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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 29 June 2008

The European way

First impressed in the people’s psyche as the young, soft-spoken academic who explained the grand European project, the mop-topped Simon Busuttil now speaks about turning down Lawrence Gonzi’s offer to be secretary-general for the PN.

For MEP Simon Busuttil, today a fully-fledged politician, being nice is just half the job.
Recently, he was revealed to have been the prime minister’s first choice for party secretary-general. Far from the soft-spoken, chummy politician – nobody gets tipped for secretary-general unless they are hard as nails.
And yet, his candid revelations to the press did little to enamour him to party peers. Saliba protested (he said it was incorrect of Busuttil to reveal that Gonzi had called on him); so did Georg Sapiano. In signalling he had been the PM’s favourite, Busuttil indirectly told the rest of the hopefuls they were not the PM’s chosen ones, leading Sapiano to ask which strategy Busuttil was promoting in exposing these facts. Perhaps his very own, self-aggrandising cause?
“I was deeply honoured by the offer… but I will leave it up to the people to decide on that,” Busuttil says. “I refused for family reasons and because I feel that, owing to my experience and background, I fit much more in my EU role. My experience and qualifications make me feel more at ease with this role.”
But wasn’t it churlish of him to refuse the role, and then turn the refusal to his favour in the candid revelation that both ‘Lawrence and Kate’ met with him to consider the position?
“Firstly, I didn’t reveal this. For two months, the fact that I was being pushed for this job was out in the media, long before I ever said anything about it. Secondly, what I may have added to what was already out in the public was that I met the prime minister personally. I did not volunteer that information – I was approached by the Sunday Times and asked point blank ‘did you meet the prime minister and when?’ I could have said yes or no, or no comment. I chose to say the truth.
“Despite the fact that I told the truth, I feel that if with my words upset or offended anyone, I regret it and apologise – after that programme [Dissett] I wrote to Joe Saliba to tell him that.”
But Busuttil does join Saliba in adopting the party line over the Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando affair – who allegedly put in his personal store for a permit to be issued for disco to be built on his land in Mistra, from which he stood to gain €1.9 million over a 15-year stretch?
“I don’t think it is for me to pass judgement on Jeffrey… but I will put this way – if I were in his situation, on the basis of the information we know today, I would have felt uncomfortable,” Busuttil says.
Would he have resigned? “Probably yes,” he says, echoing Joe Saliba.
Never one to stray too far from the EU line, Busuttil agrees with the government line on privatising the dockyards as its transition phase for state aid approaches termination with the end of 2008.
“There are types of state aid that are acceptable under EU law, and those which are unacceptable. The problem is we traditionally gave more of the unacceptable type of aid to the drydocks… at one point to the tune of Lm20 million a year of unacceptable aid. It is unacceptable aid because it is operating aid, which are payments going straight from taxpayer’s coffers to pay off salaries. Hence the negotiations with the EU for a transition period of up to 2008.”
Critics say the government never even tried to save the dockyard since it last wrote off Lm300 million and transferred 900 workers onto the payroll of other government companies and local councils. Why shouldn’t the government have contemplated new ways of helping the shipyards, rather than wait for 2008 to privatise it?
“Look we’ve been there before. During the accession negotiations, we prepared all the justification we needed to give the dockyards a fighting chance, and we paid for it through our noses as taxpayers – almost €1 billion. This has been going on for five years now, so there was a restructuring plan for five years, we have been through with it, and yet there are still difficulties. You have to say stop at one point, both because there are EU rules to apply, but also because the government has to respect taxpayers and how their money is spent.”
Alfred Sant had proposed to ‘renegotiate’ with the EU on the shipyards. How grave a sin would it be for a government to slam its handbag on Mr Barroso’s desk?
“Sant’s mistake was that he pressed the wrong button. You don’t have to reopen the accession treaty – his was bad judgment. Without re-opening the treaty, you can still try to negotiate on the basis of the state aid you pay the shipyard.
“If you want to do that then it is up to the EU whether to say yes or no to the request – there is nothing stopping the government from making the request. My assessment today is that since there already has been a five-year restructuring programme under way, and given the green light by the EU, today the answer would be no. But nothing is stopping government from making the request.
“I think the government shouldn’t do this and we should look for new avenues – and I concur with the recent announcement of the government that it is going for privatisation of the sector.”
I ask Busuttil, a supporter of the Lisbon Treaty, about Europe’s reputation for never taking ‘no’ for an answer. The treaty, roughly the same as the Constitution refused at the French and Dutch referenda in 2005, and now by the Irish, has been ratified by most countries by parliamentary resolution. And yet, it is strange that not even Busuttil – one of the figureheads for the EU referendum in 2003 – should be in favour of a referendum on such an important Treaty.
“It is up to each and individual country to determine how best to ratify or endorse the treaty, whether by referendum or a parliamentary vote. But it is very dangerous to say a referendum is first-class democracy and parliament is second-class democracy. If we had to say that we would be undermining representative democracy throughout Europe. Clearly one has to respect the decision of the Irish, and also the decisions of the other member states.”
But Malta’s parliamentary debate was short, and no information drive was there to tell the people what sort of Treaty we were ratifying. What sort of democracy is that?
“I agree the debate in parliament was neither qualitative, nor was it long. But bearing in mind that five years ago we had a referendum on the big question of whether to join the EU or staying out, and that we were already discussing the draft of the EU Constitution back then, we were already part of this big debate and the people decided on the referendum. I don’t think it was a grave sin of omission with respect to democracy, that we didn’t have a referendum on the Constitution or Treaty, because we had just been through it a short time before.”
Busuttil warns about taking such a document to a referendum vote.
“One needs to be very careful on what sort of question to take to the people in a referendum. Taking a technical question such as ‘do you agree with the Lisbon Treaty?’, which is a complex document in legal jargon, is a bit silly. It is far too technical for people to understand.”
Wasn’t the EU accession package too technical as well?
“It was very technical, but a very huge effort was made to try and explain it. But we went out with the clear-cut question, saying ‘this is Europe: do you want to be in or out?’ Otherwise, going with a more technical issue tends to get your question lost, and people get lost on issues of how popular the government is, or on abortion as in the case of Ireland… if anyone wants to hold a referendum, I’d tell them to take to the people the real, substantive question: do you still want to stay in Europe or not?”
After the Irish ‘no’, Busuttil says Europe could be heading towards a two-speed bloc: “We already have a two-speed Europe: would we be in the Eurozone if everyone had to join it? Nobody is forced to join the Euro. Same for Schengen. So the idea of those who are willing to be able to move forward doesn’t necessarily mean we are disrespectful to those not willing to move forward. If keeping Ireland on board fails, we should consider a two-speed Europe in this respect.”
Busuttil is the also the spokesperson on Frontex for his MEP group, the European Peoples’ Parties. On immigration, Busuttil reveals himself to be a true conservative who believes migration should be stopped at the borders before actually providing a legal channel for asylum seekers.
But I ask him what Frontex can actually do in the so called “fight” against illegal immigration, since no army patrol boat can prevent, let alone turn back, the innocent safe passage of people.
“Frontex’s role is to help individual countries coordinate their action in protecting the external borders. It is not an army – it has an inventory of different assets, belonging to individual member states, that it can deploy. In our case, the Nautilus mission in the central Mediterranean brings these assets together for a period of six months to police our external border. Without these assets, we would have just our three patrol boats to do the work. Is it enough? No. Despite Frontex, the arrivals are still relatively the same, which tells me that the flow is actually increasing.”
But Frontex cannot turn away anybody, whether they are asylum seekers or not, and surely it shouldn’t be turning away anyone who is potentially a refugee.
“In the case of Nautilus there is a problem because of lack of engagement with Libya, which is evidently not doing enough to stop people leaving. I’m not suggesting Frontex is the solution. In other areas, the Hera mission on the Western coast of Africa has the cooperation of Mauritania and Senegal, and is much more effective, resulting in a huge decline in the number of illegal crossings. In our case, one of the major hurdles is Libya’s level of participation, which so far unfortunately has not been what we would have liked it to be.”
And what do you expect Libya to do?
“Cooperate with the EU in not allowing immigrants to leave so as to enter our territory illegally, plus – worse than that – they are risking their lives.”
Do you expect asylum seekers like Christian Eritreans to remain in a country like Libya, when they cannot seek protection under the Geneva Convention because Libya isn’t a signatory to the Convention?
“These people have already lived a number of years in Libya… which is a party to the African Union Convention that contains similar clauses to Geneva. I acknowledge Libya needs to be more reassuring in guaranteeing protection to asylum seekers, but Libya claims that since it is part of the African Union, then there are similar provision to the Convention.”
But you have seen the state of the camps in Libya and how Africans are treated there…
“Well it is a very difficult choice, isn’t it? Can Malta and Europe take all the Africans? We cannot… we need to regulate this flow because we cannot hold all the misery of this world, as Sarkozy said, and because we have to regulate these flows because thousands are dying. The best way of doing it would be to stop them from leaving, and have proper legal channels.
“Europe should also do more to acknowledge Libya has a problem due to the open-door policy it adopted years back. Too many immigrants are in the country, over and above what it can host. Europe should do more to help Libya police its 4,000 km southern desert border, and I have raised the issue repeatedly and intend leading a second delegation there to raise the profile of this border.”
What makes you think Europe cannot take in more migrants from Africa?
“I can certainly speak of my own country… you can see with your own eyes that we have a huge problem containing the huge flow. I’m not expert on the other countries but the flow to Europe has a force of attraction due to the prosperity of the countries, so the flow has to be managed.”
The respect of human rights in Europe is also an important pull factor…
“I hope nothing I said gives you the impression we shouldn’t respect the Geneva Convention and the principle of non-refoulement… of course not.”
No – but I question the conviction of preventing people from leaving their countries by policing the borders of North Africa and southern Libya to prevent them from coming to Europe (and ostensibly claiming their universal human right to asylum and protection)…
“Unfortunately we only spoke about the legal part of the subject of the common asylum policy. There are issues concerning asylum, integration, and legal migration – so we should not give the impression that this is about blocking people from entering. The flow has to be managed because migration is not a tap that can be opened.
“We have to transmit a clear and firm message that illegal immigration is not on, Europe is not a free for all, and that once we establish credibility on this we can talk about legal migration. Immigration is a top concern for people – until Europe gains credibility we combating illegal immigration, people will be reluctant to trust it with legal migration.”

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