The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Taking Gozo to a wider scenario

Justyne Caruana Sunday, 13 October 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 1 month ago

“What sets Europe apart is that we insist on a social model that consists of solidarity, equal opportunities and a sure amount of redistribution.”

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Danish Prime Minister

 

This week, I had the opportunity to address the Committee of Regions in Brussels and discuss the way forward for Gozo – and for other similar islands in the Mediterranean – who need help to enhance their socio-economic development and how this can be brought about with the help of EU funding and incentives.

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I made it clear in my address that at EU level, and in the context of the insularity of small island regions, further efforts are required to adequately support islands in their endeavours to effect structural changes through key policy areas such as the Cohesion Policy, Transport Policy, Trade, Rural Development and Fisheries Policies. It is a fact that, whereas regulations are to be followed by all regions, tailored strategic and policy instruments must consider addressing the specific problems of islands differently because the one-size-fits-all solutions still being used by the EU are creating hardships that further hinder small island growth.

Strategic solutions

It is my firm belief that the ability of islands to develop and maintain a diversified economy and to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and emerging opportunities is key to maintaining a competitive edge – and this is a strength that governments need to build on, given the appropriate framework and flexibility from the EU.

As Minister for Gozo, and to better illustrate this point during my address, I explained that, notwithstanding our small size at the very periphery of the European Union, we are showing signs of unprecedented advancement. This is all thanks to our resilience, diligent use of funds and long-term planning for a sustainable and economically viable island. Nevertheless, the acute challenges faced by Gozo because of its double insularity are considerable and further help is needed to keep progressing towards our aim.

The main challenges faced by Gozo that are being addressed by my Ministry are the access infrastructure and interventions for the promotion of business, entrepreneurship and job creation. The enhancement of human capital and the promotion of social cohesion are also being addressed, together with the amelioration of environmental and cultural assets and the betterment of governance structures.

Access infrastructure

The Gozo Ministry is investing heavily in a set of initiatives aimed at improving accessibility both to and within the island. The upgrading of the island’s road network, the development of additional port-related infrastructure and the addition of a fourth ferry are ongoing. The introduction of a fast ferry and the development of an air link are also in the pipeline, together with the fibre-optic cable currently being laid between the islands and the ambitious permanent link project. All these incentives are intended to lay a framework in which Gozo’s economy can develop long-term. The Ministry is continuously stressing the importance of these investments for the development of the island and seeking EU funding for these major capital projects.

During my speech at the Committee of Regions, I drew to their attention the importance of state aid to compensate for challenges posed by the distinctive characteristics of islands, particularly in strategic sectors such as transport, digital connectivity and energy. One way of helping is for the state aid regulations governing these sectors to be less stringent and to have a degree of flexibility, to ensure that a level playing field is achieved in their regard.

Direct interventions

The Ministry for Gozo is also striving to create the best possible environment for competitive business, entrepreneurship and innovation in respect of the creation of better jobs – a strategy that is already delivering fruit. Through a number of forward-looking interventions, Gozo’s economy is opening up to sectors such as ICT, AI, Fintech and other financial services and new quality tourism niches that include medical and health tourism and conference and event tourism.

One of the Ministry’s main interventions in this respect is the creation of an EU-funded Innovation Hub to be inaugurated next month which will house big international names such as Microsoft and Google. In addition, for two years running the Gozo Ministry has invested in schemes and incentives for Gozo-registered companies to employ full-time, Gozo-based employees as part of a job-creation strategy for the island.

Human capital and social cohesion

Closely related to these initiatives are the training and vocational courses that the Ministry for Gozo sponsors from time to time, often with the use of EU funding, to ameliorate the quality of human capital, address skills mismatches in the labour market and increase access to jobs, particularly for more vulnerable sections of the population.

In addition, the Ministry is also investing extensively in measures to increase social justice and foster a more inclusive society in which everyone can enjoy a better quality of life. Such measures include the provision of infrastructure and community-based facilities to better cater for Gozo’s aging population with specific focus on dementia. Other measures include free childcare facilities to increase the participation – especially of women – in the labour market, and the construction of social housing units to provide vulnerable citizens and families with adequate living conditions.

Environmental and cultural assets

The Ministry’s efforts towards the socio-economic growth and development of Gozo go hand-in-hand with measures adopted for the preservation and valorisation of the island’s outstanding natural environment and rich cultural heritage. This is accompanied by a well-planned calendar of cultural and entertainment events which, apart from attracting quality tourism, generate further economic activity.

For this reason, the Gozo Ministry is drawing up and implementing master-plans for sensitive areas around the island, particularly major touristic locations, to ensure better urban and rural planning. We are also committed to mitigating environmental depletion and promoting a move towards a low-carbon island, as outlined in the Ministry’s vision for Gozo as an eco-island.

Betterment of governance structures

Another Ministry commitment that was highly appreciated by those attending the Conference was our spearheading the process for establishing the Gozo Regional Development Authority to improve public service. This is intended to set higher standards and targets, and the enforcement of them by the Authority, and to ensure continuity.

A major responsibility entrusted to the Authority’s role will be the undertaking of a Regional Impact Assessment study whenever national strategies, policies and/or action plans are being designed. We need to minimise unintended negative consequences and highlight opportunities that encourage Gozo’s unique strengths.

In my address I emphasised the need to adopt a similar approach when formulating strategies and policies at EU level, so that the shared characteristics and issues of islands are systematically given attention in EU policy-making, thus ensuring the principle of proportionality. Such an approach would help to extend to islands such as Gozo the benefit outreach from any policy decisions, which is not, unfortunately, always the case at present.

An EU closer to citizens

It is also essential that the EU – mainly, but not only, through the post-2020 Cohesion Policy – continues to support and advocate investments that address the specific needs of island territories as well as the underlying values of solidarity and cooperation amongst EU regions and cities. As regions or islands –  or even both – we consider ourselves as having a unique identity, yet we still need to see ourselves as part of something bigger that does not ignore our challenges.

This has been, and always will be, my stand at such European meetings. It is true that we are resilient, but we are part of the EU and if the EU wants to be truly closer to the citizens, then island issues must be given all the attention they deserve, that we deserve and what our people deserve!

 

 

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