On Monday I was eagerly following Professor Scicluna’s speech, awaiting innovative Government proposals helping our SMEs to tap into EU opportunities. I was hoping that the Government would respond to the global digital revolution and propose ways to assist our smaller businesses in Malta to go digital faster. After all, the European Commission just announced a special fund of a whopping 9 billion euros precisely to help businesses reap the benefits of digitalisation.
I was disappointed. The proposed budget does not rise up the challenge of small businesses in Malta, facing an increasingly digitalised world and the natural market hurdles inherent in an island economy. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing outrageous in the budget per se (short of a money laundering sub-heading without a governance heading). It is rather what is not there which gets me worried. I see this budget as a series of schemes and mini measures carefully designed to please this or that other sector, but without an overall strategy for Maltese business to move forward.
As one business owner told me in a chat just after the Minister’s speech, when it comes to business this budget is a ‘A little pepper here and a little pepper there, but where is the steak?’. I had to be honest with the gentleman, there is no steak my friend. Short of two measures to help family businesses with the transfer of ownership to the next generations and the reported progress on the Maltese investment Bank, the budget speech leaves Maltese businesses waiting for more.
Let us take a closer look to demonstrate my argument. One good thing about this budget is the formalisation of Government efforts to turn Malta into a blockchain island. Blockchain technology is indeed an important vector for development of our services industry and the Nationalist Party has and will be promoting its development in Malta. The annual budgetary excercise was however an opportunity to put this development at the service of our Maltese businesses, opening blockchain potential to smaller businesses to consider for their business or marketing operations. Instead, the government’s approach is limited to attracting the investment of foreign companies into Malta and the promotion of blockchain abroad through the new initiative techMT. This is all well and good, but where’s the share of Maltese businesses in that?
Same thing goes for the promotion of start-ups. The government announced an interesting start-up Visa to attract foreign investment by promising foreign start-ups. Thumbs up for this, but how about the Maltese start-ups? How long shall they tolerate seeing foreign owned investment being boosted with reverse discrimination at their expense before they pack their bags and hear to London, Paris or Frankfurt?
This is the reality of Maltese entrepreneurs I encountered in the last months since I am campaigning for the MEP elections. We have loads of local talent in the services industry and in manufacturing. A good chunk of the people I am meeting are however telling me stories of how they feel emarginated or discouraged in their own country. This blockchain island cannot forget its children in its effort to open to the world. We can do both, and both efficiently.
Maltese businesses voted overwhelmingly for EU accession. They sensed that membership in a 500 million strong consumer market was their natural guarantee. In some regards the promise did not deliver up to expectation. Too few of our companies have extended operations abroad. We can do much better in this regard, and EU tools are there to be exploited to this effect.
In some cases we are risking putting a bad name to the EU, as in the case of the recently introduced GDPR. I met shop owners who have not sent a promotional email fearing hefty fines for breaches of data privacy. Government saw the new rules coming for the last 3 years in Brussels. It failed to raise awareness of their application in Malta.
Our businesses deserve better. They, and not government, are after all the most important driver of employment and prosperity on these blessed islands.