Tuesday, 2 June 2009

MaltaToday: The ‘outreach’ campaign [Interview: Simon Busuttil]

31.5.9 by Matthew Vella

PN frontrunner SIMON BUSUTTIL is at the helm of a campaign to try and elect a third MEP, but the popular mood bodes stormy seas for this captain

It’s been yet another interesting campaign for the Nationalists, whose line-up of candidates, each appealing to a different sector of society, produced a couple of contradictory statements along the line. 
Metsola Tedesco Triccas, for instance, came out in favour of VAT reductions on car tax, against Tonio Fenech’s own conviction. She also supports extending maternity leave when the government has told the European Commission it does not share her opinion. Elsewhere, Edward Demicoli and Alex Perici Calascione have aired drastically contrasting views on Spring hunting; and Frank Portelli’s anti-Libya crusade raised the ire of home affairs minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici.
At the helm of this impressive mix of aspirant MEPs is Simon Busuttil: recently touted as the PN’s next leader and prime minister by Alan Deidun, the party’s token environmentalist for the election, whose genial yet naïve praise for Busuttil at the last PN general council will certainly not win him any second-preference votes. 
Busuttil himself gives me radio silence when I bring it up jokingly, preferring to busy himself in the kitchen to make us a cup of coffee.
Talk about embarrassing moments: we meet just two days before Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s ill-timed party for Perici Calascione on his Mistra land – scene of the controversial scandal that almost cost the PN the election last year. 
Busuttil, concise and pithily, comments: “I think it’s in bad taste”.
Busuttil is not just top dog in this election, he is also an architect of the PN campaign. “In everything we do, we want to try and get three MEPs and not two. I paid the price for having two MEPs... with the most basic work, from burden sharing to other less crucial matters, falling on us two without any support from the Labour MEPs. If we got results with two MEPs, think of what we can do with three…”
The Nationalists’ main plank for this campaign is about jobs. Busuttil says MEPs will assiduously focus on matters that will bring more jobs to Malta. He cites the Insolvency II Directive, in which he garnered support of his MEP colleagues to vote down parts of the directive that would have “killed part of our insurance sector”.
“This means I helped to protect and create jobs for Malta. We protected the medicinal generics sector; curbed environmental clauses that went too far and could have killed enterprises and jobs: for example, the inclusion of aviation in the emissions trading scheme would have devastated Air Malta. We fought against this, protecting jobs and tourism.”
Busuttil sums it up: “Making the link (with jobs) is what we should be about. We will see whether laws in the EP are good for jobs, or if they threaten jobs in Malta.”
Expecting this election to deliver the party a major blow, both in terms of turnout and overall vote after its 2004 drubbing (just over 39% of the national vote), the PN is really trying to reach out to everyone.
For example, despite the government’s stated opposition to extending maternity leave because of business concerns, Lawrence Gonzi recently stated he is actually in favour of extending it “as long as member states are on a level playing field.”
Busuttil argues that without this level playing field, small and medium enterprises will be disadvantaged. 
“It’s because the rule won’t apply to each member state. And we’re willing to discuss the extension, so is the EPP. But we want this to be the same for every member state and guarantee the same conditions for everyone.”
Busuttil says the eclectic mix of candidates all “agree with the PN’s principles and values. As long as they fall within these parameters, they are free to express themselves on how they interpret their parliamentary mandate. Even I have disagreed in the past with government positions… Labour has candidates who don’t agree on EU membership, or on free healthcare, such as Edward Scicluna.”
What about Gonzi’s pow-wow with hunters? What’s the PN trying to do there at all, now that the European Commission has taken the government to court over the opening of the spring hunting season?
“It’s about honouring one’s commitments,” Busuttil says. “We wanted to enter the EU as a united people, and we addressed hunters’ concerns to bring them on board in 2003. What was said then must be honoured to the last dot. Now government must defend its case in the European Court of Justice and yes, it must communicate with the hunters and tell them we’re honouring our commitments. It’s not about pro- or anti-hunting.”
One clear attempt at reaching out by the PN was signing the International Lesbian Gay Association’s (ILGA) pledge for MEPs. Despite ILGA’s claim that Busuttil and David Casa have the worst track record on gay rights and resolutions in the EP, Busuttil says he has actually voted in favour of other resolutions on gay rights.
He says the PN wants to work with the Malta Gay Rights Movement, but that the MGRM has to understand its red lines. “I’m ready to fight against any form of discrimination against homosexual persons, but there are two red lines I cannot cross: same sex marriage, and gay adoptions. Whenever there is a direct or indirect reference to these two things, I have to vote against – the furthest I can go is to abstain.”
Busuttil is quick to point out that MEPs insert “obvious references” to same-sex marriage in resolutions condemning homophobia just to put people like himself and the European People’s Party “in an embarrassing position”.
But the ILGA petition also includes supporting parental leave for gay parents – isn’t that one of the indirect references to same-sex partnerships?
Busuttil says the candidates’ proviso to their signature is that while pledging to fight against discrimination (he points out the PN were the first to legislate against gay discrimination in employment), they are holding on to their definition of marriage.
But he adds the PN is supporting cohabitation rights for both opposite- and same-sex couples, and that this pledge “is nothing new”.
“Lawrence Gonzi made it in the last election and he is committed to it. We want to tell MGRM there’s a lot we agree upon and that we should concentrate on those points. Unfortunately they are more focused on attacking on our votes on our red lines, rather than on cooperation – I hope they will support us when we come to propose these type of things.”
But isn’t this pledge on cohabitation the same one promised back in 1998, when Gonzi was PN secretary general and soon after social policy minister? Isn’t the PN taking voters for a ride, 10 years in the making?
Busuttil absconds himself with a somewhat unsatisfactory reply, given the PN’s overdue promise: “I did not even exist in 1998.” 
He adds that the pledge had been renewed in a pre-electoral meeting he had last year with Louis Galea and Joe Saliba with the MGRM, and that reference to this was even inserted in the President’s speech.
So could he convince his party’s government to move forward on this pledge?
“Not as an MEP. The EU has no competence on these matters. It’s a process that must evolve in Malta according to the parties’ political will. I’m in favour – and when you think the PN is traditionally the conservative party, this is a big step forward. It shows that in reality, the conservative party is not the PN. It’s Labour.”

I ask Busuttil where he thinks Labour has made its conservative turn.
“Immigration,” he affirms with confidence. “It screams it out. See the positions Labour took on immigration and forget the name ‘Labour’, and you realise this is a right-wing party talking, if not far-right: a party exhorting you to ignore international obligations is something that usually emerges from a far-right party.”
However, Busuttil himself was criticised for his rhetoric on immigration, by none other than anthropologist Ranier Fsadni, head of PN think-tank AZAD, on his stand on giving migrants voting rights. In a nutshell, Busuttil attacked Labour over their European counterparts’ amendment to his report on the common immigration policy, to give migrants (referred as long-term and legally resident) to be given voting rights in local council elections. Cue the racist backlash in the letters’ pages of the press. 
According to Fsadni, Busuttil’s reference to the amendment as “controversial” was in such ‘careful wording (as to) easily pander to the idea that legal migrants are a social danger and ought not to be granted any civic rights’.
Does he feel somewhat responsible for creating this false impression?
“Not at all. These amendments – if you check the EP report – usually make reference to ‘immigrants’ without specifying whether they are legal or illegal… It’s not the first time it could be a vague reference.”
Indeed the final report itself states that “migrants” should be given “opportunities” to vote in elections – but in no way does it specify “illegal immigrants” (which ultimately means somebody who is pending deportation, with no right of stay). More to the point, the MEP who presented the amendment, Catherine Boursier, presented a more specific amendment to the report outlining which migrants could vote (“the right of long-term residents to vote in local elections”) and in another amendment to give “migrants opportunities for democratic participation… to vote in local elections”.
Put entirely, it does not preclude member states from setting their own rules for which sort of migrant should be eligible to vote. 
But Busuttil attacked the amendment in parliament from the start, while Labour MEPs John Attard Montalto and Louis Grech did not take up the exemplary stand of their European colleagues, and presented a dry statement to the EP saying they did not agree with voting rights for illegal immigrants “because of Malta’s demographic situation”.
“My criticism of voting rights for immigrants, be they legal, is that it is in itself controversial,” Busuttil tells me. “In such a report as mine, which I believe contains 99% positive content, the amendment risked undermining the consensus on the report. Why should such a sensitive matter that could divide us be brought up? We should have left it out. I spoke to Louis Grech to convince the PES to leave out such a paragraph. In no way did I want this to appear right-wing…”
But this was not a case of Busuttil appearing ‘right-wing’. Politically, he used his vague reference to immigrants voting to hit out at Labour MEPs on their hawkish immigration stand at home, contrasted with the progressive stand of their socialist colleagues in the EP.
But what seeped from the maelstrom of accusations into voters’ ears was painted perfectly by Ranier Fsadni: ‘he made it sound like the bigots were right’. Wasn’t Busuttil aware of the ramifications of his statements?
“My argument was that when I needed them to convince the PES not to introduce something that will complicate a report so important to Malta, the Labour MEPs were not able to do this.”
Additionally, Busuttil states there were four instances “in which Labour’s MEPs voted differently on voting rights for immigrants – once in favour, twice abstaining, and finally on my report, voting against.”
Clearly, Busuttil drives the point home that ‘progressive’ was a word which Labour’s MEPs have mislaid back in Brussels. Politically he is shrewd enough to exploit their weakness inside the PES at convincing their colleagues to take impossible stands on immigration – because their traditional voting behaviour is far removed from the PL’s hawkish domestic policy.
“My party’s stand on this matter is that only foreign citizens of the EU should have the right to vote in local councils and European Parliament elections, because only they reciprocate this right with Maltese citizens. The British were afforded the same right before EU accession on the strength of a reciprocal agreement established within the Commonwealth,” Busuttil says.
“We cannot entertain giving the vote to non-EU citizens at this stage of our political development, be they Russians or Africans. After all, this is a matter of reciprocity and this only exists within the EU.”
I am surprised however, that after Busuttil addressed the EP on the Pinar standoff between Italy and Malta – in which he described Italy’s attempt to offload immigrants on Malta as “shameful” and “unacceptable” and even hailed that rule of law had prevailed “over the law of the jungle” (when the migrants were rightly taken by Italy) – he supports Italy’s forced repatriation policy: which was effectively the end-result of the Italo-Maltese altercation.
“I agree with it because I think it is legal, and for us it is a possibility to break the mafia that is putting these people’s lives in danger. I prefer to see someone apply for protection in Libya than letting him risk his life to come to Europe to do the same. That’s why I don’t understand UNHCR’s incoherent position; it seems to be saying that it’s better to let them risk their lives and apply in Europe – when what UNHCR should so is beef up its Tripoli operations, get Libya to ratify the Geneva Convention, and process asylum applications and allocate a country of resettlement for them.”
Interestingly, Busuttil argues that since the migrants get intercepted in the high seas there is “no community law or national law” to be applied in these cases. So does this mean that migrants are left afloat in a sea of lawlessness? Busuttil argues that there is “no innocent safe passage” in the case of migrants attempting to enter a country illegally.
Although I am sure he will find other lawyers to debate him on this point, doesn’t repatriation punish asylum seekers who potentially have a clear case for refugee protection? Busuttil reaffirms his position: “we want to break down the mafia that is capitalising on this trafficking, to convince migrants it is useless to pay $1,000 to risk their lives at sea.”
The Vatican thinks otherwise about Italy’s policy, of course, but even the Nationalists are not the conservatives of yesteryear perhaps. 
“I’m very conscious of this criticism,” Busuttil says, “but I have to make a difference between the Church’s responsibility and that of a government that has to govern.”

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