27 MARCH 2002

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The importance of being informed

He is entrusted with informing the Maltese public on the European Union but at the same time he dislikes politics. He is the Labour party’s favourite punching bag, even though he won’t tell people how to vote in a referendum. The head of the Malta-EU Information Centre, Simon Busuttil, found time in his busy schedule to talk to KURT SANSONE about the EU and related controversies.

It might come as a surprise, but Simon Busuttil, the director of the Malta-EU Information Centre, which is at the heart of the most sensitive and important political issue in Malta, dislikes partisan politics and it is unlikely we will see him enter the political arena.

"I had deliberately said no to politics and ironically I ended up in the most political of issues," he admits.

Over the last two years the sharp lawyer has crafted his own niche in the EU membership debate by virtue of his post at MIC.

And he is no pushover - Dr Busuttil is a firm believer in the right of every citizen to be informed and this belief had him complaining about the lack of resources MIC had. His complaints have not fallen on deaf ears and MIC’s budget for 2002 was trebled to Lm900,000.

"When the government allocated just over Lm300,000 I complained because if it was serious about informing the public it had to provide the necessary resources," he said. "I made it clear that if in 2002 the necessary resources were not going to be made available I would have had a problem. I could not be part of something that was not serious."

This year started off with a bang for MIC, with the Labour party accusing the Centre of jumping to correct a mistaken MLP advert while stopping short of correcting the Prime Minister when he spoke about the euro in December.

Dr Busuttil does not flinch. "The point of departure is that MIC does not correct everything and everybody all the time, otherwise we would end up correcting people most of our time.
"We decide to issue corrections or clarifications on a case by case basis, according to whether the mistake was alarming or not. Correcting people is the exception and not the rule."

Dr Busuttil then explains MIC’s correction of the Labour party advert that appeared in the daily newspaper l-Orizzont, which stated that EU citizens would have the right to buy ‘as much property they wanted’ in Malta.

"This was alarmingly wrong because the special arrangement reached with the EU had achieved exactly the opposite," Dr Busuttil insists.

Turning to the Prime Minister’s declaration that applicant countries were not obliged to adopt the euro, Dr Busuttil explains that the statement was made in the presence of the Opposition leader, who corrected Dr Fenech Adami there and then.

He continues, "We reacted to the PM’s statement one month later to explain why we had not issued a correction on the day."

Dr Busuttil delves into the euro issue and points out that although the Prime Minister might not have been correct the mistake was not alarming.

"Although officially every applicant country is expected to adopt the euro once it becomes a member there is a set of economic criteria that have to be met. There are no time-frames within which the new members would have to adopt the criteria. Sweden entered the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was ratified and so did not have any special opt-out status like the UK. However, Sweden failed itself in the economic criteria and thus remained out of the euro."

Dr Busuttil adds, "the Prime Minister might not have been precise but what he said was not alarmingly wrong because Sweden has effectively set an example."

I remark that his is a subjective judgement of the situation. But Dr Busuttil replies, "I agree, but we explained the objective reasons behind our decision."

I ask Dr Busuttil for his reaction to the continuous attacks levelled towards him and MIC from the Labour party but the lawyer is unfazed by the onslaught.

"I do not believe there is a personal agenda against me. The attack is against MIC as an institution irrespective of who occupies my post. I do not want to judge my own performance, I will leave that to the public."

The lawyer says that MIC has provided information to anybody who has requested it, including Labour MPs and CNI members.

"The information we provide is based on documentation and reports. For every piece of information we give out we can produce evidence and in the two years we have been operational we have never given wrong or incomplete information."

Dr Busuttil believes that the attack on MIC is an attack on the citizen’s right to be informed. "I personally believe that information is empowerment and taken within this context, the attack is against the empowerment of citizens."

As the final lap of negotiations in 2002 gradually takes shape, I ask Dr Busuttil to identify the key time-frames.

According to the EU expert, the first landmark will be achieved in the first half of this year when most of the negotiations will be concluded.

However, Dr Busuttil points out that although Malta is included among the 10 countries expected to end negotiations in 2002, it is the country that has closed the least number of chapters along with Poland and Estonia.

He insists, "Malta cannot take things for granted. When compared to other countries, Malta is the country that has dropped the least number of requests for special arrangements. Lithuania had originally requested a special arrangement on property but they have now dropped that request."

The next landmark date will be the conclusion of negotiations by year’s end, by when the remaining sticky issues such as agriculture and hunting would hopefully be resolved.

But a crucial question lingers in the air. If Ireland does not ratify the Nice Treaty, which provides the institutional framework for an enlarged EU, the process could be technically blocked.

Dr Busuttil admits that such a scenario will create a legal problem for enlargement. The Nice Treaty, like all other EU treaties, needs to be ratified by each and every EU member state.

Dr Busuttil points out that a number of EU legal experts argue that the Nice impasse can be by passed.

"In strict legal terms enlargement can go ahead because during the ratification processes with each applicant country the representation on EU institutions can be established," Dr Busuttil explains. But, he insists the political argument is stronger than the legal argument, and if Ireland does not ratify the Nice Treaty, enlargement is strictly blocked.

In such an eventuality, Dr Busuttil continues, the Amsterdam Treaty would have to apply, which would pose a difficulty because it only caters for five new EU members.

The question is inevitable. Will Malta be among those five?

"The EU issues its annual progress reports around October and November. Based on the reports issued in 2002 the EU will decide which five of the 10 countries are most suited to join the Union. Obviously, such a decision is not without its difficulties," Dr Busuttil stresses.

I query whether Malta’s internal division will pose a stumbling block for accession.

Dr Busuttil is frank. "There is some discomfort in the EU on Malta’s internal political division and the possible switch-on-switch-off effect this might have. But the lack of consensus is not a formal issue in preventing membership from going ahead. The EU cannot leave Malta out of the five most suited countries simply because the country lacks political consensus."

But is Brussels putting any pressure on the Maltese government to settle the issue once and for all through an election?

"When negotiations started in earnest in February 2000 Malta entered the Brussels ‘bureaucratic machine’. Once the process got going, the EU’s only intention was and still is, to prepare for Malta’s accession treaty," Dr Busuttil replies.

However, Dr Busuttil has a positive way of looking at the lack of consensus. "It could be of benefit for Malta’s negotiating stance because it could serve as an incentive for the EU to accept more willingly the special arrangements requested by the negotiating team," he says with a smile.

I veer the discussion toward the sensitive issue of hunting. Dr Busuttil remarks that government’s official position on hunting is still very vague.

"It simply states that Malta wants to apply the Birds Directive but at the same time it is conscious of the traditional status hunting enjoys on the island," he says.

Turning to the topical issue of subsidies for the Drydocks, Dr Busuttil explains that government is requesting a transition period until 2010. Until then the subsidy would be retained and reduced to acceptable levels.

Dr Busuttil insists that subsidies going to commercial companies such as the Drydocks should not be confused with subsidies for companies that offer a public service, such as Water Services Corporation and Enemalta.

"The EU states that a government can maintain a subsidy if it benefits consumers directly. Thus, Gozo Channel can be subsidised as long as the subsidy is reflected directly in rebates for Gozitans, for whom the ferry is a public service."

Dr Busuttil explains that even though the EU wants the energy sector to open up for competition, it does not mean that government cannot subsidise a private company. As long as the service offered is a public service and the subsidy benefits consumers directly then it is acceptable.

Inevitably the issue of Malta’s small size crops up. I compare Malta with Luxembourg but Dr Busuttil has his reservations. He explains.

"Despite forming part of the European Union for more than 50 years, Luxembourg has not lost its identity. Today, it is the richest country in the Union with a GDP almost double the EU average. Whenever Luxembourg held the EU rotating presidency major treaties were drafted, such as Maastricht and Amsterdam. The presidency put a strain on their resources but they always managed to uphold a good reputation."

But, the landlocked tiny country nuzzled in the middle of the European continent is too economically and politically far ahead of Malta. "Beyond the issue of size there is little comparison between the two countries," Dr Busuttil stresses.

He prefers to draw parallels with Ireland. "Ireland manifests an insular island mentality, is a strong Catholic country and neutral. These are characteristics, which are similar to the Maltese context. But I must stress that each country has its own specific scenario."

The issue of values crops up but Dr Busuttil is frank. "The influence on our values from EU membership is no bigger than the influence tourists have on our culture."

He then explains that divorce, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and similar issues are regulated by the individual member states.

"Ireland has been in the EU for 30 years and abortion is not yet legal. Maintaining our values is a national issue unrelated to the EU. But it must be made clear that membership poses no legal obligation on Malta to introduce divorce, abortion and similar sensitive legislation."

I return to the bread and butter issues, which will have an impact on people’s pockets. According to current EU legislation the price of sugar in Malta would have to go up thus creating a ripple effect on the price of other foodstuffs.

Dr Busuttil explains that the government is trying to negotiate a special arrangement by which the EU levy is removed or reduced. But the reality test comes in. How possible is it for government to negotiate a special agreement on such a crucial issue?

Dr Busuttil answers, "As real as Malta’s request for a special agreement on the purchase of property."

One of the most difficult chapters yet to be concluded is agriculture, but for Dr Busuttil the difficulty is more of an internal one. He insists, "Agriculture has not been considered an important sector locally and with the EU this priority needs to be established."

Dr Busuttil admits that EU agricultural laws can present disadvantages for the local farming community, possibly even putting them out of business. But, he adds, consumers will also benefit from reduced prices. The lawyer argues that a general overhaul needs to be undertaken to take stock of the situation.

MIC conducts a number of regular surveys to gauge the level of information people have on the EU.

The Centre also asks people how they would vote in a referendum but Dr Busuttil is careful not to show his cards. He only says that the surveys conducted by MIC have shown similar trends to other surveys.

But he cannot help proudly reveal that in the latest survey, almost 80 per cent of the population indicated that they knew what MIC was all about. "I think it is a good measure of our success," he concludes with a broad smile on his face.

This interview appeared in our sister paper, MaltaToday, in February



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
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