Gozo has a special place in my campaign as a candidate for the European Parliament election. I strive to dedicate a good part of my efforts to visit interest groups on the island, including a Question & Answer event tonight in Marsalforn, and process concerns with research with a view to finding European solutions.
Other MEP candidates are doing the same and rightly so, as Gozo has specific needs which should be brought to the fore with specific attention before we choose our representatives in Europe on May 25.
The Nationalist Party came forward with a game-changing idea for Gozo in recent weeks – a Regional Council elected by Gozitans to truly represent Gozitan aspirations.
To my mind, the main sticking point in Gozo is the lack of autonomy for Gozitans to give strategic direction to the Gozitan economy. The thing is that while EU funds are allocated to Gozo as part of Malta’s EU funding, the projects to be done and their modalities are not decided by Gozitans but by Castille.
We know how Castille tends to decide on Gozo. More than 800 precarious jobs were given at the last minute before the last election putting several Gozitan businesses on their knees while trebling the workforce in government services not needing reinforcement. A tale I heard while touring the island has it that at one particular beach, attendants were increased eight-fold, with the only original beach attendant now refusing to work. The result: a dirty beach.
Back to the PN proposal. The government reacted to our proposal for a representative Regional Council in Gozo through the words of Parliamentary Secretary Aaron Farrugia who retorted that “Gozo as a region would be unable to apply for EU funds”.
Is the Parliamentary Secretary correct?
First of all, we need to define EU funds. Malta’s traditional reading of EU funds relates to money allocated to Malta in the seven-year budgetary period which is then allocated by the government to specific projects. In technical jargon, we call these ‘country allocations’.
If we want to help Gozo to truly catch up with its European aspiration, we can. If we don’t, we just keep on shooting the messenger
We all remember the glorious return of Lawrence Gonzi from Brussels in 2013 with an allocation of €1.128 billion to be used between 2013 and 2019. That kind of money allocated to member states is not however all the EU budget. A good 30 per cent of the EU budget is not allocated to member states but managed centrally by the European Commission to assign to projects submitted directly by civil society, regional authorities, businesses or other entities for projects in the community from educational campaigns to research, innovation and business projects.
This factor alone proves the Parliamentary Secretary 30 per cent wrong. I do not blame him for side-lining this possibility, given that Malta has an abysmal record in tapping into direct funds. That alone points to one possible vocation of a Gozo Regional Council.
Secondly, the Parliamentary Secretary’s statement is based on a formalistic reading of EU funding criteria.
These indeed excluded the possibility of an island with a population of 31,000 to become a NUTS 2 region for EU funding purposes given that the threshold minimum population is of 800,000. Yes, you heard it.
The current threshold would exclude the whole of Malta itself from being a NUTS 2 region, but Malta negotiated an exception before accession. So did Spain with much smaller territories like Ceuta and Melilla that have a NUTS 2 status notwithstanding their population of around 80,000. This demonstrates that a NUTS 2 status would not be, in principle, out of reach for Gozo. The Parliamentary Secretary’s outright rejection of the PN proposal on the basis of EU funding is hence incorrect and rash to begin with.
Sometimes I feel that the sweeping pessimism of Alfred Sant prior to 2003 still pervades this Labour government when it comes to making the EU work for the Maltese people. We did not get into the EU because it was easy or effortless to make it work. We joined because we are convinced in the Maltese and Gozitans’ ability to make the EU work through commitment and constant adaptation.
That adaptation should be the main task of myself and any of my colleagues elected to an MEP seat on 25 May. The Parliamentary Secretary’s rash reaction betrays that this kind of European ethos has not infiltrated Labour deep enough to this very day.
Finally, I am not personally proposing to apply for NUTS 3 status for Gozo.
With that would come particular administrative handling burdens. We need not however capsize the whole government administrative structures to include a significant role for an autonomous Gozitan entity to have a direct say in EU funding.
It would suffice to include a future Gozitan Regional Council in the programmation of the Multiannual Financial Framework with a specific chapter on Gozo and to assign to a subsidiary body under its political guidance the role of handling EU funding for Gozo.
If we want to help Gozo to truly catch up to its European aspiration, we can.
If we don’t, we just keep on shooting the messenger with categorical statements.
Peter Agius is a Nationalist Party candidate for the European elections, former head of the European Parliament Office and cabinet member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece. Article published on Times of Malta here.