'Malta would like more help with immigration'

Peter G. Xuereb.
By Kees Versteegh for NRC International

Professor Peter Xuereb heads the department of European and comparative law at the University of Malta. He wrote a number of books on European law and EU-issues.

In the run-up to the European elections, what issues are being debated at Malta? Are they national, or European?

Peter Xuereb: "The election issues are first local, and then national. Sometimes such issues overlap with the broader European agenda. Mostly, the campaign is about the credibility of our national government and of our representatives in Brussels, whether they have done enough to put pressure on the European institutions to help Malta cope with its immigration problems.

"The migration issue has been a hot topic for a couple of years now, ever since waves of illegal immigrants started arriving form the North African coast in boats. One of the main questions has been what the solidarity of our European partners will mean in practice, and whether they will understand the particular problems we face. We don't really have the people to perform all legal procedures necessary, and we don't want to keep immigrants in inadequate humane conditions. Their influx has put enormous pressure on our resources.

"The universal feeling here is that the EU should be of help, both financially and in pressing other member states to share the burden by housing these immigrants. EU commission president [José Manuel] Barroso and commissioner [for justice Jacques] Barrot is expected to unveil a new plan in the coming weeks asking for concrete solidarity from new states in sharing the burden of illegal migration. This has led to questions from Maltese members of parliament of the ruling Nationalist Party, for instance, whether the plan is not too late, and whether the measures will be effective enough."

A key issue in European politics is market ideology, especially with the financial crisis. In Malta, is there debate about whether the market ideology of Brussels needs te be amended?

"It was an issue in the referendum about our possible membership in 2004, but not anymore now. Our state has a mix of economic liberalism and - sometimes rather costly - social provisions. The current financial meltdown hasn't influenced the choice for this mixed model so far. Our banks weren't affected that much by the crisis. The Labour party here claims that because Malta has not followed the dominant neoliberalistic course, which led to the extremes of capitalism as seen in some parts of the European mainland, Malta isn't in too much trouble right now. We never took a Thatcherite approach in our economic politics. Maybe because of this there isn't a sharp debate about market ideology. There is some discussion about whether our membership of the eurozone had cushioned the crisis or not, but this is a debate among experts, not at the popular level."

Another key-issue is euroscepticism. What is the general attitude in Malta towards the European Union?

"There is only limited euroscepticism in Malta, with some smaller parties. The two big parties are both trying to evade the accusation of being eurosceptic. The ruling nationalist party, for instance, tries to write off the Labour party as being eurosceptical because the Labour party campaigned against entry into the EU in 2004. But the Labour party lost this referendum campaign and in the general elections following the referendum the party reviewed its European position. Labour elected a new leader, and he took pains to develop a much more pro-European stance for the party as a whole. The nationalists, however, continue to remind the electorate that they were always in favour of membership, and that this has not been the case with the Labour party. The nationalist party claims to have an advantage over the Labour party on this issue.

"There may be some general euroscepticism, again on the question of immigration. There is a feeling that the European Union could have moved faster, could have offered more solidarity to Malta. At the same time we realise that everyone in Europe has its own problems with the financial meltdown and all. But still, the lack of European action on the migration issue has been a bit of a negative experience in the mind of most Maltese. How this will affect the outcome of the European elections here is not clear. Perhaps it will be translated in a lower turn-out. We usually have elections with a 90 percent turn-out. Now a lower percentage is expected, somewhere in the neighbourhood of eighty percent, or even slightly below that."

How would voters in Malta like the EU to develop? Would they support a joint foreign policy?

"In all areas, whether it is social, foreign, defence, or cultural, Maltese would like to see more coherence, more solidarity, more democracy, and especially also more consultation with the different member states. We want to be sure that the EU is really listening, that it respects the specific traits of civil society of a particular nation. This is especially important for us as a still predominantly Catholic nation. So far we haven't been challenged by Brussels on abortion or gay rights, so that most Maltese don't see Brussels as a threat so far, which is good. It can't be expected that all Europeans have the same sets of values in these cultural fields.

"Apart from this we want to make the world a more stable place, politically, financially, and militarily, especially in the Mediterranean area and in the Middle East. This requires more active, concerted action of the EU on the world stage, to make its benevolent influence grow."

Any anecdotes in the campaign for the European elections in Malta?

"Without any claim of it being an indication of the spirit of the campaign, I can refer to the Eurovision song contest, held recently. Malta came in 22nd. It had nothing to do with the European Union of course, but there were comments on the radio saying: 'Well, if Europe treats us this way, maybe we should pull out of the EU.'"

Malta, year of EU entry, 2004

Political system: parliamentary republic

Population: 400.000

Currency: euro

Capital city: Valletta

Total area: 246 km²

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