Learning is a lifelong experience | Karmenu Vella

Former EU Environment Commissioner KARMENU VELLA draws on his 40 years of political experience to offer a word of advice to the new Prime Minister: learn from the mistakes of others

Former Labour Party MP Karmenu Vella
Former Labour Party MP Karmenu Vella

You served under Dom Mintoff, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, Alfred Sant and Joseph Muscat, which makes you the longest-serving veteran of the Labour Party. What advice would you give to Prime Minister Robert Abela following the crisis which led to Joseph Muscat’s resignation?

I went into politics at a very early stage in life. I was elected to parliament in 1976, and at the age of 26 became the youngest MP. From then onwards, I continued to serve and contribute to the Maltese democratic process for almost four decades.

Learning is a lifelong process. Whether in Government or in Opposition, I watched and learned from other politicians. Like most successful people, Prime Minister Abela understands that there are lessons to be learnt from recent and not-so-recent past blunders and slip-ups, and that he has to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

Abela is not new to Maltese politics and institutions. He is surrounded by an experienced team who, I am sure, will give him the best advice. He set and explained his objectives very clearly, and he is determined and energetic enough to be able to achieve them. He fully understands that difficult times demand difficult decisions, and in this respect he has already shown that he means business.

Abela has shown that he already masters the most important leadership skills. He has the vision, courage, integrity, humility and the strategic intention to balance economic success with social benefits and environmental protection. I am certain that he will continue to build and nourish these values and characteristics.

He is prepared to listen and heed good advice coming whenever and from whoever. I am certain that he is a person who assesses and evaluates the message more than the messenger. And he believes in a collaborative approach when taking important decisions.

As all his predecessors, he will be judged on his actions, not merely on his words. He realises the importance of action over words and that his decisions must be decisive, efficient and effective. The best way forward is to have a complete changeover from “remedial action” to “preventive measures”.

I think Abela fully understands that being voted into government does not give him ‘power’, but ‘responsibility’. Responsibility towards our citizens and country.

As a past member of the European Commission, how do you view criticism on the rule of law in Malta and the current dialogue between the commission and Malta on rule of law issues?

It is essential that all EU Member States uphold the rule of law. The EU institutions, within their respective roles, ascertain that this applies equally to all Member States.

Promoting and upholding the rule of law is a central imperative of the European Commission’s work as guardian of the Treaties. The Institution’s role in this regard is to address more structural and systematic issues in particular in the area of judiciary and the fight against corruption and money laundering across the European Union.

The European Commission’s aim is not to blame and shame, or to criticise Member States, but to help them strengthen their rule of law, through solutions based on cooperation and mutual support, and this is exactly what is being done in Malta and elsewhere.

The Maltese government has already started working on the issue. The adoption of the “State Advocate Act” as well as the appointment of the first State Advocate are proof of the government’s commitment in this regard. Through this Act, the State Advocate, as the Chief Legal Advisor to the Government, acts in the public interest and safeguards the legality of actions of the State.

Without doubt, the European Commission will continue to support the Maltese government to continue implementing the necessary reforms.

Some feel that the focus on Malta’s rule of law issues is unfair: for example, because the European Commission took less interest in similar issues involving other member states. Do you think this criticism is valid? Does the Commission treat smaller states differently to larger more powerful countries?

Equality is a fundamental principle of the European Union, not only equality amongst citizens but also amongst Member States, irrespective of their size.

It is true that some Member States are bigger and richer than others, but being bigger and richer does not exempt any Member State from any action deemed necessary by the Commission. During my time as Commissioner, I remember taking action on air quality issues against nine Member States, amongst them the biggest and the richest.

In the past we have even seen “big and rich” countries arguing that they have been discriminated against or badly treated by the European Union.

The EU defends its principles and democratic values which are universal. It does not “look down” or “look up” to any Member State. The same principles and the same values equally apply to all Member States.

You served as Commissioner for the environment fisheries and maritime affairs. Beyond local issues like pollution, tuna penning is often seen as an unsustainable practice as it depletes stocks both of tuna and fish used for feeding. Yet this industry is seen as important for Malta’s economic growth. How have your views matured on this issue?

One of the tasks of the EU Commissioner in charge of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, is to strengthen the sustainable growth of the overall aquaculture sector in the EU. Though, overseeing the sector’s operation at a national level is a Member State’s competence.

Aquaculture in the EU accounts for about 20% of fish production. Since 2000, global aquaculture production has grown by nearly 7% per annum. However, the EU’s overall output, for the same sector, has shown much lower levels of growth. It was only between 2014 and 2015 that the EU aquaculture sector started showing signs of growth, by around 4% in volume and 8% in value. However, throughout the past 20 years, the EU aquaculture sector has shown much higher progress in terms of quality, sustainability and consumer protection standards, when compared to the same sectors in other parts of the world.

Looking at the bigger picture, global population is expected to be nearly 10 billion by 2050. How will we feed them without putting intolerable strain on our natural resources?

 To answer this question (during my time as EU Commissioner) I asked the EU High Level Scientists team to produce the “Food from the Oceans Report”. Their short answer to the aforementioned question was “more culture, less capture”. Of course, we must continue our work on sustainable wild fisheries, but if we are to get more seafood, it has to come from sustainable and responsible farming.

The EU imports some 60% of its fish demand. Aquaculture can help us reduce our reliance on imported fish, where at times environmental credentials may not match our strict standards. More in general, we would consume fish with less “food miles” and greater assurance about production standards.

Thanks to world-leading EU funded research, and thanks to close cooperation between the Commission and national authorities, the sector is becoming more sustainable than ever before. The EU provides 1.2 billion euro exclusively for aquaculture. This is complemented by EU funded research on topics like feed efficiency, breeding, environmental management and innovative technologies to help farms invest, grow, and become more innovative, sustainable and efficient.

From your experience as Commissioner, do you agree with criticism that industry lobby groups have disproportionate power within the European Union’s structures? Is there a level playing field between different interest groups trying to influence European legislation?

Lobbying is an integral part of a healthy democracy. It allows for various interest groups to present their views on public decisions that may come to affect them. It also has the potential to enhance the quality of decision-making by providing channels for the input of expertise to legislators and decision-makers.

But regulating lobbying is a rather recent concept. The previous Commission decided that Commissioners, as well as cabinet members and directors-generals, should only meet interest representatives relating to policy-making and implementation in the EU, if the interest representatives are registered in the EU transparency register.

This register is a database that lists organisations that try to influence the law making and policy implementation process of the EU institutions. It shows what interests are being pursued, by whom and with what budgets. In this way, the register allows for public scrutiny, giving citizens and other interest groups the possibility to track the activities of lobbyists.

When it comes to transparency, it is important to go for the highest standards.

EU countries have different approaches in this regard. Currently, there are only seven EU Member States that have legislation on lobbying activities, as well as a mandatory register of lobbyists.

To date, Malta has no such legislation. However, I understand that the current government has committed in its 2017 electoral manifesto to initiate decisions on the introduction of a public transparency register.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has already committed much deserved attention on the subject under the wider umbrella of good governance and I trust he will be delivering on this promise during the course of his mandate.

Do you exclude a return to politics or public service?

I have learned in life that most of the best opportunities often come unplanned.

My whole life has been a very diverse and wide-ranging experience. I enjoy working – whether in the public or private sector – and I cannot imagine myself not doing anything. But I do not think I could go for a 24/7 commitment as I want to enjoy more time with my family, especially my grandchildren.

Nonetheless, throughout my political and professional career I learned and gathered a lot of knowledge. I would be more than glad to utilise and pass on this experience, in the public or private sector, hopefully for a good use.