20 NOVEMBER 2002
According to European Parliament President Pat Cox the position adopted by the European Commission in January on the financial package for accession countries will have to stand, albeit with little room for maneouvre. Here he talks to KURT SANSONE during the special EU parliamentary session on enlargement held in Strasbourg, which comes to an end later on today
Strasbourg - The question of size and voting power is a big issue in Malta but when I meet European Parliament President Pat Cox he just smiles at the concern. In his mind the question of size is irrelevant.
"Don´t let size get to your head," Mr Cox responds. And in an unravelled tone he insists: "I´m from Ireland a country that only holds 15 seats in the Parliament and yet you are interviewing the President of the European Parliament."
His message is simple. Ultimately it will depend on the ability of Maltese politicians and MPs to craft out a meaningful contribution for the country.
I meet Pat Cox, along with other Maltese journalists at his office in the Strasbourg building. He recalls vividly his visit to the Island several months ago and when asked about the political climate, which makes Malta one of the most Euroskeptic accession countries, he reiterates the message delivered to the Maltese Parliament: "The EU respects political plurality but at the end of the day you have to decide. You must choose, you've got to call your judgement. It is absolutely up to you to decide whether you want to join the EU or not."
And as if to stress his conviction he underlines the word 'absolutely' twice.
Mr Cox's native country, Ireland, is the only other country along with the UK to retaine VAT zero rating on food and medicine. I ask him for his views on Malta's request to retain its zero rating on medicine and food but he diplomatically brushes the argument aside.
"It is not my function to negotiate the details of accession but I can understand that Malta chooses to cite examples, one of which is my country, to strengthen its case. But we must keep in mind that on the issue of monetary union the EU is not offering accession countries an a la carte menu despite the existence of specific examples."
He seems to suggest that Malta's quest for retaining the VAT zero rating is next to impossible.
Given the Labour Party's stand against EU membership, the likes of MPs Chris Cardona, Jose Herrera and Carmelo Abela rubbing shoulders with fellow Socialist Euro-MPs was an interesting development. The Labour MPs insist that their presence in Strasbourg is to relay the party's partnership option to the European family.
For Pat Cox their presence is a reflection of Malta's complexity. "I don't want to make any interpretation on the participation of the Labour MPs in this summit but the Opposition is welcome here. It gives us all a chance to express our views and concerns. It is a reflection of Malta's complexity," he says.
And on the financial package Mr Cox does a balancing act without committing himself.
"When the Commission presented its position on the financial allocation for accession countries we had two reactions; the member states said it was too much, while the candidate countries said it was too few. Parliament believes that what the Commission proposed is about right. The final solution has to be based on the Commission's suggestion with a margin of maneouvre."
However, he encourages accession countries to wait for the final outcome in Copenhagen in three weeks' time. The summit will provide the missing answers.
One final note on the Strasbourg special session. Pat Cox is adamant that it is not a premature celebration for accession countries. For him it is an opportunity for politicians to wrest the accession debate fro, the hands of experts.
"Until now negotiations and the whole debate have been in the hands of experts. Our moment as parliamentarians has come to take the debate to the people. This special session gives us a chance to exchange views and hear mutual concerns. It is a prelude of the diversity that will characterise the European Parliament in a few months' time," he concludes, evidently proud that his promise to hold such a session has been fulfilled.