Friday 02 December 2022

The EU: Not an a la carte menu

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

Ever since the raging EU debate which dominated our lives for many long tedious months leading up to the referendum in March 2003, the perception of what the EU really means to the Maltese has been plagued with confusion.

I can still recall the never-ending debates as the opposing sides became even more entrenched in their positions and everyone picked a side according to what their party had decided, because, you know: Malta.

Not everyone toed the party line of course, and in fact there were many Labour supporters who voted Yes for the EU because they could not really understand the benefits of what Alfred Sant was touting as a ‘partnership’ rather than full membership. He just was not able to sell the idea, and the PN, grasping this opportunity to depict Sant and Labour as a backwards-looking, introspective party which wanted Malta to be left out in the cold, was able to paint a picture of positivity, hope and a brighter tomorrow, especially for the younger generation. The future was going to be unlimited possibilities to work, live and study in any EU member state, while much-needed EU funds would be pouring into the country.

What was not to like?

In fact, a lot of what was promised did come about as EU membership unlocked the doors to what used to be unthinkable. The opportunity to work with EU institutions led to a Maltese migration of young hopefuls who settled mainly in Brussels and Luxembourg. Today, many of them are married and have settled there with their young families with little thought of returning. Other people went to study and work throughout the UK and other European countries.

The funds were also forthcoming although, to be honest, during the referendum debates, it was rather unsavoury to constantly hear about how much money Malta would be “getting from Europe” for all the world as if the island was a money-grabbing gold-digger who had set her sights on a filthy rich Sugar Daddy. In fact, what was played down was that Malta too would be contributing its financial share (the reality of what that means would come later with the Greek bailout.)

Meanwhile, across the chasm of political discourse, there was plenty of scaremongering as the PL (including yes, our now Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who at the time was a journalist with the Labour media) did everything in its power to convince voters that this big huge scary entity called the EU would envelop us, and swallow us up, obliterating everything which makes us ‘Maltese” and forcing us to erase our colourful, devoutedly Catholic Mediterranean-ness until we became a bland blancmange, godless people, indistinguishable from the rest of Europe. We would lose our sovereignty, be forced to enact laws against our will and basically, it would be the end of the world as we know it. It was a grey and gloomy forecast, which some believed, but which was labelled as false and melodramatic by others.

The truth, as it turns out, was somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Remember how former PM Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was mocked for warning us that Sicilian hairdressers would come here and take our jobs? Well, the “they are taking our jobs” mantra is something which is voiced at least once a day on Facebook. In fact, many were astonished as more and more people flooded our country from all corners of Europe looking for work and expecting to live here, you know, as EU citizens. The spluttering protests, “but, what do you mean, they have the right to live and work here just like us?” and the undercurrent of palpable resentment against “foreigners” makes me wonder whether people knew what they were actually voting for. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if 20 and 30-somethings grabbed their chance and fled this tiny, claustrophobic island for greener, larger pastures, because they now could, that the opposite would also be the case?

And while there are many laws which we have adopted as EU directives, mostly concerning the environment, there are still many other areas where we think we deserve special treatment and that they should not really apply to us. Spring hunting immediately comes to mind (for which the PN had negotiated a special derogation), but also other daily bureaucracies which affect the day to day lives of all EU citizens. A Maltese can go and live in Germany, for example, and there is no red tape. But every day I read comments by EU nationals who point out that so many aspects of setting up home here are bogged down by unnecessary delays and paperwork. Why is that?

Even the concept of being a full member of the EU is alien to some. People talk about “the EU” as a separate entity, when in fact, we ARE the EU. Paradoxically enough, it is the Nationalist Party who sometimes thinks of it in terms of Big Brother, whom they run to every time they want to “tell on” the government for some wrongdoing. I find this a very strange way of looking at the relationship for which they campaigned for so long. Are we all not equal member states? Does Malta really need a nanny to solve its internal disputes?

Weird as it may sound, I sometimes think that is the PN which doesn’t understand what being in the EU means. It is rather odd that the PN is all gung-ho for the EU – as long as the EU agrees with them vis-a-vis the Labour Government. But, when it doesn’t, the mood shifts, angry clouds form and it suddenly becomes “corrupt” and “untrustworthy”. Witness the resentful statement issued because the European Commission approved Maltese government plans to pay Electrogas Malta for providing energy to Enemalta. Then we also had the sharp rebuke by Simon Busuttil to the European Commissioners for not saying anything about Konrad Mizzi and the Panama Papers: “I think a lot of people are actually angry because this is something they care about out. This may be an internal affair but the people want to know if it is acceptable for Brussels for a minister to have a secret company in Panama. People are disappointed and this is what makes people lose trust in the EU,”

As quoted by The Times, In a reaction to the story, EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas tweeted his disagreement with the PN’s position, saying that the Commission had no say over political and juridical affairs. “These are areas of national competence,” he wrote.

I honestly don’t know what Simon and the PN were expecting…a public flogging?

(Just to make it clear, I still believe Konrad Mizzi should have resigned but where are all these throngs of angry crowds demanding that he step down?)

The reality of the living as an EU member state has also brought to the surface the kind of irony which is almost as twisted as a sick joke. Who would have thought that those who were so vehemently against the gravy train would be among the first to hop on it? Every time I see Alfred Sant speaking at the Euro Parliament (as good as he is in his speeches), I always shake my head in disbelief that this is the same man who was so dead set against “Europe” and who lost an election because he stubbornly refused to accept the will of the people when they voted YES.

Who would have imagined that the man who successfully led the YES campaign and went on to become an MEP and who was adamant that he was not interested in getting involved in Maltese politics, is now the Opposition leader, watching from the sidelines as his nemesis Joseph Muscat (who also ended up becoming an MEP) is there greeting all of the EU bigwigs as if butter would not melt in his mouth?

You could not make this stuff up, and if it were a novel, no one would believe it.

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