NEWS | Wednesday, 04 June 2008

Blog: Joanna Drake

Talk about globalisation

Think of three reasons why the cost of food has spiralled even further recently. One: the increased consumption of dairy products and red meat by an increasingly demanding China; two, the severe draughts that hit Australia; three the devastating cyclones that ravaged Burma. All of them happened zillion of miles away from Malta - without, however sparing the island.
This was confirmed, at a recent press briefing, by Dr Leonard Mizzi, who now is Head of Unit at the EU Commission’s agricultural Directorate.
But that’s not the complete story. Maybe nature should not absorb all the blame.
Clearly, amongst other measures we should be taking, the EU needs to take a hard look at its agricultural policy, commonly known as CAP and which is never short of attracting controversy.
That this does not suit everyone’s needs is an understatement. That it needs to be constantly tweaked, preferably before calamities strike the marketplace, is something the EU appreciates. That it is often difficult to take an axe to some of its more controversial provisions is as widely known as the Eiffel tower.
The CAP Health Check is one monitoring measure that helps the Commission keep track of what is happening on the ground. Following one recent audit, the Commission launched a raft of reforms to beef up agriculture and give farmers added incentives to produce more.
Admittedly, not all of the reforms will have an effect on Maltese farmers. The abolition of set asides will do nothing to improve local production, or farmers’ profits. Set asides are swathes of farmland left fallow for decades. Farmers are being paid to keep 10 per cent of their arable land uncultivated. The idea was popular at a time when farm production was booming. This often left the EU with mountains and rivers of unsold vegetables, fruit and milk.
Other reforms, which include eliminating the current milk quotas and paying farmers more of a flat rate, may ring closer of truths ailing our farmers.
Long winded, admittedly, but it brings me to my point.
Last week we went into a most interesting breakfast seminar with farmers, the associations that fight their corner, trade unions, people from the university and officials from the Resources and Rural Affairs Ministry. All told, 34 people turned up and the event was as eye-opening as it was encouraging. There were of course those who view funds as a panacea to every problem under the sun. For example one participant wanted to know what steps the EU will take to compensate farmers once milk quotas are lifted. I think he appreciated the answer to that one. Maltese farmers, we suggested, should go for quality; people will always pay more for better quality products, including milk.
Others were far more realistic. Some complained that high quality locally grown fresh products were suffering at the hands of cheaper low quality imported products. Others raised the problems of higher water and electricity costs and expensive animal fodder. There was a suggestion the EU considers Malta as a specific case - one dress fits all may prove of little help to tiny Malta. Disadvantaged regions, it was argued, benefit more, inside the EU, than the island state of Malta.
The CAP Health Check reforms, others complained, were aimed at making farmers more productive. Maltese farmers were already highly productive. Many are actually forced to grow three crops a year (which is unusual in Europe) to keep their chins above the waterline.
One particularly valid point made, to which we all agreed, was the need for farmers to be better informed on how to best translate the island’s EU membership to their advantage.
In the end I left the Westin Hotel mulling over how our farmers can be made to feel the impact of the EU’s efforts better. Admittedly two hurdles stand in the way to larger productions and greater profits: the small size of farmsteads and the fragmentation of arable land. But then maybe – and I don’t wish to sound as though I’m an expert here - people should think of turning size into an advantage by, say, growing different crops that sell better elsewhere and for which there always is a high demand. I’m now thinking of those miniscule vegetables sought by the hotel and the upmarket catering industry. It’s just an idea. Those reading this blog may have even better suggestions. If you do, write in.

Watch what you’re buying if you’re flying
If you think you’re smart enough never to get diddled buying a plane ticket listen to this.
A third of consumers buying airline tickets in the EU – that’s 33.3 per cent - are ripped off, misled, or confused.
That figure was revealed by the EU’s airline sweep, a systematic check meant to hunt down breaches in consumer law. The sweep surveyed 386 websites in 13 EU member states and Norway. The EU, which is constantly is seeking square deals for consumers, penalised 137 of these but then again, only half repented and changed their dodgy ways. Consumers buying airline tickets on line still face ‘serious and persistent problems’ according to consumer commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
The problem is not restricted to airlines. Every sector, from airlines to tour operators, seem to have been, to one degree to another, caught with their snout in the trough.
So what sort of hoodwinking goes on?
Here are a few tricks you would do well to keep in mind.
Watch out for airlines offering you misleading prices - and the most expensive - without telling you that cheaper alternatives exist. Some write irregular terms into their contracts, others are fond of advertising mythical offers. Often the price advertised is not the price paid eventually, which is what the EU insists should happen. Limitations on special offers are hardly ever flagged.
Mind you, the travel industry is not alone in putting its hands in people’s pockets unjustly.
Recently, a Spanish publisher raided the good intentions of several firms, including Maltese, by first suggesting their entries in a European City Guide would be free then charged them €900.
With summer approaching I thought I should raise the alert for those who regularly read this blog. I have not come across any Maltese outfits being found with their hands in the till but if one is going to book a trip online one is best advised to keep on guard.
Why pay more when with the help of EU regulations you can get better, more and for less?

Waste not want not
I thought a piece in one of the local papers suggesting Malta risked loosing EU funds tied to the construction of waste treatment plants was a tad over the top. It quickly generated reader reactions. One said treatment plants all over Europe were being built at half the cost estimated by Malta and that therefore the island shouldn’t rush.
Another raved on about accountability. Who, he asked is responsible for these delays must pay.
And so, the touch-paper to another unnecessary controversy was swiftly lit.
Let’s clarify a few points first. The sewage treatment plant scheduled to rise on Gozo is being financed by Enlargement Funds - pre accession funds, not structural funds. Malta’s record here is excellent. So far only a small percentage of these funds have been lost. No great shakes. The island has had little experience in building these types of plants and therefore has to go through a natural learning curve. That includes making sure Malta does not pay an arm and a leg for something that costs far less - or that is not as efficient.
The second plant, in the North, has nothing to do with EU funding. This actually, is being financed through Italian protocol funds.
The third plant in the South is being funded by EU Structural Funds and that comes out of the 2007- 2013 budget. I see no risk of funds being lost here. Not unless the project takes more than another four years to complete, which I doubt. And again, government can take up to 2015 to effect payment for this plant, which was approved by the Commission in the Operational Programme submitted by Malta. True enough the formal/ official project still has to be presented to the Commission in detail, after which it will go through a screening process. True, there have been delays but the reason for this lies with delays the contractor could not foresee - which is known by the Commission. The Commission and Malta want the project to be finalised as soon as possible, if for no other reason for Malta to comply fully with the EU’s directives on water quality.
Malta has a good record in absorbing EU funds. The island was the first amongst all 27 Member States to present and have approved its NSRF (National Strategic Reference Framework) – that’s means Malta’s plan on how it intends to spend the money it obtained from the EU (Structural, which includes Regional, Social and Cohesion funds). That made sure that out of €940 million due from the EU, as much as €840 million have received the Commission’s stamp of approval. That, in EU language is, an excellent performance.
So if you have been having sleepless nights fearing Malta would loose bank loads of EU money because it is not up to scratch preparing plans - forget it.
Perhaps an increase in the capacity for public procurement is necessary. And again further reforms to the administrative way in which EU funds are accessed and handled- will speed on matters.

This column, with weekly updates, is available on Head of EC Representation Joanna Drake’s blog, at


04 June 2008

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