George M. Mangion | Wednesday, 03 June 2009

Brussels calling

This week most Europeans are focused on the demands by candidates who seek their attention for their vote as members of the the European Parliament. The consequences of the economic crisis, the impact of demographic change and the best way to safeguard the European social model are among issues in store for the new intake of MEPs. Visiting Dublin last week, I could notice billboards and colour photos of prospective candidates smiling from lamp posts seeking attention down O’Conolly street.
Why has the frenzy also caught Malta by surprise? Is it because both main parties see this as a test of their influence? Does it matter that much if the five seats (heavy diluted among the seven hundreds available) are not equally distributed between PL and PN? The answer seems that it does. Just notice how the ballooning media cost to host and advertise parties and finance the colour adverts must be well worth the effort for the lucky incumbents. Leave Malta aside for now and just consider the hue and cry being made in Britain about the excesses of benefits claimed by members of Parliament on both sides of the political divide. Does anyone care if the mother of democracy spoils its children and masks such abuses? Here one can quote the UK tabloid The Sun which was unequivocal about the sudden awareness of a country which is in the throes of the worst recession. Yet the guardians of the realm are partaking out of the never ending jam jar. This criticism does not only refer to the flimsy controls over British politicians cocooned in their exhorbitant claims for perks of office but spills over to unmask the gravy train that leads to Brussels. Nobody envies that MEPs do not come out empty-handed for their efforts to uphold their country’s seat in Brussels. The Sun continues to report that during the five-year term of the EU parliament, an MEP can clock-up over €2 million in expenses. The papers says that MEPs can claim five relaxing sessions of hydro massage, and acupuncture every month provided this is backed by a doctor’s note. Not too bad for a five year term, but then who is complaining? Bureaucracy does not come cheap and we all pay for it. Paradoxically, when Europe is facing its worst economic period during which one needs to appear to be frugal and Spartan in one’s expenses it appears that tiny Malta has nothing to lose if its five representatives are pampered and well fed. After all who wants to part company with his or her friends in sunny Malta to join the water drenched streets of grey Brussels? There must be a carrot in sight. Yet just sit out in a café on a summer’s evening in Brussels and, with the help of a few beers, it really does feel as if the city is the capital of Europe. A babble of different languages arises from the tables. Even the waiters and waitresses often seem to be multilingual, switching easily between French, Dutch, English and other languages. As a Maltese candidate you will find that a small community works in Brussels and making friends is not difficult.
The city authorities boast that there are already around 30,000 foreign Eurocrats and their families in Brussels, and perhaps another 15,000 Europeans whose jobs are linked to the EU and its various branches. So is this the Mecca of bureacracy where its faithful congregate and extoll its virtues? Why is the word “red tape“ so frequent on critics’ lips during the prevailing recession and what is its origin? Dictionaries provde various meanings of red tape but the best one I found was that it originated in the mother of all democracies: Britain. As far as in 1736 the term excessive bureaucratic “rigmarole,” was a allegorical allusion to the red tape formerly used in Great Britain for binding up legal and other official documents. It continues to refer to the excessive multiplication of and concentration of power in administrative bureaus. Does this matter and why are we so surprised that a concentration of elected parliamentarians together with their expensive support teams matter so little for the common man? In comparison we see how during past years, efforts were made to trim excessive bureaucracy in Malta.
A big PR razzmatazz was drummed up five years ago when a White Paper entitled ‘A Public Service for the 21st Century’ was launched. It announced new public service charters. These would commit departments to deliver on what citizens could expect the public service to provide them with. Government services were to be packaged as part of a consumer-oriented programme, in which the taxpayer would be considered king, or at least be acknowledged to have significant rights. One cannot deny that improvements have surfaced after these attempts to inculcate a service-oriented culture. In his 2004 report outgoing Ombudsman, Mr Sammut, himself a former head of the civil service, said there should be consistent, across-the-board application of redress for misadministration in the public service while he lamented of a general deterioration in the top-to-down attitudes of certain departments.
There is no prize for guessing that it is under-deployed. But this is not the fault of its 35,000 members. The hierarchy cocoons its workforce made indolent by an assumption that their post is a job for life. So why is the level of productivity not at par with that of the private sector? The answer is multifarious one. Although wages parity with the private sector has been reached in many grades, it is a pity that productivity has not risen in line with the private sector. Politicians have since independence been fearful of trailing in political patronage.
Regrettably, there is so much at stake. It is perplexing why we have been papering the cracks rather than targeting the root of the problem. This is an unsolved mystery. Certainly accountability for management of the economy falls squarely on the government assisted by the Service. Both highlighted the need for the government to cut inefficient expenditure and trim duplication in agencies and weed out alleged conflicts of interest by political appointees wearing too many hats. Many solutions are penned by different columnists. Principally they plead for urgent remedial action to avoid taxpayers’ monies being swallowed up in a vortex of in unbridled bureaucracy, red tape and inefficiency. The opposition say reform will always be circumspect as long as we face fundamental problems such lack of discipline, ministerial interference, lack of training, prolific bureaucracy, deficiency in levels of transparency, de-motivation, and the lack of modern system of meritocracy legislation. With recession pounding our shores from other EU members it is crucial that we gear up to face the challenge. Let us all admit that cosmetic surgery was administered in the past but the cure was skin deep. The opposition harps more poignantly now on the doorsteps of an MEP election that benefits to citizens are hard to come by and the fly in the ointment is that government agencies and regulators have sought ways of increasing their charges to users to prop up their hegemonies. Some of these agencies are barefacedly announcing that they are reporting profits over and in excess of fines collected. Observers point out how cozy regulators have responded meekly to control abuse of dominant positions. Yet this is a time of smiling candidates showing us their talents to improve our lifestyles as members of the Union. After the joyous spell, whoever wins the MEP election next week will face a Herculean task to weed out the overgrown European garden. Hopefully, the five new incumbents will administer the medicine and apply surgery to spruce bureaucracy in Brussels. The electorate wishes them well. Certainly, it will be the kindest cut of them all.

George Mangion
Partner at PKF – an audit and business advisory firm



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03 June 2009

Malta Today


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