The Malta Independent 16 July 2020, Thursday

Decision to open airports must not be rushed - MEPs

Giulia Magri Monday, 25 May 2020, 10:14 Last update: about 3 months ago

Giulia Magri spoke to Alex Agius Saliba and Josianne Cutajar about their first year at the European Parliament, projects they are working on and what topics they believe the EU should discuss post-COVID-19.

Both European Parliament members Josianne Cutajar and Alex Agius Saliba said that the decision of re-opening airports and ports is not one to be taken lightly and should be up to individual member states, not the EU.

Cutajar and Agius Saliba were contacted by The Malta Independent as they are about to celebrate their first year as MEPs, having been elected in the last week of May last year.

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Malta closed its ports and airport in March to contain the spread of Coronavirus, effectively shutting down the tourism industry. A date for their reopening has not been set.

Currently, the Maltese government is looking into the idea of having safe travel corridors, but of course must come with the blessing of the health authorities, Cutajar said. “Travel is an essential part of people’s lives, especially for islanders as a means to stay connected to the outside world, but we must take into consideration the medical aspect and why we have kept such a positive track record in the first place.”

Cutajar said that throughout the past few months the government was in constant discussion with the health authorities, and even now, when certain measures have been relaxed, there are strict guidelines to follow.

Currently there are discussions at the European Parliament, and whilst at the end of the day it is up to member states to decide when to open flight connections, the EU has provided guidelines and recommendations which help.

She said that a decision will not be taken quickly or happen overnight. We need to be in constant connection with the health authorities and understand how this will impact not just our island but also mainland Europe.

Agius Saliba believes that from the beginning the government has taken a very sensible and balanced approach in fighting against the Coronavirus. “The government has invested and also sacrificed a lot to ensure that we prevent a large number of deaths and cases, and also ensure that the most vulnerable people in society are protected.”

Whilst Malta is now in a ‘transition’ period and slowly relaxing certain measures, he insisted that it is important that no decision is taken in a hurry. “Our first priority is and always be the health of our country,” he said.

Agius Saliba believes that decisions on the reopening of the airports should remain in the hands of the Superintendent of Public Health and the government. “The European People’s Party (EPP), along with other Italian, German and French members doing everything possible to have airports open in time for summer. I believe it is too early to take such a decision, and that we need to allow the Superintendent of Public Health continue to decide when and if we should open our airport, not the EU.”

He said that he is aware that there are discussions on “COVID-19 safe travel corridors” which will allow travel between Malta and other specific countries only. “It is important that there will be a coordinated approach on this matter.”

One year on: Two Maltese MEP ‘newcomers’ hit the ground running

This time last year, Malta was preparing for the 2019 European Parliament elections, in which eight different political parties (including individual candidates) took part. The Labour Party won the by more than 42,600 votes.

Two seats went to the Nationalist Party, Roberta Metsola and David Casa; whilst the Labour Party won four seats: Miriam Dalli, Alfred Sant, Alex Agius Saliba and Josianne Cutajar. Both Agius Saliba and Cutajar were contesting for the first time; Agius Saliba obtained 18,808 first count votes and Cutajar received 15,603 and both were elected on the 39th count. Both MEPs are part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Cutajar notes that she took quite a leap from being a councillor in a small village in Gozo to now working as a member in the European Parliament, but she takes on the challenge as a learning curve. Apart from serving on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, she is also part in the Committee on Transport and Tourism, which she works on projects which are close to home.

If you have bankrupt airlines, consumers will have no voucher or refunds

Due to COVID-19, travel was automatically banned to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus and safeguard individuals. The tourism and travel sector were impacted greatly, and Cutajar who is part of the tourism task force, worked to ensure that while consumer rights were protected, the travel sector needs to be safeguarded too.

“Once flights, cruise liners and other modes of travel were cancelled, I had a number of consumers contacting me on how their rights were not being respected and that they wanted a refund,” Cutajar said. She said that whilst she could understand the frustrations of the consumer, it was important to keep in mind that airlines and other travel operators were being bombarded with huge amounts of requests for money back.

“I tried my best to put pressure on the transport committee for us to come up with tangible solutions to help both consumers and the travel sector. It wasn’t easy, but you have to look at the whole situation; if our airlines or travel agents went bust trying to refund all those customers, most likely our consumers will end up with neither refund nor voucher.”

That is where the idea for consumers to be given a form of a travel voucher came about. That through a more flexible means, consumers have the peace of mind that they can use the voucher at a later date or even refund it, but it also provides operators breathing space and peace of mind. “I can understand their frustration, since we live on an island; we are fully dependent on transport, not just for holidays but also to be connected to the outside world.”

She said that the vouchers will also safeguard the many employees in the field who are dependent on the travel sector. “I spoke to numerous local and foreign consumer associations, airlines, Air Malta and tour operators to understand how we can help find a balance for both. For me it is a personal achievement that the commissioner has come up with this package and guidelines, as I believe it will help the sector much more.”

More focus on those most vulnerable who are impacted by COVID-19

Speaking about topics which need to be highlighted in the EU post-COVID-19, Cutajar highlighted that whilst Europe is beginning to reopen establishments and consider beginning means of travel, now is the time to really focus on the most vulnerable. “Now that we are reopening establishments and people are going outside, we cannot keep our vulnerable or disabled persons inside. How long can a person stay inside without it having a toll on their mental health? We need to discuss and see how we can create safe spaces for these people, especially those who are being most impacted by this virus.”

She also spoke of the importance of prioritising the digital agenda, which through the pandemic has played an essential role in communication and adaptation. “Due to the pandemic, we have seen digital poverty and digital illiteracy really come out. We have had numerous instances where people were unable to use certain platforms or speak to professionals because they lack the resources or literacy,” she said. “We must also come up with sensible solutions to work together and to ensure that we live in a better world post-covid-19.”

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Agius Saliba, who is part of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, Committee on Petitions and Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, describes that from the beginning he worked on “connections amongst S&D group and other groups within the European Parliament.” In January, he was listed by Politico Europe as one of the 20 MEPs to watch during 2020, due to his work on the report on Digital Services Act. He is also Vice-President of the Biodiversity, Hunting, Countryside Intergroup and co-chair of the MEP Alliance for Mental Health.

 

The Right to Disconnect Act is to safeguard not just workers; but citizens’ mental health

For Agius Saliba one of the most important legislations he has been working on for the past year is the Right to Disconnect legislative, a report which proposes a legislation regarding the right to disconnect. “I have been working on this proposal from the moment I began to work with S&D and I believe it is a right all European citizens should enjoy across the board.” Agius Saliba was later appointed rapporteur for the legislation, which he said is now in the stage of drafting at the European Commission.

Many workers feel obliged and pressured to work over and above their hours, and this is being shown especially now due to the shift in work dynamics, where people are now working from home. “With such advanced technology, workers have this perception that they must always be connected. This is affecting many people mentally,” Agius Saliba said.  He pointed out that we now are in a culture where we have to remain connected 24/7, and this can have a severely negative impact on us all.

“We have been working on this legislation because we are aware that due to the advancement of technology, the way we work has changed drastically and will also continue to change post-COVID-19, that is why we need this legislation as a form of protection, not just as worker’s rights but also to prevent an increase in mental health issues,” he explained.

On the same topic, he spoke about the Digital Service Act. He explained that throughout his first year as an MEP, he has had numerous discussions with stakeholders and platforms such as Facebook, Amazon and Twitter regarding different proposals. “It has been a challenge, but a good one, especially after all the months of work, the Vice President of the European Commissioner of the Act, Margethe Vestager tells you that she agrees on your points and will take them into consideration- there is a great sense of satisfaction from that kind of feedback.”

 

After COVID-19, the EU must stop side-lining the Digital Aspect

When asked what topics the EU should discuss post-COVID-19, apart from migration, Agius Saliba believes that the EU has side-lined the digital aspect for too long. “When we look at COVID-19 and the emergency plan our countries have developed, we all heavily depend on the use of digital platforms and E-commerce. Without this, our life would be much more difficult during this time,” he explained.

He said that whilst discussing with big players within the digital sphere, rarely any are European. “As a European Union, we must investment more; provide more research and legislations for us to catch-up with big players such as America and China.” He said that such legislation and investments will provide more chance and opportunities for potential European and local start-ups and SME’s who wish to compete within the digital industry.

 

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