The EU is not in a position to solve problems | Alfred Sant

Former Prime Minister (now MEP) ALFRED SANT admits that his own opinions about certain issues – abortion, in particular – may have changed, over the years. But he remains as sceptical as ever, regarding the European Union he once campaigned against joining: arguing that it lacks the structural tools to face today’s challenges

Labour MEP Alfred Sant
Labour MEP Alfred Sant

As an MEP, you have often voiced scepticism regarding whether the European Parliament should involve itself in the internal issues of third-party countries. Last month, for instance, you abstained on a resolution about the Tunisian situation. Yet it remains a fact that the EP often passes such resolutions: recent examples include Russia and Syria. Do you think that there will be more discussion, in future, regarding a Common Foreign Policy for the European Union?

First of all, in a Parliament, there cannot be any limitations on what can, or cannot, be ‘discussed’. The word parliament itself means precisely that: ‘talking’. So parliaments can ‘talk’ about anything they like, really. What might happen afterwards, though, is that individuals State may reply: “OK, now that you’ve done your talking… I’m going to carry on like before”.

On the other hand, however: as an MEP, no, I don’t really agree that the European Parliament should be wading into matters that are not within its own competence; nor, for that matter, that we MEPS – in all our wisdom (or so we think) – should be ‘judging’ all other countries, from here…. very often, in purely partisan ways.

I also believe – and this something we are often told by representatives of non-EU States – that, even though EP resolutions are not in themselves legally binding… when the European Parliament does pass a resolution against this or that country, it will have an ‘echo’: in the sense that the resolution will project a certain ‘sentiment’, onto the country concerned.

We see this even in Malta: every time the European Parliament passes a resolution about Malta, there is always a lot of discussion about it in the press, and among the general public.  And the same thing happens in other countries: Tunisia, Pakistan, Azerbaijan… you name it.

Now: is the European Union going to involve itself even more, in foreign policy issues? In reality, that is already happening. There are efforts currently under way - supported by many MEPs, and also a number of member states – for what is referred to as a ‘deepening’ [approfondiment] of the European Union’s foreign policy: to give it more more ‘bite’; more cohesion… more unity, if you like; and also, of the EU’s common defence and security strategy. Because for many MEPS, and many EU State representatives, those two issues go hand-in-glove.

So these efforts are ongoing, even as we speak. For example, there is already an EU High Representative who is involved in foreign affairs; and who also presides over – in his other capacity, as Vice President of the European Commission – all the meetings of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers.

I, however, remain one of those sceptics who argue that - especially for a small, neutral country like Malta - we have to be extra-careful, when it comes to automatically aligning ourselves with foreign policy positions that, very often, are decided at the centre of Europe: that is, by the larger, and longer-established EU member states, such as France, Germany, and others.

Because, no matter what we like to think about ourselves: the fact remains that we do not gravitate in the same ‘inner circles’, as those countries do…

A few weeks ago, you voted in favour of a resolution condemning certain restrictions, imposed by the government of Poland, on access to abortion.  In your explanation, you also mentioned that you had revised your own opinions on that subject. Can you explain what your actual position on abortion is today?

Let’s start with this. For some time, I was the leader of the Labour Party: which, as far as I know, hasn’t changed its position on abortion since that time. Now as then, Labour does not agree with the introduction of abortion in Malta.  And this was a position I fully supported, at the time.

Over the years, however, you start seeing and hearing about all the real problems that are actually faced by people on the ground; and they start fitting into a broader picture of how our society in general is evolving.

As for my own views:  they are in the process of changing, yes. In the sense that: there are certain women’s rights, which are recognized by all the modern world – and by that, I mean specifically by all European countries – that I think must be respected. There are also certain needs, or necessities, that cannot be ignored.

Above all, however: while we have to respect everybody’s opinion… we also have to respect everybody’s rights.  I am certainly not one of those who strongly condemns anyone who is in favour of abortion; but I don’t condemn those who are against it, either.

On the other hand, with the same sense of tolerance I find myself leaning towards a position where I would be in favour of introducing abortion, within certain regulatory limitations. But this is only a personal opinion of mine, and does not reflect the position of my party.

Regarding the Poland resolution, however: that was a case where the country had already introduced abortion – thereby granting that right to women - but then, chose to remove it. That is something I could not, and cannot ever agree with: not just with regard to Poland. There was another similar resolution concerning the USA: in much the same way as Poland, the state of Texas also decided to change its abortion laws, effectively making it almost impossible for abortion to be practiced there.

In both cases, I felt that a right which had been granted to women through democratic means, was simply taken away from them: for reasons that, in both cases, were ultimately down to partisan politics. I could never agree with that, myself. If a right has been granted, within a representational democracy… it cannot just be withdrawn on a whim.

But do you think time has come for abortion to be legalized in Malta: at least in certain cases?

Given that I am already naturally gravitating towards that position anyway… I would not be against it.

Responding to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘State of the Union’ address, you cast doubt over whether the European Commission had made a ‘realistic evaluation’ of the bloc’s actual situation. Among the many structural problems you identified were: management issues within the Eurozone; the lack of progress towards a common immigration policy; growing inequality; and economic disparities between different member states. Do you think the European Commission is denying the existence of such problems?

Let me put this way; when you look at the European Union for what it is – i.e., a group of 27 member states – the source of all those problems becomes very clearly visible.  Unlike the United States, the European Union doesn’t have any federal structures of its own: which permit to it to directly tackle such problems, head-on, the moment they arise.

But it has to be noted that similar problems are now cropping up even in the USA; and very often, we are seeing the emergence of the same sort of ‘roadblocks’ – by which I mean, ‘political obstacles’ - that prevent those problems from being solved.

Having said this: the European Commission’s strategy, under Ursula von der Leyen, has been to identify three or four major priorities: all of which are, admittedly, very important in themselves. The Green Deal, for instance; or the Digitalization Strategy… and [von der Leyen] is insisting that these projects have to be implemented, come what may: even if, in reality, the European Commission has already fallen behind its targets… and is likely to fall farther still.

At the same time, however, other problems have been emerging. COVID-19 was one example which no one saw coming; and – at least, in the beginning - the European Union encountered serious problems in coordinating its response.

The reason is that the ‘Health’ portfolio does not fall within the European Commission’s competence, in any organic way; so there was need for negotiations with each EU individual member state, to come up with a common position that was, at the time, required with urgency. Because one of the European Union’s core fundamental principles has always been ‘Freedom of Movement’ – i.e., that its citizens can freely move from country, to another, to another… technically, because you don’t need a visa.

But the moment you start introducing health restrictions, which are different from one country to the next… then that’s it: you no longer have ‘Freedom of Movement’. All of sudden, then, an issue which had always lain outside the EU’s own competence, came to be something that directly affected the same EU’s ability to act.  And this is one of many problems, that the EU itself is structurally not in a position to solve.

Immigration is another good example. When irregular migrants enter into any one EU member state - for instance, Malta or Italy - very often, their intention will be to continue travelling towards Germany (or, until recently, the United Kingdom). And this creates the same type of political roadblocks which hamper the EU’s ability to effectively solve any of these problems: because there are all sorts of different national, and regional, interests involved.

Countries are, in fact, even classified according to region: this one is ‘North’; that one ‘East’; and the other is ‘South’ European - and as you rightly said in your question, this also translates into a situation of disparity – both social, and economic – between the various regions and nations.

As things stand, the only ‘language’ we have to try and solve these problems with, is international dialogue: i.e., an exchange of ideas and compromises, between all the member states. There are no federal structures, within the EU, that can approach these problems at a federal level; and personally, I don’t think there should be any, either… even if my own opposition to European federalization is based on other, very different reasons.

Nonetheless, that is the basic context we are looking at here. And in that context – with 27 different countries; all with their own voices, and their own national interests – it is obvious that there are going to be massive roadblocks, placed in the path of any ‘common solution’.  So no matter what Ursula von der Leyen said in her ‘State of the Union’ address; it doesn’t seem to me as though the European Commission is any closer to actually solving any of those problems.

Not for want of trying, perhaps; but she’s just not solving those problems. And nowhere is this more visible, than in the case of immigration…

This raises the question of whether there can ever be any solidarity at all, at European level, on an issue such as immigration: which is not as ‘attractive’, shall we say, as other issues like the Green Deal (where there is more convergence by member states)…

I have to disagree with you about the Green Deal, myself. Personally, I’m not seeing all that much ‘convergence’ about it, right now.

In fact, a major controversy that has only just erupted is the question of whether nuclear energy should be classified as ‘green’, or not.  On one hand there are countries like France – which produce much of their own energy through nuclear power – arguing that ‘yes, it should’; but on the other, you have countries like Germany, which (for once) disagrees. Even here, then, there are major problems looming on the horizon: for as this controversy is still ongoing, France – and also the Czech Republic – is in the process of investing heavily in nuclear energy: at a time when other countries are arguing that nuclear should not be part of the Green Deal.

There are, of course, valid arguments both for and against: nuclear energy, for instance, does not contribute anything at all to global climate change… though it has other disadvantages of its own. But without going into the specifics of those arguments: even here, we can already see that the Green Deal is ultimately subject to the same ‘roadblocks’ that prevent any form of lasting agreement.

Meanwhile, there is another, similar controversy currently evolving around – believe it or not - the concept of the ‘rule of law’.  There are ongoing claims, for instance, that Poland and Hungary are not respecting certain basic rule-of-law principles – in particular, where the independence of the judiciary is concerned; and in the European parliament, primarily, there is also a growing emphasis, by a large majority of MEPS, on the need for sanctions against those countries… and others, which are deemed (by whatever process) to be in breach of the rule of law.

There is even pressure on the European Commission, to conduct an annual investigation into each member state over the same issue; and, where applicable, that those countries found to be lacking should face EU-imposed economic sanctions… including the withdrawal of any EU funding.

Now: to be fair, it’s not as though the European Commission has been inactive, faced with all this. It has tried to find a compromise, between the various interests concerned. Once again, however, it keeps coming up against the same hurdles; it keeps stumbling on the same obstacles… and this is only to be expected, if the EU continues to mix up issues such as ‘the rule of law’, with all the economic rules and regulations that hold the same European Union together.