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OPINION | Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Europe’s holding pen


I, like many others, favoured us joining the European Union, but the outcome so far has not been as beneficial as we had hoped. We thought it would be better for a tiny country in the middle of the Mediterranean to be aligned to a stronger body, as far as security is concerned, and people like me looked forward to seeing issues like health and safety, especially in the construction industry, hunting and the environment being seriously dealt with. When we voted on joining the EU, we did not yet have the constant flow of Africans fleeing to Europe for a better life. “Since joining the European Union in 2003, Malta has attracted the largest illegal immigrant minority in Europe, totalling 8,000 or two per cent of the population. (The second largest is less than one-tenth of a per cent in Italy),” wrote Barbie Nadeau in the latest Newsweek International, describing Malta as “Europe’s hottest immigration front”. We are recognised internationally as the EU’s member state with the biggest problem. If there is one thing the two local political parties agree on, it is that Malta cannot absorb the amount of illegal immigrants arriving here. This has nothing to do with racism or xenophobia. It has to do with the size of our country, the logistics of integrating such a large number of people and our inexperience in dealing with mass immigration. The issue becomes racist or xenophobic by the way we behave towards the people who arrive here by boats, obviously not cruise liners, and the way we tackle the problem. We behave well by saving them from drowning then herd them into unsavoury pens. But even the former is contested according to the same Newsweek article mentioned above; “Malta twice defied EU policy by refusing to admit or aid refugee boats, forcing Spain and Italy to come to the rescue. The EU says no nation had ever violated the traditional duty to save lives at sea ‘in such a manifest way.’” Our government hotly contested this and I leave it up to our boys at the Foreign and Home Offices to respond to the Newsweek report. The report adds, “Malta says it can’t be the EU holding pen.” Which is what in fact Malta is, and so far we are paying the EU more than we are getting out of membership. To tackle the problem efficiently and humanely, there has to be an element of burden sharing, and everybody knows we have the heaviest load. It is not good enough for other member states to get on their high horse and admonish Malta for its badly run detention centres, and still drag their feet over funding Malta to improve them. If they were really concerned, they would cough up. EU parliamentarians have to do more than just agree that we have a serious problem and offer us sympathy. Did the EC need to send a delegation to be “better aware of the local situation” and establish that “in connection with both border patrol and the treatment of immigrants, the situation is not satisfactory”? Anyway, it did, and a fat lot of use that was. At the end of the visit we were told repeatedly that the committee was not “promising anything” other than to take a hard look at how more funds can be allotted to Malta. “Allocating more money to Malta would mean taking funds out of the allocation for other member states,” said the head of the delegation. So? Malta has the biggest problem, that has been established and reestablished till the cows have not only come home, but are fast asleep, so why don’t EU parliamentarians pull their finger out and stop fobbing us off? The EU should put its money where its mouth is, and let’s just hope we are on the ball enough to catch it. NGOs, which mostly tap into integration funds, have complained about the burdensome process of applying for funding, and reforms are supposedly in the pipeline. One understands NGOs having problems with funding applications and meeting deadlines, but one expects more from government and parastatal staff. Our main problem is organisational failure and this became clear when it became public knowledge that we are paying the European Union more than we are receiving from it, much more. Now don’t get carried away with the idea that our politicians are the only ones screwing up. But, as we live here, let’s concentrate on our problems. One of which is accountability. It has been made known that some people responsible for missing deadlines for crucial funds have been given the chop, and that might act as a warning that in future people will be expected to do their job. But shouldn’t the OPM have had a person, or more, responsible for ensuring that all EU deadlines concerned with funding were being met? Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted is not good enough. It would be highly embarrassing if after all the fuss we have been kicking up we lose more funding because we have not got our act together.

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