The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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EU policy must take into account the realities islands like Gozo face – MEP Josianne Cutajar

Sunday, 3 December 2023, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

As the first MEP from Gozo, where you also served as a local councillor in Nadur, you certainly have a lot to say about themes related to Gozo. How do you feel that your experience in local politics and as a Gozitan has impacted your European work?

It helps me understand the specific circumstances of smaller islands, which face additional challenges when compared to main islands like Malta.

Gozo faces double insularity and the fact that I am Gozitan helps me prioritise equity in connectivity. I understand first-hand what it means to use the ferry on a regular basis and I know that those, including residents, businesses and SMEs, based in islands like Gozo face disproportionate challenges to simply get along with their everyday life and business. These realities are why I often speak so passionately about the importance of a coherent policy for islands at the European level. My experience as a local councillor of my hometown, Nadur, for seven years, was truly formative as it helped me understand the importance of politics on the regional and local level. This helped me bring politics closer to the people and place it on a more direct level. My experience in the Local Council in fact serves me very well in my work on the Committee for Regional Affairs, which is dominated by discussion on the importance of the local level and Cohesion Policy and funds. Cohesion policy works in such a manner that it allows a degree of flexibility when carrying out projects on a local and regional level: the Gozo Citadel, for example, was restored using these funds.

We need to continue working so that our local councils and local authorities, which tend to have limited funding and human resources, get the help they need to effectively implement the green and digital transition. This is something I strive towards in my work, such as recently with the Interoperable Europe Act, where I pushed for more resources to local authorities with the aim of ensuring better public services.

 

Speaking of Gozo, we know that earlier this month you participated in the General Assembly of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR), which was held in Saint Malo in France. Gozo is part of this conference. What can you tell us about this?

It brings me satisfaction to see Gozo represented at the CPMR, which is a conference that brings together different maritime and peripheral regions from around Europe.

I was present for two parts of the Conference. Firstly, I joined a session of the Islands Commission and discussed the next steps towards recognising islands specificities, including insularity, following the work done and the Report on Islands and Cohesion Policy which I negotiated on behalf of the Socialists during this legislature.

I then participated in the Annual General Assembly session, which was held on the 50th anniversary of CPMR. There I emphasised the importance of cutting the red tape required for access to funding opportunities. Many funds exist, however, the reality is that small local actors do not always have the knowledge and capacity to manoeuvre through the necessary procedures to access them.

I also emphasised that these funds should continue helping in better reflecting the realities of different regions, helping them address their challenges and reaping opportunities.

We saw Cohesion Policy funding severely stretched in recent years due to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war. While it’s good that what is urgent is tackled and that these funds help address immediate threats thanks to their flexibility, we cannot continue hollowing out cohesion funds to the detriment of the programme’s primary aim of supporting the long-term development of regions.

Connectivity is another topic, which I spoke strongly about. The reality is that without enhanced connectivity options, these regions, particularly disadvantaged ones like our islands that are recognised as so in the Union’s Treaty, inequalities will persist. Connectivity is a matter of fundamental freedoms as well as social justice and for that reason I certainly look forward to continue my work in this sector.

 

The Regional Development Strategy for Gozo was published last September: what are your thoughts on this strategy?

The Strategy is an essential guidance for policymakers and stakeholders on the key principles they ought to keep front and centre when defining Gozo’ medium- to long-term vision.

I recently had a meeting with the Gozo Regional Development Association, following the launching of the strategy after a broad consultation. I was very happy to have seen a number of important policy priorities which I have also been working on at EU level reflected in the document. 

For example, there are references to sustainable tourism and the importance of skills, including with regards to culture and Gozitan gastronomy. Right now, there is also a wider discussion happening at national level about skills cards and training courses applying for hospitality workers including third country nationals.

Then there were also other important elements referred to in the strategy, such as ensuring that our infrastructure is more climate resilient, as well as aspects related to decarbonisation and Gozo’s sustainable development - key aspects on which there is general agreement upon in order to preserve our island’s unique characteristics, including the green belts between our villages.

That’s why the perspective of Gozo as an island of villages is so important, especially in terms of recognising uniqueness and the need for tailormade policies that cater for the Gozo’s specific needs and characteristics, different from the main island’s ones.

At the same time, I believe that sustainable development should also increase the livability of a place, even making it more aesthetically pleasant, contributing to the residents’ quality of life. In this regard, I was pleased that the Labour government announced a budgetary measure worth €58 million in European funds to be used for better sustainable urban development in Gozo.

During my discussions with the GRDA, I made a point about additionally prioritising Gozo’s digital development: owing to its small size, Gozo can be a test bed for digital solutions, which once successful can then be replicated on a larger scale across the country. I believe that projects such as the international collaboration with offices at the Gozo Innovation Hub developing a conversational chatbot in the Maltese language show our potential in innovating capacity and digital solutions.

Apart from the digital field, we should also focus on other opportunities that smallness and insularity bring with them, such as the ones emanating from the blue economy. Although there are plenty of EU funds catering for the blue economy, what we need to address first is awareness and investment gaps.

 

 

This strategy also mentions tourism, a sector which we know you work on directly at the European Parliament. Some days ago you also took part in the World Tourism Market in London and the Mediterranean Tourism Forum held in our country. Can you explain more about your work and how you look at Gozo and the tourism sector?

 

It was an honour for me to be present at this annual event in London, where representatives from Malta and Gozo, through VisitMalta and VisitGozo together with Maltese and Gozitan entrepreneurs, came together to showcast our tourist and hospitality offerings.

I was positively impressed by the diversity of stands from around the world, as their presence allowed me to observe and learn from what other countries and continents are offering. In this regard, I also was also proud that, when it comes to tourism, Gozo is a strong player and has an important role to play when it comes to niche tourism within the context of the environmental and digital transition.

This is an aspect which we frequently debate in the Tourism Taskforce at the European Parliament, which I am a member of.  There are studies which show that tourists’ behaviour is changing, with some of them becoming more eco-conscious, looking for travel choices which offer a more eco-friendly experience while also incorporating certain digital solutions.

As part of my contribution to the World Travel Market, I took part in a panel discussion focusing on travel after Brexit, a cornerstone for our country, which has strong touristic ties with the UK. Whilst the impacts of this severing change are well visible, as a European Union and as a country, we must look forward to continue collaborating with Britain in order to find mutually favourable conditions and solutions that will facilitate the travel experience in between both ends.

At the same time, we also have many UK nationals living in Gozo. This should be an incentive to build on the common past, values and experiences to make the transition as smooth as possible and to define a  sustainable future in our relationships. The challenges exist as there is no free movement anymore, but it’s up to us to negotiate bilaterally in order to strengthen travel and tourism.

 

 

As we reach the end of your first mandate within the European Parliament, what was the most important moment for you as someone born and raised in Gozo? What work do you think needs to be done to make sure that the interests of people from islands like Gozo, which face additional challenges such as double insularity, are safeguarded?

First of all, an important role I hold, that of Vice President of the Intergroup of Islands and Coastal Regions within the European Parliament, as well as of member of the Committee on Regional Development, give me the opportunity to work on strengthened policies for our European islands and regions, whilst forging cooperation with a number of relevant organisations and institutions active in this field.

I was also the S&D negotiator for the Islands and Cohesion Policy Report, that finally recognises, in a comprehensive manner, the challenges and opportunities which our islands face. This report identified the need for specific policies which recognise the realities of insularity and the necessity for impact assessments that take into account island’s particularities at the beginning of the legislative process through embedding the concept of islands’ mainstreaming.

These are principles that guided my work from the beginning of the mandate,  particularly during the negotiations on the Fit for 55 package. For instance, my work on the Fuel EU Maritime law resulted in additional flexibilities for islands like Gozo, which are mandatorily dependant on transport by sea, and which thanks to amendments I pushed forward, have been given more time to comply with obligations relating to the sustainable maritime fuels transition.

However, there is much more to be done when it comes to streamlining insularity in the transport and trade sector: the Mobility Package which the European Union legislated on is a perfect example. As the only Maltese MEP in the Transport Committee, I was at the forefront of proposing amendments to the proposed law and then voted against the final unbalanced text. There is now a number of EU member states, including Malta, which have opened a case before the European Court of Justice, arguing that these new rules discriminate against, and do not take into account the realities of, certain states like our island Member State, not to mention it being counterproductive when it comes to emissions and the fundamental freedoms.

Also, there are now ongoing discussions on the EU’s Emissions Trading System – an upcoming tax on ship emissions, which is creating challenging realities for ports like the Malta Freeport. As a member of the Transport Committee I have been putting pressure for the situation to be addressed in a timely and effective manner, otherwise EU-Mediterranean ports like ours risk seeing important maritime activity move to North African ports instead – to the detriment of our economy, consumer prices and the environment itself, with emissions and port activity being simply transferred!

When it comes to island policies  there is still a lot to be done, particularly in relation to the aviation and maritime sectors, as well as the Islands Pact we are pushing forward at EU level. Enhanced connectivity was my commitment from my first day as an MEP and it remains something which I will continue working on with the same intensity within the European Parliament and beyond.

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