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Opinion | Sunday, 19 April 2009
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Are MEPs capable of changing things?

Julian Vassallo
Yes, but only if they are hard workers.
I have no doubt that a single MEP who earns the respect of colleagues, a reputation for talking sense and a network of contacts can single-handedly change European policy or legislation in a manner that has an impact on our daily lives in Malta. But such influence does not come easily.
In the local scene a single Maltese MP, particularly one representing the one seat majority enjoyed by the present government, can certainly “change” things very quickly. On the other hand a single MEP amongst 785 cannot rely on the strength of numbers for his influence. Even as the most well represented nation in the EU with one MEP for every 40,000 citizens (as opposed to one MEP for every 800,000 German citizens) and even if all five Maltese MEPs join forces on an issue, numerically they would remain a small minority.
The truth is Malta cannot afford to elect MEPs who think that casting their vote correctly is their sole duty. We need MEPs able to establish themselves within their political groups, their committees and the institution as whole. Only then can they effectively stand up for the national as well as the European interest.
It is easy to forget that MEPs are not there simply to defend the interests of their national constituents but also to legislate and exercise other powers of oversight over the world’s largest trading bloc – with interests in every corner of the globe and every sphere of human activity. Our MEPs will sit on Parliamentary Committees, shadow legislation for their political group or prepare reports on issues that while important for the Union may have little or only an indirect impact on their constituents’ lives.
Nevertheless, well fulfilled, these experiences build up a Member’s credentials and improve his or her ability to eventually lay claim to the key drafting positions on policies and legislation that do have a direct impact on Malta. Once this happens and your Maltese MEP is actually drafting the relevant document, no doubt keeping a keen eye on the Maltese interest, the direct link between one’s choice for MEP and changes on the ground is no longer academic. We have seen this on, amongst other matters, mobile phone charges, on the departure tax and car registration tax. And let’s face it, little hits you more directly than an indirect tax.
Meanwhile in the last five years hundreds and hundreds of businesses, NGOs and individuals faced with some form of injustice or maladministration in areas of EU competence have gone to their MEP to seek redress, often passing through the EP Valletta Office in the process. This new practice has and will certainly continue to give our elected MEPs an understanding in real time of the concerns of average citizens, the private sector and civil society that should help shape their political positions.
Faced with complaints it is easy for a disinterested MEP to pass the buck to some government department or other. But the hard-working MEP that we should aspire to have represent us will determine whether there is an EU angle to these concerns and where appropriate, put political pressure for a solution on the relevant EU Institution (often the Commission) or the national government, or both.
The last five years have shown that on many issues you are just as likely, perhaps more likely, to get redress for your concern by approaching your MEP than your local MP.
This relative effectiveness of an MEP has everything to do with ability and dedication but it is also made possible by the allowances that enable them to establish an advisory and support team that several Ministers can only dream of.
The hardworking MEP builds a team that is at the service of his constituents, one that is geared to further our interests as Maltese and as Europeans. If we want our MEPs to make a positive difference to our lives it is such MEPs that we should be after.

Julian Vassallo is head of the European Parliament information office in Valletta


Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas
The election of Maltese representatives to the European Parliament (EP) is not, as frequently perceived, a natural extension of our national elections, and therefore of our national government or parliament. There are very clear differences between the competences (read powers) of the EP and those of National Institutions. In small states such as ours, institutions are more accessible and direct contact with the electorate is facilitated by our size. Notwithstanding this, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) can still have a say, and a weighty one too, in matters that are of direct interest to people in his or her Member State (MS).
The EU is sometimes seen as a bit of a bureaucratic monster, producing tons of documents in ‘Brussels’ jargon that few have the time or inclination to read. Hence when examining how the EU works we try to dissect this information into something more palatable and therefore more useful. In this regard, an MEP also has the dual role of bringing the EU closer to the people and more significantly bringing the issues we all care about closer to the EU. The European Parliament is the body directly elected by the European citizens and as such represents the interest of the people at the level of individual citizens - meaning that an MEP’s mission statement is primarily focussed on her or his constituents and not on the government of the day. This is a good distinction to make and one that may explain why sometimes MEPs’ positions diverge from those of their governments.
To be effective in making a difference, representatives must know how things are done there. Without knowing your way around the complexities in the formulation and implementation of European law, and without the ability and will to work with anybody who is in a position and ready to forward’s Malta’s case, there is a real risk of ending up as the lone voice in the desert of rhetoric.
The EP’s clout is growing, the democratic deficit is slowly being tackled, and with its ultimate say over budgets, and its presence in some co-decision procedures for new legislation, it is already a force to be reckoned with. The Lisbon Treaty, if eventually adopted against the wishes of a vociferous few, will serve to immensely increase the Parliament's power. One example of such increased power is in the fields of judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police cooperation. This means that an increased say will be granted directly to the people in these matters. 
With the increase of the EP’s power vis-à-vis the other institutions envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty, which incidentally also provides for a minimum number of 6 seats that a Member State can have in the EP and therefore Malta’s seats increase from the current 5 to 6, the role of an MEP in forwarding the interests of Malta and its citizens becomes even more important. The Maltese voice in the EP has to sing from the same book, the book that represents the real interests of all the Maltese, irrespective of political colour, especially when often in these matters there is across the board consensus and partisan differences take a back seat.
Regrettably, the Lisbon Treaty has been recently been back in the news as part of yet another scaremongering campaign against European integration. The claim has even been made that upon the coming into effect of the Treaty and with it the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) position could override our national laws and lead to the introduction of abortion by declaring it “a universal right within the EU”.
In this regard, it is important to recall that our Accession Treaty is also part of EU law, and it includes the negotiated protocol on abortion which clearly states that “Nothing in the Treaty on European Union, or in the Treaties establishing the European Communities, or in the Treaties or Acts modifying or supplementing those Treaties, shall affect the application in the territory of Malta of national legislation relating to abortion”.
The latter shows that we still have a long way to go in explaining what EU membership truly means for each and every one of us and this role should be taken up by the members of the European Parliament. Scaremongering is no longer acceptable because it is irresponsible, dangerous and will only serve to alienate people away from the real issues – issues that will actually impact our laws and therefore our lives.
In a nutshell, an MEP has equal responsibility in raising people’s concerns related to the big national issues such as employment, environment and illegal immigration as well as those issues which although not in the limelight, still have a significant impact on our everyday lives such as consumer protection. That is what I aspire to and how I want to serve my country and my constituents if elected MEP.

Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas is PN candidate for the MEP elections
www.roberta2009.eu
Roberta@roberta2009.eu


Sharon Ellul Bonici
Can MEPs really change things? Good question. From what I have seen, the perceptions of what the EU stands for are so varied, it is difficult to explain in a way that everyone can understand. Some still cannot understand why I am contesting these elections when I had campaigned on the No side in 2003. But the European Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution and it represents the various peoples of the EU, not just the Europhiles.
I am critical of EU centralisation of power – for me, it is not the most important thing to have a superpower EU that can act on the global stage as a ‘United States of Europe’ because that benefits us nothing. The more the EU centralises power, the more we lose our say over our own governance.
With the Lisbon treaty, Malta loses a lot more voting power in the EU Council – not only because the weighting system is replaced by population-size proportionality, but also because more areas are moved from unanimous voting to qualified majority voting, while new Union competences are created.

On the good side, Lisbon treaty does slightly increase the powers of the European Parliament in its co-decision role with the EU Council. Let us not forget, however, that it is only the EU Commission that proposes EU legislation. The European Parliament can only seek to amend or reject a proposal.
But the EP does have the right to ask the Commission to draft specific legislation, and the Commission has accepted more of these in recent times. This is where MEPs find something to do in the various parliamentary committees. But it is useless to be a rapporteur for the sake of appearing to do something. That is why one has to define one’s vision: it is either an EU that is democratically based on the parliaments of Member States, or one that seeks to fulfil the vision of a ‘United States of Europe’, which means transferring more areas from national to EU competence.
The work of an MEP depends on this view. So in this case, unless I see that an initiative is truly beneficial to our country I would only be interested to block it. One also needs to ask: should this action be taken in individual national parliaments according to their needs, or does it really need to be taken at a European level for all states to comply with? Sometimes, this is necessary, especially in cross-border aspects, but not as much as some would like us to believe.
But there is more to an MEP than just being a cog in the wheels of EU bureaucracy. An MEP can shape the debate in one own country by informing the people on crucial matters, especially matters which others prefer not to tackle at both national and European levels. There are many such issues locally, while at a European level, let’s face it, the EP as an institutions prefers MEPs not to seek less EU power. This is where an MEP needs to be strong-willed.
Other than that, an MEP has the eyes and ears of a retinue of Brussels-based journalists. This can be very useful not only at a European level, but also to bring about changes in one’s own country.
But whatever an MEP aims to do, one thing is very important: one needs to have as many contacts in as many political groups as possible. Whether this is to garner support for a vote or for a parliamentary movement, these contacts make an MEP much stronger. There have been obscure MEPs who are today worth less than a footnote, and others who acted across all groups to be worth as much as 20, 50 or more MEPs. From my own experience in the European Parliament, having been secretary-general and later vice-president of a European political party (EUDemocrats), I can say that the more MEPs one knows the better. With the EUD, which is just one of nine European political parties, and not a group, we were effective in promoting our democratic ideals within a centralising EU. The interaction between MEPs from different groups is what made this possible.
To conclude on a partisan note, I would add that being very small Malta’s brand of socialism has always had to scrutinise laws and decisions coming from beyond our shores in order to safeguard the workers’ interests. At a European level it seems ‘nationalistic’, but we all know it’s not. Being critical of centralised power is the best option for Malta. This does not mean being ‘anti-EU’. On the contrary, what most people love about the EU is the freedom of movement it allows – freedom to travel, set up shop and trade unhindered as if it were one country. There are also rights to be gained. But that is where most people want the EU to stop. Many are simply unaware of the direction the EU has been taking. MEPs have to choose. Will they act with the mainstream to promote more power to the centre of the Union? Or will they defend the interests of local democracy? I believe that is a fair choice, but does anyone mention it?

Sharon Ellul Bonici is a PL candidate for the MEP elections
www.sharonellulbonici.com
info@sharonellulbonici.com


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