose an agreement against counterfeiting and piracy.

"How can I say no to this and expect to attract investors, how can I say no to this and expect to protect thousands of jobs in Malta?"

Still he acknowledged that there was "an overwhelming discontent which reflected a fear that internet freedom would be restricted".

"While the text of ACTA was prima facie good... we immediately opened our mind to these concerns."

Busuttil contends that the PM's decision to enshrine internet freedom as a civil right, something which is accompanied by an implementation law which spells out internet rights, is a clear step in this direction.

The greatest concern of those opposing ACTA is that it includes vague phrases like encouraging signatory states to step up cooperation with internet providers to fight piracy. In the absence of other safeguards this raises fears of ISPs being forced by states to monitor users' activities, invade their piracy and even disconnect them from the internet in order to clamp down on illegal downloading.

Busuttil insists that all the provisions in ACTA, which have raised the antennae of internet activists, are "may provisions" i.e. provisions which can be implemented at the discretion of the member state. 

With regards to the article encouraging states to step up their cooperation with businesses and internet providers, Busuttil is quick to point out that such cooperation "does not have to entail disconnecting or policing people from the internet".

But if this raises such concerns, one solution which he would be willing to consider is for the government to make a declaration that it would not apply some of the provisions included in the treaty before ratifying the treaty.

"Since these are may provisions, we have the discretion whether to implement them or not."

The controversy has exposed a grey area in our legal system. Normal law-abiding citizens are downloading music and movies from the internet. These people are afraid that ACTA will prevent them from doing so in the future.

Busutil seeks to reassure these people without endorsing an illegal activity.

"That is already illegal but if you do it as an individual it is not a criminal offence. So although strictly speaking this is illegal, nobody is threatened by criminal prosecution.

"ACTA will not change that.  ACTA wants to hit out at big commercial interests and not what the individual does in the privacy of his home."

But he is taken aback by any suggestion that politicians should stand up for the right to download copyrighted material.

"But please do not ask me as an MEP to tell you that downloading illegally is OK whereas Joseph Muscat is doing just that. What you do at home is your business but do not expect politicians to say it's fine."

Simon Busuttil's name is associated with the optimism generated by Malta's EU membership bid. Now Europe is facing its greatest crisis since World War II.  Is there a risk that the EU or at least the euro currency will not survive the tempest?

"No I do not have that fear... because that would be economically devastating and more importantly because this is politically not an option. If you look at the decisions taken by EU leaders in the past year these all go in the direction of ensuring that the euro is here to stay."

One of the debates in Europe is that this situation will either lead to disintegration of the European project or towards a greater sharing of sovereignty between Member States, something which is already happening as the commission is increasingly monitoring the fiscal policies of its states.

"I would like Europe to become a closer political union. Europe has now reached the limits of what it could have done without going the whole hog of actually having a political union... The fact that we have a single currency has made us realise that it can't be just a monetary union, it also needs to be an economic union but if you want an economic union this begs the question of why not have the political union as well."

According to Busuttil, a political union is needed to ensure greater democracy.

Busuttil points out that an economic union entails harmonising budgets, setting up a European treasury and a common bond market.

"These are hugely political issues and these deserve to be discussed in institutions which are democratically elected and you can't have a Europe which is deciding everything at a governmental level"

But the political union Busuttil aspires to is not the kind of centralised federalism characterising the United States of America.

"I prefer a federalism which leaves the maximum autonomy at the member state level but still has a political union.  We have reached the cross roads and we have to decide which way to go. It does not mean that all 27 member states have to go towards this direction but if we choose the path of political union, I will push as hard as I can to ensure that Malta is in it."

Whether Busuttil will be doing so as an MEP or an MP remains unclear.

Asked once again whether he will contest the next election, his reply remains the same as it was last month: "I will decide whether to contest if and when a general election is called."