22 JANUARY 2003
By Kurt Sansone
The parallel debates on Xarabank and Robin Hood on Friday, the Labour Partys mass meeting and the Prime Ministers speech in Siggiewi on Sunday leave no doubt that we have now moved up a gear into full campaign mode.
EU membership is the main electoral focus and a number of arguments and issues are being used to prop up the respective political campaigns.
Among the arguments raised, the one that stands out most is that concerning jobs.
The Prime Minister kick started the jobs debate-when he declared that he knew of companies that would leave Malta if EU membership was not achieved.
Dr Fenech Adami would not, however reveal the companies names and, when pressed on the issue, said all export-oriented companies would reconsider their position in Malta if the country chose to stay out of the EU. European owned companies number about 200 and employ approximately 11,000 people in Malta.
The debate was further fuelled by a high official from STMicroelectronics, who was in Malta last week to address the Federation of Industry. During a straightforward presentation ST Finance Director Santo Portera said it will be beneficial for business if Malta joins the Eurozone If the country chooses to remain out, industrialists can go on a long vacation, Mr Portera concluded. Officials at the ST Malta plant later shot down the statement stating by that the companies main working currency was the US Dollar, not the Euro.
The rhythm continued on Sunday when Alfred Sant specifically identified a number of Maltese producers and prompted workers in these companies to ask their bosses about the impact of EU membership. The underlying implication was that workers employed with Coca Cola, Magro Food Processors, Marsovin, Delicata, Malta Ship Building, Malta Drydocks, Master Wine, MP Clothing and Andrews Feeds, would have their job threatened by EU membership.
Dr Sants argument was rebutted by the directors of the companies in question two days later. They told The Times that they were well geared for EU membership.
Both the leaders of our large political parties are suggesting that jobs will be lost. The EU debate is now focusing on bread and butter arguments. It is perhaps only surprising that the great debate did not start earlier.
For an electorate is consistently hounded by fear about jobs before every election, the trend is nothing out of the normal. Perhaps the only difference is that Dr Sant has now chosen to name the companies, a strategy aimed at getting the message across to the audience it is intended for.
Export oriented companies will probably benefit from EU membership with a market of 500 million people. On the other hand those, producing for the Maltese market will find the going tough because of increased competition from imported products in the free trade zone.
History shows that every EU member state has experienced a flow of investment leading to greater prosperity. But this can only be achieved if industry is geared up for competition by producing better quality goods and increasing efficiency.
The crux of the jobs argument is whether industry in Malta is ready to take on the challenge of membership. Judging by the arguments floated by both the Prime Minister and Alfred Sant, there may be companies, which are not ready. However, that begs the question: will these companies ever be ready or are they comfortable in a protected environment that ultimately puts consumers at a disadvantage?
We may be seeing a prolongation of the jobs argument in the weeks to come. It is the perfect strategy to instil fear. Only one thing is certain: no company is likely to publicly admit that it is not prepared for membership or, for that matter, that it will seek pastures abroad if the country stays out.