The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

The pen behind the voice; Maltese speechwriter working with the new EP President

Kevin Schembri Orland Monday, 13 February 2017, 13:28 Last update: about 3 years ago

Peter Agius, who was the head of the European Parliament information office in Malta, recently left to take up a post as a speechwriter for the new European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and was interviewed by Kevin Schembri Orland about his experience with EU institutions, and his new post.

Dr Agius dates his involvement in European Affairs back to the 90s, when he was reading law.

"When I first met the subject of EU Affairs, I was fascinated by the way the Union managed to muster the strength of the common and diverging interests of different countries into one single design through a structure of institutions and legal mechanisms.

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"I encountered the EU through lectures by Professor Peter Xuereb, and I decided that this was a subject I wanted to pursue."

Born in 1979, He graduated with a B.A. in Legal and Humanistic Studies in 2000, and further graduated with a Doctorate in Laws back in 2003 in Malta, and an LL.M. (European Law) back in 2006 from the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Asked about the disconnect between the EU institutions and the public, and about the role he will play in trying to bridge the gap, Dr Agius said; "as a speech writer I will propose the President's message. President Tajani is a natural born communicator, who also has a background in journalism.  He is therefore the right man at the right time to speak to the citizens."

"My role in this will be to propose ways to convey the President's political message in the most effective and coherent way possible."

You joined the legal services of the Council of the European Union in Brussels back in 2002. Would you describe this as the first major step in your career?

Indeed. I joined the legal service of the Council before accession. It was a mere coincidence. I had been doing freelance translations with the Law drafting Unit then headed by Dr Vanni Bruno when I heard about a call for a one year contract in Brussels. I applied simply out of sheer curiosity. I wanted to meet the people behind these mammoth creatures - the European institutions.

A few days later I received a call from Brussels to be there in three days. My world had just capsized. I was twenty three years old back then, brought up in the protected environment of a Maltese family. A week later I was living on my own in Brussels trying to navigate the adult world of European affairs.

How did you end up working for the EU Parliament in Malta?

Well, back in 2004 I was asked by a certain Professor Joseph Eynaud to deliver lectures on legal translation in the newly formed masters in translation at the University of Malta.

My performance at the first lecture was so horrible that I decided to work on my communication and presentation skills, including through specialised training provided by my employer, then the Council of the EU. Gradually, I noticed an increasing need to speak about the Union and its workings in a clear and simple way to the Maltese public, so I started writing a few opinion pieces and granting interviews.

When the post in Europe House in Malta became vacant, this was the natural way to bridge my two passions of working for the Union while explaining its workings to the Maltese public.

What exactly did your role as the head of the European Parliament Office in Malta entail? What was your most memorable moment?

The role of the European Parliament Office is to take all the initiatives required to make sure that the Maltese public is better informed of the decisions shaping up in Brussels with an effect on his lifestyle and his aspirations. To this end, I built on the work of my predecessor Dr Julian Vassallo who was the first to cover this role in Malta. The office already had a good reputation and a good network with stakeholders. I built on that and opened up a persistent communication channel with radio, TV and  print media, in addition to, most importantly, social media where the office now has an impressive community of engaged followers. 

Memorable moments relate to the work I shared with teams built across the last years, with MEPs and their offices, with collaborators and contractors, with office colleagues and with the media world. At the EP office, we also giggle about a few incidents involving events risking going bust, but I will not share these here for the risk of ruining reputations.

I've heard that while all three branches of the EU (Council, Commission and Parliament) obviously do work together, there is always an element of conflict between the three, primarily when it comes to the Parliament and the Council. Having worked in some form or other in both branches, what is your opinion on this? What can be done to improve cooperation between the branches?

Let us not exaggerate the divergences between Council and the European Parliament. These two arms of the European legislator work hand in hand on most issues. It is true that the Parliament frequently feels that Council is settling for a less ambitious solution for citizens. Parliament wants more rights and more empowerment for citizens while the Council is frequently more sensible to the implementation aspects and what those rights imply to industry and local administrations.

The golden mean is however, as always, in the middle ground where MEPs and the Council Presidency manage to iron out the differences. This process produces many results - with more than 15 landmark pieces of legislation adopted every year, from free mobile roaming to enhanced immigration rules, the Union is delivering.

Are there any major issues which currently see disagreement between Parliament and Council? (And if so, are there any which directly affect Maltese citizens)

There are some areas where Malta may be rowing against the current. One such area is fiscal coordination. Here the Parliament has expressed itself with a strong voice for more tax fairness and hence more transparent and coordinated tax practices to avoid the profits generated from one member state being unfairly taxed, or not taxed at all, in another member state.

On the Council side the unanimity rule prevails in most decisions in this area and hence Council cannot move at the same pace as the European Parliament. In this area Malta has been consistently against further approximation on a matter of principle. Malta's arguments are compelling, and yet so is the moral argument of tax fairness.

So you've now been appointed as a speech writer in Antonio Tajani's cabinet. First of all, have you started?

Yes indeed, I'm writing this looking at a grey, rain laden, sky.

What were your main reasons for accepting?

I accepted this role because it offers an amazing opportunity to work with high level professionals with a coordinated and very clear common mission. My colleagues in Brussels have an accumulated mountain of experiences and insight into the workings of the Union, its policies and the approaches needed to deliver results. Together we joined forces behind the President to assist him in fulfilling his mandate which in turn is cast to represent the European Parliament in its diversity and yet with a resolute commitment to address citizens' concerns.

As a speech writer, one of the main challenges is to find the voice of the politician you are writing for. Describe this process?

I started by reviewing more than 25 speeches Tajani gave as an MEP, as newly elected President and as European Commissioner. A speech writer adapts to the style of the speaker and to his communication objectives. President Tajani has a keen interest in many policy areas, from space exploration to international trade, but he insists on speaking to the people and not only to technocrats. Hence the speeches delivered by the President need to be written in a way that connects with the people.

Will this position affect your family life? How will you find a balance?

Yes it does. Significantly. I left my family in Malta to be able to take up duties immediately and concentrate on the job at hand. We will gradually come together again. Until then its weekend flights and lots of WhatsApp and video calls several times a day.

Have you had a chance to sit down with the new EP President yet, and if yes, what is he like?

Yes I sat down with the President on a few occasions. President Tajani is very clear on what he expects from his team and that provides a certain serenity and confidence to the people working around him. Moreover he is easy to relate to, capable of seeing the lighter side to life when the moment requires it.

What are you looking forward too, and what do you believe will be the toughest challenges in this next step?

I look forward to working with high level professionals with expertise in their areas while assisting the President in his mission. These are challenging times for Europe and its citizens as we need to make sure that the winning model of European integration is delivering up to expectations, and is explained in a simple and honest way to the citizens. 

The toughest part will be to ensure the delivery of a level of service worthy of the President's mission. This will not be easy, as expectations on President Tajani's mandate are very high. I am comforted by the fact that I will find help in colleagues across the European Parliament secretariat.

The language used in Europe when it comes to migration seems to have shifted over the years. Do you also see this shift and if so, do you believe the EU institutions are moving towards a stronger stance on migration?

The Union's policies on migration have largely taken shape over the last few years. Migration as a competence of the European Union is a new comer to the treaties. It is therefore natural that the Union's policies adapt over time as more and more legislative acts pass through the European Parliament and Council.

It is also pertinent to note that the Union's migration policy has for some time been based on a two pronged approach - one revolves around the compassion with migrants and the respect of human rights, the other is an asylum policy limited to protect those who indeed qualify for such protection.

 


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