Tuesday 20 March 2018


It was not about his English, but about his suitability

I have just finished watching the European Parliament’s budgetary committee hearing (or grilling as it’s called) of Toni Abela who was nominated to the European Court of Auditors.

If I had to rely on my newsfeed, I would have concluded that he was not accepted because his English was so abysmal and incoherent that he was unable to communicate what he wanted to say. But having watched it, my conclusion is that he was not accepted because he does not have the appropriate experience required to be appointed to the ECA. Being a lawyer, and being involved in party politics, and being a vice-mayor of what one MEP described rightly (but rather snidely) as a mere village, is not enough. He was, simply put, the wrong person to nominate for the role.

Another problem he faced was that the grilling zoomed in (again, quite rightly) on the baggage he has – his handling of the “white powder” incident at one of the party clubs, his hot temper in court for which he has been censured, as well as the quote which he claims was lifted out of context, that he was prepared “to work in secret to make people rich”. Although he tried valiantly to explain them all, it was clearly not enough.

At the moment the Labour faithful are busy crying “foul” that someone passed on this information to be included in the questions in order to damage Dr Abela’s chances. But even if they were tipped off, the information is easily accessible on the Internet anyway. And, given the horrible outcome of Malta’s last EU Commissioner John Dalli (who was nominated by Lawrence Gonzi in a gross error of judgement), do you really blame the MEPs for treading very carefully when it comes to a Maltese candidate with these kind of red flags?

Some are saying that he was sent into the hearing ill-prepared, almost as if he had been deliberately thrown to the wolves. But if he was not well-prepped for the kind of questions which may have come his way, there is no use in pointing fingers. When you know that you are the one who will be facing the music, isn’t it in your interest to make sure you are ready to field any questions which may be thrown at you? And let us say it is true that there was the hand of the PN in the questions which were asked, surely Dr Abela, a seasoned lawyer and politician should have braced himself for that possibility? Malta already seems to be in premature election mode, and all the gloves are off…he should know as well as anyone that this means war.

And finally, a last word about his English. Dr Abela’s harsh, heavy accent is that of the typical Maltese person who did not grow up speaking English at a private school. His lack of fluency when it comes to syntax also shows that it is not a language he normally converses in. When he was flustered, his Maltese accent became even more pronounced. In retrospect, he might have been better off speaking in Maltese and asking for an interpreter, although this would have probably also drawn criticism. To those for whom English comes easily, his pronunciation elicited the usual, “OMG how embarrassing” type of comments, although I always find that it is the Maltese who have this weird hang up when, in fact, all non-native English speakers have their own accent. I hate to break it you, but even those who speak English as their first language and proudly show off their RP, still sound, to a native speaker, as very stilted with a distinct foreign inflection.

So no, it was not his English which was the problem, but the fact that while he may be very good at what does as a lawyer and politician, he is simply not cut out to be on the Court of Auditors, which is a very specialized field. Personally, if I were him, I would never have accepted the nomination, because in life it is important to be self-aware and to be able to assess one’s strengths and weaknesses honestly. He could have saved himself what turned out to be a rather humiliating experience.

These roles are not lollipops to be doled out to people to “give them something” and edge them conveniently out of the way as political chess moves.  The next nomination should be done only after very careful consideration.

  • Ramon Casha

    Very well said. I would add that the argument, presented by many, that “we scratched your back, now it’s your turn to scratch ours” is a very shallow way of doing things.

    I personally don’t think that Dr.Abela deserved this humiliating rejection, however from the national point of view, it’s better for these details to be known now and Malta’s nominee to be rejected, than for them to surface later and cause a major scandal.

    As far as his English pronunciation is concerned, the EP is not composed of fluent English speakers. When they do speak English their accents are thick enough to insulate an arctic research station. None of them would have cared about Dr.Abela’s accent.

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  • Cuthbert Banks

    Indeed. Had a ”proper” accent been a requisite, not one of the candidates would have been acceptable.

    I think Dr. Abela accepted the nomination only grudgingly, and he approached the whole thing in a rather half-hearted manner, perhaps relying on the PN’s support rather than on him own efforts. After all, Dalli and Karmenu Vella had both been accepted with the help of cross-party support despite the fact that both carried baggage. Despite the fact the PN MEPS tried to help, the Nationalist appear not top have gone out of their way to ensure EPP support for Dr. Abela.

    A great pity – he is an honest man and a capable professional. He would have contributed very positively to the ECA.

  • Salvu Mallia

    Well reasoned out and impatial analysis if you ask me. As for the language, I would say that it was not really an issue, as even the other candidates had their own, but a comment hinting to the ‘south’, I think we should be honest to ourselves, and admit that it says it all. I definitely could sense a whif of snobbery in our regards that didn’t help at all.

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