Sunday 25 September 2022

Be careful what you wish for

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

Joining the EU in 2004 has meant many things to many different people, depending on whether one voted Yes or No in the referendum. Today, 13 years later, we can all look back and ponder on how we voted and assess whether we made a good call or not, based on the information we had at the time. Certainly, the European Union as an ideal is based on very worthy principles.

For example, Article Two of the Lisbon Treaty clearly states:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

I don’t think any right-minded person can fault any of these values, and I would say that striving to ensure that these concepts are retained and protected in one’s country is something which every member state aims for. (Although when it comes to tolerance, non-discrimination and rights of minorities one cannot leave out the human factor: after all, forcing someone to be tolerant of those who are different is something which is easier said than done).

The delegation from the European Parliament which was here recently came to precisely investigate whether one of these values namely, the rule of law, is indeed present in Malta, or whether our country is flagrantly breaching one of the stipulations of the Lisbon Treaty.

If it does find Malta in breach of Article 2, it will be in a position to activate Article 7, which reads:

1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

I have quoted Article 7 in full for a reason, because it is important for everyone to be aware just what is at stake should the European Parliament delegation actually come to the conclusions which some are clearly expecting it to come to.

Let us say that Malta is indeed found to be in breach of the rule of law and measures are taken by the EU to suspend its voting rights as per paragraph 3, until it implements ways to strengthen its weak institutions and put into place more checks and balances, while ensuring the proper separation of powers.

The logical question which comes next is, then what? Without the co-operation of the Opposition to carry out constitutional reform to fix all the above-mentioned lacunae in our institutions and the way certain sensitive key positions are appointed, the whole process will grind to a halt. So I am assuming that the PN as well as the Government are ready to buckle down and willing to do what it takes to rectify the current state of affairs because this has been on the discussion table for years, and somehow, we still haven’t managed to do it. If a rap on the knuckles by the EU is what it will take to make both sides of the House stop squabbling, stop shelving the issue and simply get on with it, then rap away.

Meanwhile, however, what those who are patently clamouring for the EU to come “save” us like a knight in shining armour are forgetting is, (a) that we, too, are the EU and (b) how all this is coming across to Joe Public.

When you form part of a Union it implies equal status. So if we as a nation are really on an equal footing with giants such as Germany, it stands to reason that we can turn around and start demanding that an EU delegation is sent to Germany, or indeed any other country where any of the values listed in Article 2 are being flagrantly breached on a daily basis. I think what has got up people’s nose the most is that the countries which are lecturing us like a stern Papa’ really need to take a long hard look at what is happening in their own countries first. This is not to excuse any of the shortcomings of the Muscat administration (because one viewpoint does not necessarily exclude the other) but the patronizing attitudes and statements do come across as a bit rich.

More significantly, however, is that the feeling “on the ground” is being thoroughly ignored by those who are so intent on bringing Muscat down at any cost, that they are failing to see that to the average person who is not partisan, it just looks like an avalanche of mud is being thrown at the whole country; a scorched earth policy if you wish. Sure, all the mechanisms available through the European Union are being used in a legitimate way, but on a human level, the fallout is not something that anyone can readily predict. I think what is being under-estimated is that, at the grassroots level of public discourse, there is a real feeling of disgust and anger at the way Malta is being portrayed, almost gleefully, as a country where one is afraid to walk the streets out of fear. The irony is that the only fear I am seeing is that of people who are afraid to share or click like on certain articles because they do not wish to be labelled as “Muscat plants”, or “Taghnalkollers” or “Labour trolls”.

In a real democracy, why should someone be afraid to say that, while they definitely agree that the Labour government needs to clean up its act on many fronts, at the same time, they simply cannot, and will not, agree with our country being smeared with the description of “Mafia state”. The reality of the Malta we are living is neither Hell on earth, nor is it a Utopia, but is somewhere in between, and only those who are being deliberately dishonest would say otherwise.

In the meantime, those who are wishing for Article 7 to be activated should be careful what they are wishing for because the backlash may be unexpected. Let us not be too surprised to learn that, as a result of the way Malta is being unfairly portrayed, resentment against what being in the EU means, is growing. You know, the kind of swelling resentment which led to people over in the UK voting for Brexit.

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