The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

Revive the European dream for Maltese business

Peter Agius Thursday, 4 April 2019, 08:01 Last update: about 6 months ago

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi highlighted a top priority for his incoming administration: getting everything ready to make full use of EU Structural and Cohesion Funds. Malta EU’s accession was still a few months away and Gonzi wanted to make sure the country hit the ground running. New government departments were created, old departments reformed and staff trained. The wisdom of that policy can be seen with the benefit of fifteen years’ hindsight.

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The Gonzi administration’s single-minded dedication meant also that in 2013 the Prime Minister left the campaign trail to conclude negotiations in Brussels on the sum to be allocated to Malta until 2020.

We are now fast approaching the end of that Gonzi package. For the last six years, labour ministers have been cutting red ribbons in projects designed by their political arch-nemesis from Austin Gatt and George Pullicino. From 2021 there will be none of that. Labour will need to sow the red strings itself.   

From the looks of it so far, labour is not a good tailor. We secured strong EU funding packages in 2007 and 2013 because we understood how to fit Malta’s priorities into the Union’s budgetary headings and policies. That ability is now nowhere in sight. From the new gas-powered power-station to the Gozo tunnel to the phantom metro and the supposed drive for A.I. and a space strategy, this government seems to still lack the ability to conjugate Maltese priorities with EU funding possibilities.

We need to plan ahead if we want to continue to benefit from EU funds, expertise and cooperation. We should also look more intensively towards the direct funding programmes awarding grants to private projects directly to operators in a quality competition of projects submitted from all Member State. A cursory look at the statistics for the SME instrument for instance reveals that Malta has the lowest success rate in Europe for these direct funding projects with regions in Italy and France but also in Poland and Hungary having a much higher success rate in projects submitted.

In the next EU budget more emphasis will be put on these direct funds. We must empower our businesses, civil society and educational establishments to be able to reap more fruit from this chunky chapter of the next EU budget.

The range of policies supported is quite wide and includes research and innovation, SMEs, education and training, the environment, to mention but few. The ball game here is totally different to Structural and Cohesion Funds. For direct funds, there is no sum earmarked for each EU Member States. Instead, operators in the Member States (and this includes NGOs, SMEs, public entities and institutions) partner together in consortia and compete for funding with other similar consortia from across the continent.

A new generation of programmes has been proposed by the European Commission and, although negotiations have already started, the discussion is expected to continue into the lifetime of the new European Parliament.

Or next MEPs will therefore need to play a fundamental role to adapt these new programmes to enable wider participation from Maltese actors. The Maltese government will need to play its role too if we want to increase Malta’s success rate in these direct funds. One obvious step forward would be to set up a dedicated service to help liaison and networking between educational and research establishments, businesses and other entities in Malta and abroad with a view to building up the best teams for a competitive bid for EU projects. This is, after all, what is being done in several member states with the ‘poles d’excellence’ in France and the Business Groupings in Germany for instance as done in the Danube Region over the past years with significant success.

While the groundwork is being done to empower Maltese businesses to tap into the EU manna, we can also work closer together to ensure that the rules of these programmes are suited to Malta’s particular circumstances, particularly its small size and the small size of most of its operators. In this regard, in my direct experience of EU institutions, I often find that EU institutions are well-intended but unaware of Malta’s particular circumstances. Quite often, EU rules make it difficult for the Maltese operators simply because no one dares to try and adapt them to our needs. We make the mistake of seeing the EU as a fossilised mammoth when most often it is a living and far less threatening animal.  

Malta’s MEPs need to be also string champions of simplification of EU rules. They should ensure that obligations are not so onerous as to be beyond the administrative capacity of potential Maltese beneficiaries.

We also have to ensure that these programmes are well-promoted and that potential beneficiaries get to know and can navigate within the funding priorities. There should also be increased means to facilitate partnering both in Malta and abroad.

In my own campaign trail as a candidate for an MEP seat I am visiting several Maltese businesses from catering to retail to manufacture and services. Most of them would tell about EU funding received and markets opened thanks to our EU accession. Now they are ready for more.

Unfortunately some of them perceive a diminished sense of ambition from government on EU funding. We must not let the European dream die out. With EU accession we acquired an invaluable tool. We must now keep on using that tool in the optimal way to reap its’ benefits. Diminishing ambitions is not allowed. I will strive to do my part in raising the voice of Maltese business in the present campaign leading to election on 25 May and beyond.

 

Dr Peter Agius is a Nationalist Party candidate for the European parliamentary elections, a former Head of the European Parliament Office and Cabinet Member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani

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