Monday, 19 February 2001

A la carte

The Malta Independent

A la carte

I have been` consistently arguing that the country cannot face a monumental decision as EU membership when it is split on it right down the middle. The question whether it is good, bad or the best in the circumstances is hardly the issue.

The issue is that economic re-structuring needs much more urgent priority and using EU membership as a catalyst to impose such re-structuring will back-fire as it will lead voters to choose` against the EU at the crucial referendum stage. In voters` mind the unavoidable pain of re-structuring will be pinned on the EU project and EU membership would be rejected for the wrong reasons.

This will put off a smart decision regarding EU membership for at least the next ten years and even a newly elected labour government will be forced to negotiate the special relationship agreement without` the possibility of playing the membership card during negotiations.` Having alternatives and making your adversary know it is a crucial ingredient for successful negotiations.

A referendum on the EU before a general election is consequently not in the national interest.

Results are showing. Opinion polls conducted by non-partisan mechanisms are clearly showing public opinion drifting away from membership. Such opinion polls in their absolute results carry a margin of error which could falsify their findings. But if conducted with consistency and regularity the trends are not subject to similar error margins. And the trends are clear. The Prime Minister may wish to continue fooling himself to his heart`s content believing that there exists a 57% majority in favour of the EU. Reality is different.

This explains the government`s attempt to use the visit of Commissioner for Enlargement Verheugen` firstly to desist EU-doubters` from forming an opinion before the end of negotiations and secondly to explain that there is no real alternative to membership. Now these two positions are inconsistent with each other and mutually exclusive. If there is no real alternative why should we be expected to wait till the end of negotiations to form an opinion`

In reality there are alternatives and waiting till the end of negotiations will not disclose any new elements except to find out in which areas has Malta been allowed transitory arrangements and how long such transitions will be. We may also find out by then that our residual symbolic power within EU decision mechanisms will continue to be eroded by the new Inter Governmental Conference called for 2004.

So one can understand the emphasis made by Verheugen that the EU does not offer membership a la carte.` This very uttering shows how little informed the Commissioner for Enlargement is about Labour`s policies for the EU and about Malta in general. Labour is not seeking membership period. Neither in full nor la carte. Labour is seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement which will grant mutual rights and obligations and to enter into co-operation agreements on other areas of mutual interest to both parties.

The Switzerland in the Mediterranean motto is meant to reflect similar agreements reached between Switzerland and the EU.` The content will clearly be different though the structure will be the same. This is no a la carte solution. This is a solution where Malta can use its` geo-strategic position giving us international importance much greater than our size, to re-structure ourselves with positioning, differentiation, flexibility and leverage. And this` until one day` can make a smart decision on EU membership should the country ever find enough internal` common ground to consider such a step to be in its own interests.

Alfred Mifsud

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