20 - 26 December 2000

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Two hundred years of friendship

Relations between Malta and Britain have always been strong, but what should we be doing to keep them so? British High Commissioner, Howard Pearce, speaks to MIRIAM DUNN on this and other issues

Howard Pearce
Howard Pearce
Relations between Malta and the UK have always been good on many levels, but do you think there are areas where these can still be improved?

Since I arrived here 16 months ago, I’ve been struck by how close the relationship between Britain and Malta is.
There’s a vast amount going on at so many levels, whether it concerns tourism, politics, trade, historical or family connections, which is very positive. But we should never take any of this for granted; it needs to be worked at and there’s always more that one can do.
This was partly why we wanted to hold the recent ‘Celebrating Britain’ event. The underlying idea was to show the importance that we attach to the relationship between Malta and Britain.
It seemed a good year to make this statement, being the 200th anniversary since the formal relationship between the two countries was formed.
We purposefully decided to cover a wide range of events, which helped to show that the relationship operates at many levels and in a number of areas.
Some of the ventures, such as the exhibition of modern sculpture at the St James Cavalier and the concerts of 20th century music, were also aimed at showing Britain as it is today - a vibrant, energetic country where lots of interesting things are happening.
I also believe that it is important for us to think about the nature of the relationship between the young generations in Malta and the UK.
We must remember that although there may well be a sense of familiarity among their parents’ generation, we cannot make the same assumption about the younger age groups.
Since this is important, both in terms of the way young people in Malta see the UK and also in terms of bringing tourists to Malta, we should be not only thinking, but doing something about developing the relationship between the younger generation.
After all, young people may not look at Malta as a natural place to come on holiday in the way their parents might.

Are you concerned that incoming tourism to Malta from the UK is on the decline?

Although there has been a drop in incoming tourism from the UK, I think the British market continues to be very important to Malta. Part of the problem is that tourism in the UK has become very competitive. There are numerous cheap packages available that can take you to long-haul destinations and Malta is competing in that market - a problem which I know is recognised by the Malta Tourism Authority.
I believe a lot of work needs to be done on how Malta’s tourism product is marketed, especially what part of the market they’re aiming for.
Some thought should also be given to whether Malta could be marketed better as a destination of cultural interest, rather than just a package holiday resort, bearing in mind the wealth of history here.
This is one issue which needs a lot of work if it is to be addressed. Another major topic is, I believe, the quality of the environment.

You have now been British High Commissioner to Malta for 16 months. Have your perceptions of the island changed since your arrival here?

I must confess that when I first came here, I wondered if I’d find Malta a bit claustrophobic because it is such a small island.
My concern proved to be unfounded, I think, partly because I have been so busy since arriving here, but also because although the Maltese Islands are small, there is a tremendous amount going on in this small space.
I have come to the conclusion that Malta has all the characteristics and all the economic, cultural and regional variations of a much bigger country.
One of the notable events was the President of Malta, Professor Guido de Marco’s visit to the UK.
The programme was a packed and varied one. President de Marco met with a number of key people, including Robin Cook, the Lord Chancellor and Keith Vaz.
He also gave a speech at the Royal Institute of National Affairs about Malta and the Mediterranean, which was full of ideas and substance.

Turning to the European Union, how do you react to the line of argument that the EU is more interested in the Eastern bloc applicant countries than Malta and Cyprus?

I don’t really agree with this line of thought.
There’s no doubt that enlargement is primarily about the consolidation of change in the Eastern bloc and it is this shift which has prompted the EU to respond positively to the applications by the Central and Easter European countries.
But that doesn’t mean that Malta and Cyprus are being treated as second class citizens.
Clearly the two Mediterranean countries have a different background. But the applicant countries have some common ground in terms of the preparation they have to undertake for membership.
Malta has certain advantages in this respect in many ways; it starts from a position which is much closer to the EU in that it has a well-established democratic system, and an economy that has been operating in the Western free market system.

And do you think Malta is on target to enter the EU in the first wave of new applicants?

Yes, I think that this is perfectly possible. Obviously it will depend upon the process of change, reform and restructuring, but if things continue at the current pace, then I think that Malta has every chance of entering in the next wave.

Do you view the lack of political consensus in Malta on EU membership as a problem?

Admittedly, the lack of political consensus in Malta on EU membership is something that I think causes some concern within the EU, in particular to the continental Europeans.
But I come from a country where political consensus is not always present on certain issues, including EU membership, which has long been a controversial subject, so I don’t think it behoves me to speak about the need for consensus.
Perhaps, however, it helps to provide some empathy between the two countries; I believe Britain understands the kind of fairly confrontational politics which are characteristic of Malta..
Clearly there will need to be a decision on EU membership - one can’t go through the kind of yo-yo process that Malta has been going through over the last few years - but the referendum is already in the pipeline in this respect.
That having been said, once Malta and the Maltese people make a clear decision, then I think the EU will respect it and if Malta is ready for entry, then it should be on target to participate in the next enlargement.

How do you rate Malta’s progress so far in terms of preparation for membership?

I think there has been very good progress in terms of the transposition of the Acquis and the introduction into Maltese law of EU legislation. A number of chapters are now provisionally closed and others are under negotiation, so things are moving well.
In economic terms, Malta is already familiar with the free market economy, so that it a bonus.
Admittedly, the Maltese economy as a whole needs to go through a process of restructuring which has already happened in some member countries, specifically the UK, and having witnessed these changes firsthand, I almost have a sense of ‘deja-vu’.
The changes Britain had to go through during the 1980s were, admittedly, uncomfortable ones, but ones from which the UK has emerged with a much, much stronger economy. We’re now in a situation where we have strong growth, low inflation and now also relatively low unemployment.
If you ask me whether Malta can learn any lessons from Britain’s experience, my personal view is that there’s no simple shortcut to avoiding the pain.
There is a difficult period which has to be endured if one is to reap the long-term benefits and it is always worth remembering that if these issues are not dealt with, then ultimately the consequences will follow.
It seems in Malta there are some things that are not sustainable in the long term, such as heavy government subsidies, but I think it’s important to remember that these are not sustainable anyway.
In the same way, we should bear in mind that many of the changes which need to take place in order to make Malta competitive in the world economy have to me made regardless of whether or not Malta joins the EU.
Unfortunately, I think the EU debate has somewhat clouded this distinction. There seems to be a consensus among the politicians on many of the changes that need to be made, but these issues appear to have now become enmeshed in the debate about EU membership.
I think that this is unhelpful, both in terms of addressing the process of change and in addressing the issue of whether Malta should or should not join the EU.

Both the anti-euro voice in Britain and the CNI in Malta seem to be making their voices heard louder than their opposites. Do you see any parallels between the planned referendum in the UK on the euro and the planned referendum in Malta on the EU?

I think there’s a parallel in that it’s always easier to make the case against than it is to make the case for.
This is because the case against is founded, at least in part, on gut issues, like sovereignty and national independence. It is actually a little bit more difficult to base the case in favour on gut issues, be it EU membership or the euro.
I think that joining the euro even more than joining the EU is caught up in a lot of arguments that are difficult and technical, especially for the average man in the street.
The arguments for joining the euro in the UK are based on the current British government’s view that membership of the euro in principle is in Britain’s interest as long as a number of important economic criteria and conditions are met.
The government has indicated that it will be at the right time and there will be a referendum, which is a very rare event in the UK.
We should remember, however, that the countries in the next enlargement will be joining on the basis that in due course they will participate in the euro and will not have the "luxury" of decision-making that the UK has.
What are your views on the current conflict in the Middle East and should Britain be exerting more pressure in a bid to bring an end to the violence?

I believe that the key point in the Middle East crisis is to get the peace process back on track.
There isn’t going to be peace in the Middle East unless one can get all the parties involved back round the table to address the issues and to find a resolution.
The US has a key role to play here, although it is inevitable that America is looking closer to home at present in the wake of the drawn-out Presidential elections.
But this has been a temporary phenomenon and it is clearly important that the new President should address this issue at a very early stage.
Although the UK knows the Middle East well, traditionally and historically, I believe our role now is primarily with our European counterparts to encourage and put pressure on the sides to come together and put an end to the violence.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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