The Malta Independent 14 November 2018, Wednesday

'I have a lot left to contribute' - Alfred Sant

Malta Independent Monday, 29 July 2013, 11:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Former Prime Minister and Labour leader Alfred Sant will be throwing his hat into the ring for next year’s MEP elections. 

The announcement, first made in November 2012, has been met with equal amounts of joy and disdain, but Dr Sant is unperturbed by the challenge and insists that there is life in the old dog yet.

He says that his MEP candidature in no way formed part of a bargain made with Labour leader Joseph Muscat, in order for him not to contest the 2013 general election.

“Joseph Muscat had first asked me to contest the MEP elections in 2009, but I was recovering from cancer, plus I was still an MP in Malta. I did not like the idea of abandoning my mandate, that is not my style. Five years have passed since that day, and touch wood, the cancer is out of the way,” Dr Sant explains

Dr Sant says that he expected the EU to be a “run of the mill” affair, but the succession of financial and economic crises has proven otherwise.

 “I have been following European affairs for ages. I started off my career as a diplomat in Brussels, and I still feel that I could have a lot left to contribute.”

The former Labour leader will not be taking anything for granted, in what he expects to be a tight contest.

“My successful election is far from being a foregone conclusion, I am starting from scratch. Ultimately the party has to decide whether to accept my candidature or not. I will be treating this election just like any other by giving it my all.”

Dr Sant may seem to be an unlikely fit for the role given his opposition to entering the European Union (EU) in 2003, instead favouring a looser ‘partnership’. He shuns claims that he is a euro-sceptic, or that he ever opposed the EU.

 “Euro-sceptic is not the correct term. I was never against the EU, I always considered it to be a positive development, but I wanted Malta to have the best possible relationship with the EU. Considered that on balance, the conditions attached to membership did not fit Malta’s situation well and were disadvantageous to our country. However once Malta joined the EU, we should have made the best possible use of membership, which we are not.”

 “I have always been coherent in airing my views on the EU. In the past, we said that the balance of the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. But we also said that this is a democratic country and the people’s wishes must be respected.

“The 2003 referendum was subject to undemocratic manipulation, not least because the resources were not equally stacked between the parties concerned. What counted was the following election, which at least had to be run under constitutional norms. And we had said beforehand, once the people decided about EU membership in an election, we would accept it. And we had to make the best of it. That was our duty.”

 “I stand by my record. Now that we are EU members we have to make the best of it, which we have not. They said investment would increase. It has not. They said that we would be more competitive. We are not. We have to work more on all fronts,” Dr Sant points out.

The European Parliament is often called a ‘multi-lingual talking shop,’ although it has gained more substantive powers with successive EU treaty changes.

“By him or herself, an MEP can do very little,” Dr Sant admits, “but he or she always has a voice. This voice, coordinated with the government’s, could be an effective tool.”

Dr Sant firmly opposes the “one size fits all approach” taken by the EU, as the requirements of the likes of Germany and France cannot be squared with those of Malta.

Citing one practical example of this, Dr Sant points out that the continental scope of EU transport infrastructure funding means that only the largest arterial roads in Malta qualify for EU funds, with smaller local roads being ignored.

He is adamant that in purely financial terms, Malta is at a deficit with the EU. It pays about €60 million annually into the EU budget and during past years, has been getting back in project tied funds at most some €40 million.

The former prime minister also fingers the EU’s “big problems with political legitimacy.” Looking at the Euro, he says that were it merely just an economic and financial project, it would have probably crumbled under its own weight by now, but the political capital associated with the whole project keeps it all together.

Dr Sant envisions a titanic battle between the EU and national competences, coupled with a more general debate on the future of the EU and its structure.

He points out that even the biggest “Europhiles” such as the Dutch have recently come out with the statement that what is needed is less rather than more Europe. He is adamant that “Malta has to defend its interest and federalisation should not be allowed to impinge on how we manage our finances.”

 “There is a general lack of confidence in the EU. The idea that you have to go the whole hog and become a full member is not appealing. The Union lacks economic convergence. When economic growth is problematic, then people get worried. In fact, Iceland is getting cold feet now,” he says.

The government’s new tough stance with the EU on irregular migration jarred many, but Dr Sant thinks that it is too early to judge whether the strategy will pay off.

“The immigration policy we followed to date got us nowhere. We were faced with exactly the same situation year after year. You cannot judge the new policy after just a few days. What you can judge is the policy that is nine years old and it has failed.”

Asked what can be done given the current situation, Dr Sant says that EU membership constrains our options. Ideally, migrants would be given the resources to continue their journey on to continental Italy, which is where they wish to land.

Although such a move would fly in the face of the Dublin II, Dr Sant says that he sees incongruence in the way that international law is applied.

“Earlier in July when the Bolivian President was passing through European airspace,  his plane was forced down which went against all international rules and laws, as there was a suspicion that Edward Snowden was on the flight. Why should such rules only apply to small countries,” he asks.

“If rules are sound they should apply to all, not just the smaller states. I am not advocating for rules to be broken.”

He again cites another example, that of France and its dismantling of Roma camps and the deportation of its people.

Dr Sant does not hold much regard for arm-chair critics and people who have a holier-than-thou attitude on the situation.

“Go to Marsa and Birzebbuga to see the situation that is developing. I am the first to bat down racist comments, but there is severe underinvestment in these localities. The public infrastructure to underpin the influx of immigrants is lacking… even in say, something mundane… like public conveniences… But who is going to pay for the necessary facilities to accommodate concentrations of immigrants in such areas? Who is going to pay more taxes to foot the bill” he questions.

 “Many of those who call others racist are the ones who are best insulated from the problem of immigration. Saying this in no way means I am defending racism. Unfortunately, it is on the increase among the middle classes, both amongst Labourites and Nationalists.”

Dr Sant believes that the need for an integration policy is only part of the problem.

“The basic infrastructure to handle community needs on the ground needs to be put in place before one can even begin to talk about integration. It is useless writing against racism without trying to defuse the problem caused by the lack of facilities and resources. And we focus on immigration from the south because black people are more visible. Yet human trafficking from non-African countries has been on the increase in Malta… but few raise this problem.”

Given the sensitive nature of the whole topic, it would be expected that immigration will feature heavily in the upcoming MEP elections.

“I hope that migration will not become an issue and is kept out of the campaign like we kept it out of that of 2008. We could have won votes then by using the whole issue, but it could have raised xenophobic hackles and the decision was consciously taken to leave it out.”

Dr Sant has repeatedly called referendums “an awkward tool in a parliamentary democracy.” Although he agreed with putting the 2011 divorce issue to the people, he said that it was only after the government of the day first wanted to put divorce to a parliamentary vote, and then if it passed, to subject it to a referendum. In such circumstances, the issue had to be put to a referendum “straight off,” rather than first putting it through parliamentary scrutiny.

He refuses to say whether he agrees with Constitutional reform being put to a referendum. Rather, he says, “discussion about constitutional change sidelines the fact that we are not operating the Constitution as it should be.”

On having MPs sitting on public boards, Dr Sant points out that “this used to be done in the 70s, when MPs headed operating companies and it did not make a difference to their parliamentary role.”

According to Dr Sant, the slide into corruption is almost inevitable “if you are in charge for too long without the necessary checks and balances.”

“Our Parliament does not function correctly, scrutiny is considered to be unimportant. It is inevitable in our system, where the winner takes it all. In terms of the new government, it is early days yet. The Whistleblower act, which was much resisted by the previous administration, is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Dr Sant highlights certain problems in the way that Public Accounts Committee functions.

 “The Public Accounts Committee must always look back at the past, its terms of reference do not allow it to scrutinise current happenings. Also, the practice has been that governments stuff the committee with serving ministers. How can ministers scrutinise their own work?” Dr Sant questions.

“The previous government was so hopeless that people got fed up with them.  In 2008, the writing was already on the wall as Nationalists only won by a small margin.”

Biography

Alfred Sant Born 28 February 1948 in Pieta.  He graduated from the University of Malta as Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics in 1967 and as Master of Science in Physics in the following year. He studied public administration in 1970 at Institut International d'Administration Publique at the  Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) in Paris and completed Master of Business Management from Boston University Graduate School of Management (specialising in international business and business policy) and a Doctor of Business Administration from Harvard University.

Sant served as Second, and then First Secretary at the Malta Mission to the European Communities in Brussels between 1970 and 1975 when he resigned to undertake full-time studies in the USA. Between 1977 and 1978 on his return to Malta Sant served as advisor on general and financial management at the Ministry of Parastatal and People's Industries and between 1978 and 1980 he served as the Managing Director of Medina Consulting Group. Sant returned to the public sector in 1980 as Executive Deputy Chairman with the Malta Development Corporation.

Sant's first political post with the Labour Party was as chairman of its Department of Information (1982–92). During this time he also served as President of the Party (1984–88). He served a stint as the editor of the Party weekly Il-Helsien (1987–88). Sant first stood for election in 1987; although he was unsuccessful, he was co-opted to Parliament later that year. In 1992, following the resignation of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, he was elected as Party leader.

The PL won the 1996 elections under Sant who successfully campaigned for the removal of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that had been introduced in 1995. A year after taking office the PL under Sant replaced VAT by a similar indirect tax, the Customs and Excise Tax (CET). Sant's tenure as Prime Minister lasted 22 months. Things came to a head in the summer of 1998 when a row with Mintoff over a coastal concession to a private company resulted in Government being defeated over the motion transferring the land. Sant felt that, in the circumstances, the government's parliamentary majority was compromised and asked the President to dissolve the House. In the subsequent elections held in September 1998 the Labour Party was defeated and returned into opposition.

Sant campaigned heavily against Malta's European Union membership. During the run-up to the March 2003 referendum, Sant was also critical of what he called a "sham referendum" insisting that a general election alone would settle the EU membership issue. He called on Labour supporters to either vote No, abstain or invalidate their vote. He himself abstained. The Yes side won the referendum by a 54% to 46% margin but Sant claimed to have won the referendum as the Yes vote was less than half of registered voters. In view of the lack of consensus on the interpretation of the result, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami asked the President to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. These were held in April 2003 and the Labour Party was again defeated at the polls.

Sant tendered his resignation as party leader. He did, however, stand for election for Party leader again and was re-elected party leader with 66% of votes cast by Labour Party delegates and returned to lead the Party.

Sant was defeated for the third consecutive time, this time by Lawrence Gonzi (Partit Nazzjonalista) in the 2008 general election. This election was lost by the PL on a slim margin of 1,580 votes. Following the loss of the election, Sant resigned as leader of the Labour Party on 10 March 2008.

Sant is an established novelist, short story writer and playwright. 

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