Sunday, 4 February 2001

Criteria for choice

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Criteria for choice

The national debate regarding the sort of relationship with the EU which Malta should opt for entered a new interesting phase this last week.

The argument long sustained by the government that there exist no real alternative to` EU membership crumbled through the disclosure of a document subscribed to by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Nationalist party, whereby the Popular Parties of Europe (the conservatives) urge the EU to develop special relations with countries neighbouring the EU that choose` not to go for membership.

So the choice is now no longer between apples and no apples but between apples and oranges.` The possibility for Malta to negotiate a specific agreement tailored to our conditions on the same model as that negotiated by the Swiss is not only possible but is indeed being promoted by influential forces within the EU itself with whom the governing party in Malta shares ideas and ideals.

The second important development was acceptance by the Prime Minister to accept, at least in principal, postponement of the EU accession referendum till after a general election which must occur before the` effective date of the next enlargement.

So the first decision the Maltese electorate will have to make is not one of apples or no apples but to choose either apples or oranges.

The next election will make an irrefutable pronouncement whether to elect a Nationalist government with a mandate to conclude accession negotiations and hold a final referendum to take Malta into the EU through an` irreversible decision. Or it will decide` whether to elect a Labour Government which will be mandated to negotiate a Swiss style special relationship agreement with which Malta will have to live for the next 10 years before reconsidering the membership option on the conditions then prevailing.

So finally we can discuss which is the best route and not just` the merits or demerits of the only route. An it must be emphasised that the choice is one of route not one of destination.

The destination is common. It is the giving to this young nation and its people the best standard of living and sovereign self-esteem in a ferociously competitive world become smaller through unstoppable globalisation. Which routes gets us there quicker and with the least possible pain` Which criteria are most suitable to enable evaluate the options and choose the better one`

I have selected for myself four criteria on which I have formed and continue to evolve my opinion.

My first criterion is positioning. Which route takes account of Malta`s geographical position which is a given fixed point Which relationship is suitable for Malta`s reality of being a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean on the southern periphery of the European continent on the border to the great African continent Which route best protects the advantages of this position and minimises its disadvantages` Can the models created to suit much larger countries on the continental mainland cause problems if adopted by a small peripheral island state or can we adjust to them`

The second criterion is differentiation. Can we get to our destination quicker and better if we position ourselves differently or if we just adopt the same models of other countries If you are a small island with limited physical resources do you compete for tourism with neighbouring countries with long stretches of sandy beaches,` on a sun sea and sand proposal or do you differentiate yourself by proposing a tourist product based on quality of service, the advantages of your smallness to see the country in just 3 days and on your unique archaeological treasures`

The third criterion is flexibility.` The small guys run under the feet of the big giants I learnt long ago to explain how small and medium sized business can survive against the might of the big corporations. Does the EU membership option preserve the flexibility our country needs to grasp evolving opportunities as they emerge or will we be stifled by the bureaucracy of a mammoth organisation` Is the flexibility better preserved by the Swiss model option which permits us to tailor it to take account of our peculiarities` Or would we use these peculiarities to perpetuate our resistance to change and move the economy to a truly efficient level`

The last criteria is leverage. Which option will permit us best to leverage our geographically strategic position, a national asset par excellence, to extract maximum economic benefit` Will it be through skilful and tough negotiations of special purpose agreement or will it be through membership with limited and shrinking` veto rights and three votes out of 340`

A route is as good as the vision and ability of the leader which is calling the nation to follow him. The nationalist party has totally lost my confidence to use positioning, differentiation, flexibility and leverage to extract a reasonable deal for Malta under the membership option. It is time to give labour a chance to test these criteria for the Swiss model. It would not be irreversible and does not exclude membership at some distant future point in time if circumstances so demand.

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