The Malta Independent 24 September 2020, Thursday

The not so fast ferry

Peter Agius Wednesday, 16 September 2020, 06:26 Last update: about 8 days ago

Gozo delivers the highest number of University graduates per capita when compared to the rest of our archipelago. The sister island is indeed brimming with potential, from the human to its unmatched natural beauty. Such potential is however largely blocked in connectivity handicaps. The 2017 Labour electoral promise to launch a fast ferry service was hence a brilliant idea. 3 years down the line that idea is still on the minister’s desk. 

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The fast ferry turned out to be another snail-paced, half-baked project intent more on appeasing a few blue-eyed boys rather than providing needed solace to the Gozitan workers and youths, eager to conquer the world while remaining part of Gozitan communities. Media reports this week in fact tell how Government’s tender ended up stuck in a court of law with a private undertaking challenging the legality of Government’s own terms of reference for the provision of a ferry service.

Let us put aside the speedy character of the intended service for a second, as this tender would apparently see a commuter taking 100 minutes to get from Mġarr to Valletta, and just focus on the method for now. Well, what to say about the method. To begin with, the draft tender mentioned is the third attempt to launch the service after another two failed attempts blocked at court or at the ministry’s desk. You would guess that a third draft would be a legalistic masterpiece building on the lessons learnt from two prior failures, right? Wrong, this third draft tender has all the pointers of a failed law exam, with evident and blatant proposed infringements to EU law which evidently applies to such a contract dishing out over 100 million euro in public money.

One has to wonder whether government employs any lawyers at all these days. Two blatant infringements relate to government’s proposal to anoint the chosen bidder for the ferry service (let’s stop calling it fast, shall we?) with an exclusivity coverage for 15 years, fending off any interested third party from berthing facilities and all the profits of a possibly popular service.

How’s that for fair competition? Now, had this ferry service been a totally unprecedented venture for Ian Borg’s lawyers, we would have closed the symbolic eye, but such ferry adventures had already seen Malta in direct confrontation with the European Commission in relation to the other ferry, the Gozo Channel, which was challenged in the European Court in Luxembourg in 2010.

Seems to me the deal was designed with a very specific objective, possibly suggesting that there was only one possible name and surname for a bidder. So for once that they avoided a direct order, they kind of had a direct purpose in any case. The said theses comes in starker evidence when one considers that another requirement of the said tender is the imperative 10 years’ experience operating high volume traffic in Maltese waters. Well, well. They don’t just need lawyers to guide them through European law.

They need someone to tell them that we actually joined that thing way back in 2004 (notwithstanding their fierce opposition, but anyway). It is in fact unheard of to issue a tender for service operation of this kind and discriminate so blatantly to any operator outside the national market. By requiring experience in Maltese waters, government is effectively excluding any interest from other European operators. Unless Government is ready to explain how, for instance, a Greek operator, (who’s skipper on that fourth Gozo Channel ferry btw?) would be incapable of operating in Maltese waters, then it would have a hard time defending its tender in a court of law in Europe.

That latter bit is not irrelevant, given that Government’s incompetence seems to be driving the whole matter towards the Court of Justice in Luxembourg which would need to intervene in case the Maltese court has any doubt on the application of EU law to this case. This would evidently set the no-longer-fast-ferry onto another two year delay, just in time for a copy and paste of the 2017 promise onto another labour manifesto for the next election.

In cases like these you have to ask yourself whether there is any will to see things moving after all. That kind of begs the question whether you will get anything done in this country without an agent in high places.

For while the ferry file remains on Ian Borg’s desk and the Gozitans remain condemned to travel through red lights, blocked (or flooded) roads and traffic to get to Valletta, the Electrogas file travelled at the speed of light to secure an unprecedented and highly doubtful 40 million euro amnesty from excise duty payable to the state. The file travelled so fast that Professor Edward Scicluna barely had a moment to skim through its’ pages. In fact, although being Finance Minister, he rubberstamped a 40 million euro waiver without really wanting it.

Fast amnesties. Slow ferries. Innocent ministers. Who’s paying?

Peter Agius, MEP candidate and EU expert

[email protected]

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