The straight answer to that question is yes. In many respects we excel. We have, by all accounts, proved ourselves as good - at times even better - members with valid contributions to make. It would of course be improper of me to make comparisons with other Member States but in plain language we still come out, in the main, out there with the best.
Which leads me to a poll conducted recently by Brussels Airlines (and reported in their in-flight magazine) in which Eurocrats and EU accredited journalists had no qualms naming who they reckon to be the best and worst EU Commissioners. They were asked: when the Lisbon Treaty is eventually ratified not all of the 10 new Member States will be able to retain their Commissioners. Who do you think are the four clear winners, four don’t knows and four outright failures.
Listen to this. Our own Joe Borg, Commissioner for Fisheries rode in comfortably to the finishing line with the four winners; the other three were Latvia’s Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Slovenia’s Janez Potocnik- more about him later-the EU Science Commissioner and Bulgaria’s Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva. I don’t think it’s fair to go into the names of those given the thumbs down but as far as Joe Borg was concerned he won acclaim for being ‘politically courageous’. I would think that’s quite impressive.
So whenever you’re caught in the argument on whether the Maltese count for much within the EU you can always say what top EU officials and journalists think. In actual fact there are several other Maltese working in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg who have done the island proud. Brussels insiders reckon the new Member States have on the whole sent higher caliber people than long standing ones.
Doing our bit on research
Actually one of the Commissioners who made it to the top four with Joe Borg, Janez Potocnik, will be in Malta this week to see for himself the work going on in the fields of science and research, the two areas for which he is responsible.
Research is, admittedly not one of our stronger suits but it is not as though we are totally out of the picture. Let’s take one example, aquaculture, and the research that goes on at the National Aquaculture Centre in San Lucian at Marsaxlokk. This Centre was started more than 20 years ago by Prof. Agius of the University of Malta. Its success can perhaps be best measured by the fish farming industry that grew up rather quickly as a result and which today earns the country almost Euro 129m a year. That makes it the second largest industry on the island after manufacturing, according to a recent report. Commissioner Potocnik, I’m sure, will be impressed with the research going on there at the moment.
Here’s another. A pharmaceutical company called Starpharma is currently involved in the research and development of slow release oral dosage medicinal forms. This project also involves the University of Malta’s Department of Pharmacy. The work carried out by this company is incredibly valid. For one thing there are few pharmaceutical firms world wide that go in for this type of research and development. The reason is that coming up with the satisfactory dosage to put into these oral medicinal is tricky business indeed and requires constant research. Commissioner Potocnik is bound again to find Starpharma worth the visit.
Truth remains that despite our size and our acute lack of resources we are doing our bit for research. We might not be in the top four bracket, but no one can deny that the little we do also valid. You don’t have to be a star to be a hero.
People and their concerns I’ll keep saying this until I’m blue in the face- the EU is about ordinary people and their welfare. Every single decision taken, every directive, every project mooted and launched is directed at making EU citizens raise their lifestyle bar a notch higher. For all the criticism that is made- largely by Euro-sceptics - the EU’s overriding objective is to provide EU citizens with the tools and structures that effectively make his/her life better. In other words the collective political effort of 27 heads of state is meant to give all of us a greater fighting chance with which to face the future.
It saddens me therefore to meet people who, for want of more nimble diplomatic language, express their frustration believing the EU to have let them down. Let’s put our ducks in a row. This is not a question of people being unhappy with the island’s EU membership. Every poll marks the Maltese as overwhelmingly supportive of the island’s membership.
Neither is one here talking about the EU failing to come up to its stated objectives. The EU is there to promote the wellbeing of its citizens and goes to great lengths to achieve its goals. No organisation in the world rows its boat with greater vigour when it comes to fighting climate change. No one can possibly find fault with the swift way the EU sprung into action when banks began to collapse and factories started to shed jobs in their thousands as a result of the recent economic recession and the financial crisis.
But the truth remains this; there are people out there who for one reason or another feel the EU is not there for them. I met a few recently on our stand at the Trade Fair. Faced by their own particular problems they sound hopelessly lost and unprotected. Many feel EU membership has not made much of a difference to their lives.
Needles to say my colleagues and I tried our best to explain where EU responsibilities lie. For those who complain on taxation the explanation is simple. The EU does not impose taxation. This is the responsibility of the national Government. Whilst each Member State is obliged to introduce VAT as a basic method of collecting taxes on the sale of goods and services, it remains for the local government to decide what other taxation to charge. The EU remains watchful on how VAT is used - and wherever a government applies internal systems of taxation wrongly (e.g. by discriminating between certain goods or services) the EU insists on bad practices being swiftly eliminated. I don’t need to go into much detail here but everyone remembers the EU’s reaction to the local government’s imposition of VAT on the registration of second hand cars. The same situation developed when the Government charged a departure tax at the airport which the EU said was out of joint with its legislation.
In many cases people complain about their own personal problems. They are of course right to complain even though Brussels might not have a solution for their particular difficulties.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that a large number of people might not be properly informed of how EU membership works in the way of improving one’s life. There are, for example, instances - many I would imagine- where solutions are difficult to find unless one either goes to court or challenges the stand of national authorities or agencies on one issue or the other. In both cases our office provides free legal information and advice and I am forever inviting people to use this service.
On the other hand I too find it frustrating that on several issues - let’s take the environment as a much complained about example - much must still be done and beyond the usual round of tokenistic planting of trees.
Do we deserve to be hosed with diesel fumes from rickety old bangers that pass for public transport as we make our way to and from work each day? No we don’t.
Do we deserve better/smoother roads? We certainly do. It is something we talk a lot about and still complain about too.
Expectations are still not being fully met. And believe me, the expectations of Maltese citizens are higher than ever before, now that as EU citizens, we expect to get treated equally as our fellow EU citizens living in another part of the EU. Comparisons are odious they say, but as humans we cannot help making them, and the fact that we have our European citizenship drives us even more to make them. So if you are in the driving seat, you’d do well not to expect restraint from citizens on this front
The other day I had a meeting with some students doing some research on EU enlargement. They had a more substantive question in store for me. Do we, they asked, have the freedom of the press that guarantees minorities - or those that want to sound their views irrespective of what the main political players think - the same opportunities as those in the majority? Well I would say, I’d rather you answer that question for yourself.
I reckon the complaints I face from ordinary people have, in the main, nothing to do with the island’s EU membership. Much, I’m certain, concerns the way we traditionally have governed ourselves and the expectations people have about the way we should do that as an EU Member State. There is going to be a generation – sooner or later- that will, as sure as night follows day, find more ways of making the island’s EU membership more meaningful to the ordinary man in the street.