By James Debono
Answering questions put forward by The Malta Financial and Business Times, MLP leader Dr Alfred Sant expressed his agreement with the government in ruling out a referendum of the EU constitution.
“I do not agree with referenda in general. Referenda tend to be manipulative instruments in the hands of those in power,” Alfred Sant declared at a press conference in which the MLP has presented three signed documents that are to serve as the basis for the discussion in the party on the ratification of the EU constitutional treaty.
Although the documents were prepared by protagonists of the opposition party’s campaign against EU membership such as Dr George Vella and Dr Joe Brincat, none of these documents put any constitutional barriers on an eventual approval of the constitution by the MLP.
According to Alfred Sant himself “the gist of these documents” is contrary to statements made by Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in this regard. During the press conference Dr Sant made it clear that the debate on EU membership had been resolved by the result of the 2003 general election. Alfred Sant refrained from expressing his personal opinion on whether the party should vote in favour of the EU constitution. “The Party’s leadership will allow a few weeks of open debate within the party before expressing itself on this matter.”
In spite of Sant’s antipathy towards referenda, the party will be closely following referenda in other countries like France. Asked by this newspaper whether the MLP’s discussion will be conditioned by the results of a referendum in France on 29 May Alfred Sant declared that one of the reasons why the Party did not rush in to declaring its position was that it wanted to follow the ratification debate in other countries like France. One of the reports prepared by Edward Zammit Lewis points out that “opinion polls in France are shifting towards a ‘No’ vote”.
Following Prime Minister Dr Lawrence Gonzi’s recognition of the existence of currents in the Nationalist Party in an interview in the local media, Alfred Sant did not rule out the emergence of currents reflecting the different opinions on the EU constitution within the MLP. Answering another question by this newspaper Sant declared: “All European parties have internal currents. It is only natural to have different currents in political parties.” The recognition that political parties are not homogenous entities by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the same week heralds an era characterised by greater inner party pluralism and debate within Maltese political parties. Dr. Alfred Sant insisted that even the likes of KMB would have the full liberty to express their views in the matter.
The fact that the two main documents, one on the legal implications of adopting the constitution and another on the political aspect, were drawn up by protagonists of the party’s ‘No’ camp in the pre referendum and election debate would make it easier for the party faithful to accept an eventual approval of the constitution in the forthcoming general conference.
In fact these two reports pave the way for an eventual qualified approval of the EU constitution by Labour MPs. In fact when asked on the options facing the MLP’s parliamentary group Sant declared that the MLP could either vote yes, no, abstain or “approve while expressing certain reservations.” In its conclusion George Vella’s report states “A negative vote will put serious doubts on the party’s credibility especially when considering that the party committed itself to respect the popular will after the last general election.” The Vella report is very blunt in pointing out the disastrous consequences of negative vote on the EU constitution. “A no vote might be welcomed by some of the party’s die-hards but it will not go down well with pro EU Labourites and with floating voters” Vella also warned that a no vote will have a negative impact on the party’s international credibility. Gone are the days when the party associated itself with the likes of the UK Independence Party and Jens Peter Bonde’s June Movement. The Vella report warns that “if we vote no for the constitution the MLP be associated with extremist parties in Europe”. The Vella report paves the way for appeasing the EU critical wing in the MLP. In his report Vella expresses several reservations on the constitutional treaty but according to the same report the party could still vote yes while expressing these reservations. “If these reservations are not cleared after the documents are studied by the party, these reservations should be clearly stated in parliament even if the party opts to vote in favour of the ratification of the treaty”. The report prepared by Dr Joe Brincat and Dr Pawlu Lia clearly states that “the adoption of the EU constitutional treaty will not be in breach of the Maltese constitution.”
Joe Brincat’s view contrasts with Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s declaration that if Labour MPs would vote in favour of the EU constitution, they would be “betraying the oath they have taken to remain loyal to the Maltese constitution”.