Interview | Sunday, 08 February 2009

‘Crucified for being honest’

She campaigned against EU membership five years ago, but is now herself a candidate for the MEP elections. Some might call it a volte-face, but for Sharon Ellul Bonici it is more like a widely misunderstood consistency

Politics is not for the faint-hearted. Already you can hear the sound of daggers being sharpened in political party HQs, as the country psyches itself up ahead of the European Parliament elections next June... and no candidate expects more than Sharon Ellul Bonici, whose very name is a like red rag to the pro-EU bull.
I meet the former ‘No’ campaigner at her headquarters in Gwardamangia, and am instantly taken aback by the sheer size and smartness of her offices.
“When I decide to do something, I take it seriously,” she says with a glimmer of pride. This much is true, as attested by the seriousness with which Sharon took her previous campaign against EU membership five years ago. By her own admission, she is “probably one of only five or six people who actually read the full Acquis Comunautaire”... all 85,000 pages of it. And predictably, her recent anti-EU crusade is now being held against her as the “mother of all U-turns”. After all, her critics argue, how can someone who argued so fervently and passionately against EU membership, now want to represent Malta in the same venue?
There is a certain resignation in her voice as she replies. “A lot of people are still stuck in a Yes/No mentality. Personally, I’ve moved on since the referendum. It’s the yes camp that evidently hasn’t...”
Sharon tells me how she occasionally bumps into prominent members of the IVA campaign at the European parliament in Brussels, where she has worked as a consultant.
“They tell me things like, ‘what are you doing here?’ and ‘This is not your place...’ as if the European parliament was their own private property. But it isn’t: the European parliament is everybody’s parliament. And in a democracy, it’s perfectly natural for people to hold different views, and for these views to be represented...”
Sharon draws from a recent local controversy to illustrate that one can be in favour of an idea in principle, while at the same opposing it on practical grounds.
“A good example would be the working time directive,” she says, alluding to a bill which stipulated that no European citizen can work more than 40 hours, and eight hours of overtime, a week,
“In theory it’s a wonderful idea, which would allow workers to spend quality time with their families,” Sharon continues. “Who could possibly disagree with that? But in practice we all know it would be detrimental to Malta. Take doctors and nurses, for example. It’s common knowledge they work more than 40 hours a week because of a staff shortage. It’s not an ideal situation, but that is the reality. If you applied the directive to Malta, you would end up with a situation whereby patients would not have access to medical staff...”
In fact, all five Maltese MEPs argued against this directive – including the Labour representation, which would normally fight for better working conditions as a matter of course. For Sharon, this illustrates two basic points of relevance to her European campaign: one, that it is perfectly possible to be in favour of a proposal, but against its implementation (and vice-versa); and two, that Malta’s five MEPs must be exceptionally vigilant against legislation which – even if well-meaning – might damage the country’s interests.
“Imagine that you agree with an idea in theory, but your instinct tells you to vote against,” she adds rhetorically. “Does that make you a Euro-sceptic?”
Interestingly, ‘Euro-sceptic’ is the word most often used to describe Sharon’s own attitude to the EU. Is this how she sees herself?
She shakes her head emphatically. “No, I have never defined myself as a Euro-sceptic. That’s a label given to me by others. I think it’s a disparaging way of referring to people who argue against a federal Europe. I prefer to use the term ‘Euro-realist’ myself...”
Fair enough, but there is no ‘Euro-realist’ grouping in the European parliament. Instead, Sharon intends to sit alongside the European Socialists, who unlike herself are very much in favour of the European Union project. How does she justify her decision to contest with the PL – now officially a pro-EU party – when she herself upholds a generally anti-EU stance?
Sharon replies by correcting me on a detail: “The PL is a democratic party, and as such is open to a plurality of views,” she says. “And besides, the membership question has now been decided by a democratic referendum...”
At this point I remind her that she was among those who initially refused to accept the referendum result in 2003...
“Do we really have to go there?” she begins, evidently reluctant to rake up an issue that is bound to haunt her for the next four months. (Personally, I have to admit I sympathise with her exasperation... it is, after all, far too easy to keep hammering away at the old “Partnership won” gaffe.)
“OK,” Sharon draws a deep breath. “Five years ago, the people were faced with an option: either to join the EU, or not to join. For my part I argued that we should not join, because membership would be detrimental to Malta. As for the referendum, I always wanted to respect that vote...”
Sharon goes on to suggest that the No campaign disintegrated somewhat towards the end, with the result that things got rather messy.
“Alfred Sant’s biggest mistake was to split the vote,” she says with reference to the famous ‘three-way’ directive: vote no, stay at home or invalidate the ballot sheet. “That is not how things are done. If you are a leader, you have to give a clear directive.”
I ask her if she still feels the referendum campaign was “unfair”, as she had insisted back then.
“Well, there is a lot that can be said about that,” she says, but without very much enthusiasm. “There was the issue of money spent by the Commission on propaganda; there was pressure on influential persons to publicly come out and say ‘Yes to Europe’... But like I said earlier, I have moved on since then...”
We agree to leave the referendum behind us, and instead to explore Sharon Ellul Bonici’s formation over the past five years. She argues that following Malta’s accession in 2004, there were only two directions the “No” camp could realistically pursue.
“The first was to advocate pulling Malta out of the EU,” she continues. “That’s the way the Campaign for National Independence went. I personally disagree: in fact I think it would be political suicide. The damage to our international reputation would be irreversible. We would project the image of an unreliable nation that can’t make up its own mind. This in turn would diminish our standing in international fora... which would negatively affect foreign investment... and ultimately, the citizens would suffer.”
OK, so what about Option B?
Sharon shrugs. “Once you’re in, you have to accept the new reality and work within the existing system to make the best of membership; to be pro-active, to try and limit what disadvantages there might be; and to keep an eye out for legislation which might be detrimental to Malta’s interests.”
Vigilance is in fact a key aspect of Sharon’s electoral platform: and even here, she uses the argument to defend her earlier opposition to membership. Broadly speaking, her point is that a person who takes a critical view of the European Union is automatically better positioned to defend Malta’s interests.
“And let’s face it: I am the only candidate who is critical of the EU,” she adds with a certain air of bravado. “I have always been consistent on that. In fact I have been crucified because of my honesty...”
Closing an eye at the messianic imagery, and one can appreciate her point. During the referendum campaign, Sharon was targeted as a focal point for all the aggression of the ‘Yes to Europe’ brigade. And no sooner did the Labour Party change its official position after accession in 2004, than Sharon fell foul of her former political allies, and found herself “interrogated” by the (now defunct) Vigilance and Discipline Board, and ultimately ostracised within the party.
Seen from this perspective, it is understandable that she would now seek to turn her past political liabilities into her biggest electoral asset. And it seems that as far as Sharon is concerned, there is also much to be vigilant against.
“There is a shocking lack of information about what’s really going on in the EU,” she continues. “And believe me, from a civil liberties point of view, you have to be on the constant look-out for proposals which would infringe our basic rights...”
Sharon goes on to list some recent highly objectionable initiatives: most of which have since been defeated by opposition from the “Euro-realist” camp, among others. “Do you know that the EP recently debated legislation to introduce ‘body scanners’ in all European airports?” she asks, alluding to outrageously intrusive technology which would “undress” passengers by means of a virtual X-ray machine. Another example involves a proposal to create a register of all Europe’s Internet bloggers, using the excuse of “anti-terror legislation”.
“It is for this reason that MEPs must be on their guard against attempts to curtail civil liberties,” she continues. “And who can do that properly, if not someone who is naturally critical of the European Union?”
As she warms to her theme, Sharon also suggests that the present administration, for all its pro-EU rhetoric, has to date failed to make the most of EU membership.
“When you compare the amount of information available before and after accession, the difference is shocking,” she explains. “Some Maltese companies are currently breaking the law without even realising it, because nobody’s informed them about certain EU directives. Then there is the issue of EU funding. People have no idea how much money has been and is being lost, simply because we failed to take advantage of the available opportunities. In many cases, funds have been lost through sheer incompetence: forms filled in badly, or deadlines missed... sometimes, because the government doesn’t even know they are available. Malta is in fact the only EU member state not to have a ‘fund-hunting’ office in Brussels...”
Sharon intends to redress this by setting up a fund-hunting office herself. “It will be aimed at helping SMEs and even private individuals to penetrate EU funding,” she claims, “I have the know-how to do this, and as an MEP I would also have the resources.”
All well and good, but man does not live by funding alone. How does Sharon think she can benefit Malta in the EP? What are the most pressing problems, and how, if elected, would she address them?
“The most pressing problem is illegal immigration,” she immediately replies. “I say this not because I have racist views, but because it’s a simple fact. The EU must be made to understand that Malta is a special case in this regard. We are the second most densely populated stretch of land in the world. The situation is untenable...”
OK, most would agree that immigration is a mammoth problem... but what does she propose as a solution?
“First of all, that at European level, burden-sharing should not be on a voluntary basis,” Sharon replies, echoing the PL’s official line regarding last year’s Immigration Pact. “The EU talks a lot about solidarity and subsidiarity, but when it comes to dealing with Malta, it does not practise what it preaches. My proposed solution would be to establish a quota for each country. Let’s say that we fix a maximum figure of immigrants that each EU member state can realistically accept. The rest would have to be distributed among the remaining states...”
At a glance, this seems identical to the government’s official position on the issue. Asked to point out the difference, Sharon argues that Malta has not made its case aggressively enough. “We are not being taken seriously in Europe on this issue. And yet we have a very strong case. Upon joining Europe, Malta automatically became a frontier state. Europe therefore has an obligation to secure its own borders...”
Sharon also argues that accession has changed the dynamics of migration, in a way that has not been acknowledged by the Union.
“Before accession, Malta only honoured part of the Geneva convention... but as part of our accession conditions we had to adopt the whole convention, and with it Dublin II and Euroduc, too...” (As a result of these conventions, Malta is now bound to fingerprint each immigrant, and take back any who happened to land here as a first point of entry to the EU.)
Sharon is convinced that even one single, solitary MEP can actually make a very big difference.
“If you work hard enough in the European parliament, if you establish contacts, if you get onto the right committees, you can influence the way the whole parliament legislates. To achieve this, you need to form an alliance across the political spectrum...”
Without singling out any of the existing five MEPs, she hints that none has so far succeeded in getting Europe to change its attitude towards the issue.
“I can make that difference,” she asserts confidently. “If elected I intend to make a serious report on immigration and submit to for discussion. Then I will lobby enough to get the necessary legislation to pass.”

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