A six-man delegation from the Committee Against the Recycling Plant As Proposed, recently held a number of meetings at the European Parliament, which was holding its monthly plenary session in Strasbourg, France between the 13th and 14th March.
The delegation was composed of committee chairman and Fgura mayor Darren Marmara, Gudja mayor John Mary Calleja, Dr Owen Bonnici – Marsascala vice-mayor serving as legal counsel, Joe Sant – secretary, Steve Borg – coordinator, and Paul Cutajar – assistant secretary.
The purpose of our visit was manifold, but primarily focused on the whole process of the project, the new recycling plant site selection process, and a blocked MEPA auditor’s report on the project. This report was blocked following MEPA’s complaint to the Maltese ombudsman asking him to block it as it would jeopardize their position in respect of the pending appeal on the outline permission. The European Union is, through its Cohesion Fund, allocating e17 million for better waste management in Malta. “Is the committee against the recycling concept?” we were asked. Definitely not. Some of us have even been advocating the “three Rs” concept – reduce, reuse and recycle – well before the government first mentioned the term.
We were still in Strasbourg when we heard that NET TV news had reported our visit as being a total disaster, resulting in one measly meeting on 14 March which only two committee members attended. “Disfatta kbira fil-Parlament Ewropew”. Goodness, gracious me. All this calls for some clarifications.
If the NET media personnel were aware of all our previous meetings is unclear and irrelevant to us. However, it is pertinent to point out that our delegation had already met, briefed and discussed issues with several Environment, Public Health & Food Safety (ENVI) committee members prior to the 14th March meeting, so there was no need to meet the same delegates again.
In actual fact, we attended 10 meetings, with the leading environmental exponents from all major political parties represented in the European Parliament, which included the Liberal Democrats, the Socialist Group, the Greens, the Independent Democrats, the Euro Democrats and the European People’s Party. Disfatta kbira n-nanna.
Our committee had begun drawing up a request list of delegates it wanted to meet a few hours after the shameful “full development permit” issued by MEPA at Christmastime. This was surprisingly planned by MEPA, you may recall, to coincide with the same moment our committee was meeting EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas in Brussels. The Independent Democrats, through our initiative, issued the invites.
We worked incessantly to have these meetings coordinated with Ms Sharon Ellul Bonici, the secretary general of the EU Democrats – a European Party. Full credit must be given to her as it was due to her industrious endeavours and skills in ensuring that ample time was given for us to air our opinions, qualms and dissent. It was also a pleasure to note the respect she enjoys with European Parliament personnel, irrespective of their political beliefs and convictions, or if they were committed pan-Europeans, federalists, reformists or euro-sceptics.
During all these meetings, our committee gave multimedia presentations, made interventions during sessions and also distributed a number of documents in relation to the flawed and mocked site selection process, the MEPA “public consultation meetings”, the absolved Appeals Board that was discussing the “outline development”, biodiversity protection, ecological restoration, water pollution, EIAs and many other matters.
The overwhelming reaction from MEPS and other officials we met was considerable awe about the whole “planning” process in Malta, and the obligatory transparency and fairness. At times they could not distinguish the different roles played by WasteServ, MEPA and the Minister of Environment. Was MEPA the applicant? Has the ombudsman the right to investigate complaints by MEPA? Who was protecting the rights of civil society? Was WasteServ part of MEPA?
They were also perplexed that the MEPA board chose to approve an application without asking one single question during the deliberation. Where there cases of conflict of interest? Is Malta aware of EU directives, recommendations, initiatives and conventions? Or will Malta need to be given a lesson on how to make us of EU funds when conducting an environmental project?
Our first meeting was with British Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrats coordinator for the environment on the ENVI committee. Elected from the northwest of England, Mr Davies is not on the Malta ballot vote and the Liberal Party has as yet to contest elections in our country. Yet he received us as warmly as if we were his very own constituents. That is how politics should be done. We discussed our major concerns and he immediately wrote that same evening to Stavros Dimas expressing his concerns about the blocked MEPA auditor’s report saying that this should be part of the ongoing investigation of the whole process.
Our committee was also handed a letter dated 13th March, sent by Maltese MEP David Casa to ENVI members. In it Mr Casa described our reaction to the process of demolition and re-construction of the new recycling plants at Sant Antnin valley as “being besieged with indiscriminate manoeuvring by faction groups to disrupt the whole exercise”.
Surprisingly, it is only Mr Casa from the five Maltese MEPs who has never acknowledged not even one invite from the several that our committee has sent for meetings to discuss the issue at stake. And yet, despite all this, he seems to be the most informed on the matter. If he terms the Marsascala non-government organisations as “faction groups” then we pity the way he perceives civil society, considering that these are made up of people from all walks of life and diverse political opinions. His party knows all this.
Perhaps he is happy that the alternative site boundaries provided were too small from the very beginning and that the survey on the recycling plant’s impact, as stipulated by MEPA’s terms of reference, was conducted by telephone with 38 residents. Or that we were presented with inconclusive cut and paste reports described as “ivvizjati” in a public consultation process termed as “vroma.”
Other meetings were held with Green Party and ENVI vice-chairwoman Ms Satu Hassi, former Finnish Minister for the Environment and another Finn, Ms Terhi Lehtonen, the environment adviser to the Greens in the European Parliament. This was an intense 75-minute meeting during which many issues were discussed. A meeting was also held in Italian with Guido Sacconi, coordinator for the Socialist Group on the ENVI committee. Suffice to note that the PES, with 218 seats, is the second largest group in the European Parliament.
Maltese Labour MEP Dr John Attard Montalto warmly welcomed us to his bureau and a very explanatory meeting has already resulted in his address to the EU Parliament in session in Brussels on Thursday 29 March, when he raised the issue at stake.
Several meetings were held with Dr Johannes Blokland, of the Ind. Dem Group. He has been demonised by unjust criticism in the pro-government Maltese media. They seem uninterested to note that he is the vice-chairman of the ENVI committee and that he is elected on the ticket of the Dutch Christian Unity-SGP party. Dr Blokland is a role model on how aspiring politicians should behave, cherishing his dignity, his environmental expertise and credentials.
The pro-government media has been stressing, day after day, that British Conservative MEP Dr Caroline Jackson lambasted our delegation during the ENVI meeting of 14th March. This was unethical and unfair reporting considering that Dr Jackson, stating that she was aware of Maltese politics, also took it as her task to declare that she would be writing to EU Environment Commissioner Dimas on the several issues discussed. They also chose to censure several other observations she made. Being on the receiving end of many of her questions, some of which we have also heard in Malta, I can say that she was, as observers describe her, firm but fair. The least that the same Maltese media that abused her name so freely can do is to offer her an apology.
We also had an impromptu and informal meeting with Commissioner Stavros Dimas himself during a reception organised by the La Spezia council celebrating the country products of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. It was a short, but informative, encounter during which we handed Dr Dimas a number of relevant documents pertaining to our case.
It is definitely not our committee’s pleasure to be battling this issue, since we would rather be spending quality time with our families or enjoying our pastimes. But having our objections and basic human rights bulldozed by the local authorities has left our committee no option but to fight the situation tooth and nail. We already have other offers to visit the European Parliament for further meetings in the near future.
It is also ironical to observe that it had to be this controversial recycling plant saga that has galvanised the Marsascala community and strengthened the relations and cooperation of the neighbouring towns in southern Malta. We have the will, the courage and the spirit to prevail in this unfair saga that internal MEPA documents declare the choice of Sant Antnin as “a foregone conclusion”.
Let the Marsascala delegation initiative to visit the European Parliament in order to defend the citizens’ rights of the affected seven localities serve as a catalyst to other Maltese communities, minority or pressure groups, who think that their entrenched human rights are being stifled by a system that aims to quash anyone who does not bow his head to pressure. May we encourage others to follow our example and be a message to everyone to start thinking and treating everyone as European Union citizens. May this also serve as a reminder for everyone to remember not to consider the long-suffering southerners as also-rans but to respect them justly and fairly as other fellow Maltese.