The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

How not to deal with Europe

Peter Agius Wednesday, 8 July 2020, 07:51 Last update: about 27 days ago

While you read this, the European Parliament is in open plenary session. MEPs gather virtually or physically to vote on 15 pieces of legislation today, from rights of persons with disabilities to measures to support SMEs in the pandemic.

All of these are meant to be steps forward for Europe to foster its peoples, including us in these islands. One particular file however is set for a vote which may incur long-term damage to Malta’s competitiveness.


The objective is noble but the proposed legislation to advance truck driver welfare in Europe will be a direct hit on Malta’s export abilities. The proposed regulation and directive on road transport include provisions which force a road freight operator leaving from Malta to limit the number of stops in the continent and to mandatorily and periodically return for breaks to Malta.

Now, let us simulate the effect of such legislation together. Go on Google maps and try a trip from let’s say Berlin to Bologna and compare that with Berlin to Birzebbuġia. One is 12 hours, the other is 35 hours including catamaran. The Italian driver can return home in time for a nap in his cosy bed while the Maltese driver needs practically three days on the road to return home.

Natural disadvantages right? Indeed. The Maltese freight companies have worked their way around these by developing a business model with clients along the road and longer trips in the continent. That business model will be quashed with the new legislation.

The Maltese truck companies will be only the first in a line of casualties in Malta. If you manage a small manufacturing enterprise like the many that pepper our industrial estates, you need the flexibility to export small batches regularly up north. With the new rules, a Maltese truck is prohibited from stopping more than 3 times along the road in another Member State. This translates into much more rigid arrangements for the transport offer. While our economy has decidedly become a services economy, we should not forsake the huge added value of manufacturing for Malta. Our economy needs to diversify to be able to offer opportunity and jobs covering a whole spectrum of initiatives. The new EU rules will not help with that.

If you read till here, you will be asking how on earth did Malta let these new rules come into shape? Is Europe oblivious to our needs? Well, Europe is generally set on bridging national interests through the promotion of a common European good. It is up to the Maltese to factor in the Maltese specificity in that commonality. This did not happen in the proposed truck rules. It is in fact safe to say that the way Malta moved in regard to the truck rules is a textbook case of how not to deal with Europe.

Let me illustrate the way this developed in a few lines. The European Commission presented draft legislation in May 2017 (during a Malta led EU Council Presidency). The proposed rules were discussed at working party level for a good thirty times within the Council of Ministers (where Malta has a seat at the table) including twice at the highest Ministerial level on December 2017 and June 2018, meanwhile negotiations between the Council of Ministers and the MEPs are taking place informally culminating in a compromise agreement on January 2020. All along this period there is no trace of Maltese authorities flagging any problem at European level or even pitching the case of Malta’s industry.

It is only after the announcement of a compromise deal between the Ministers and the MEPs that the Maltese Government wakes up from its deep sleep. In February 2020, after the announcement of the compromise deal and almost three years after the legislation was presented, Minister Ian Borg announces government’s efforts to stop the deal.

Europe is a case of complex multilevel governance where particular interests, no matter how small, are normally not disregarded. But these interests, small or big as they are need to be pitched at the right time and the right context. Once compromises are reached, normally with significant effort to bridge the needs of 27 different realities, the whole system needs to protect them. This is why it will be very hard for our MEPs in plenary today to avert the proposed rules. A comma moved will throw the whole deal back to the drawing board. Such is the force you need to face when you are three years late.

Since I alerted this matter earlier this year I have been contacted by a few transport operators. I am not in the habit of raising hopes where there is little room for it. I told them that they should brace themselves for the proposed rules to come into force by this very summer. Understandably, they are now in the process of revising their price lists for all imports and exports. All of us will need to foot the bill.

The future may bring an occasion to lobby for change in this sector, but this will take a few years for the rules in question to be tried and tested before the European Commission can gather an appetite for other changes. Meanwhile, as a nation we must take stock of this case as a monitor of how not to deal with Europe. We must be part of compromises, not nag at them once they are reached. Same goes for the ongoing negotiations on the EU budget where Malta needs to make more impact to adapt criteria to suit us better.

We must also invest much more in early alert mechanisms for our industry, the NGOs and all organised civil society to be able to trigger our politicians. Our MEPs were in Parliament when all of this was taking shape, however none of them budged to move an amendment before it was very late, simply because they were not triggered to do so by government or industry. The European Commission proposes 150 new legislative acts per year. MEPs cannot be expected to see all the threats on the horizon for Malta. The Government however should. Most importantly it should empower local organisations to be able to do that.

While it overspends 4.6 million euro going in the pockets of Yorgen Fenech, this government leaves business organisations and NGOs begging for support. Malta is the only Member State without a journalist based in Brussels where virtually all business interest in Europe has an address. It seems to me that we are not interested in participative government or scrutiny, that our idea of supporting the media is buying full page adverts with PM Abela’s best photo.

The system has evidently worked for labour long enough to consolidate into unwritten code. Yet, when they go to Brussels they need to face the real world where credibility is built with militancy and commitment. Let us wake up from this road to irrelevance in Europe. I will continue doing my bit my own way, first and foremost by telling the truth without fear and trying to spread it with those willing to listen.

Peter Agius, EU expert & PN MEP candidate


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