Over a Coffee . . . with MEP Roberta Metsola

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Our correspondent Denise Grech, meets MEP Roberta Metsola over a coffee in Brussels.

What are your priorities for the new term?

I will start with my priorities affecting Malta. I sit on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs- so the migration- committee on the environmental committee. The reason I sit on these committees is that throughout the election campaign and any surveys, the main two issues on the EU were migration and the environment. If anything, I think the environmental issue has resurfaced and it’s really strong. So I will spend, primarily, a big bunch of my time dealing with policy initiatives. I want to make sure Malta doesn’t remain with a disproportionate challenge with migration because we’re at the periphery.  I also want to focus on climate and plastic.

These two issues are interlinked. So when we talk the increase in population, how is that mirrored in a better functioning transport system? When we talk about multiculturalism in the country, how are we engaging with the local councils to ensure that policies at a government level reflect what is needed at a local level?

And all that starts to be discussed here. Our discussions will feed into the funding that goes into towns and villages from all areas. I chose these two because they are very relevant policy-wise, and potentially funding wise, very successful for Malta and Gozo.

With regards to other work, I will continue to focus on corruption. This is also one of the subjects that featured heavily in the campaign and there is a significant number of persons in Malta and Gozo that would like politics that is clean and transparent, On this, not enough people are talking about why Parliament is not full-time; why political parties are still dependent on donors and ‘maratoni’ to employ researchers or media people. In other countries, you have seats within the national parliament and that would translate into the proportionate funding for political parties. Once you do that, you eliminate the need for sponsorships, that MPs need to depend on a government salary.

How can you do that from Brussels?

I don’t consider myself an MEP in Brussels and not in Malta. Maltese MEPs are elected directly, unlike many others from other countries, whereby they are put on a party list and only need to do work when elections come. We are MEPs that are elected by the whole country and so every third day I am in Malta listening to concerns.

I wanted to turn to the Environment Committee. We saw the ban on single-use plastics but what else should be done?

 There will definitely be a revision of the cleaner air legislation and that will translate to making sure that vehicles are emit-less. We need to look at the electric cars we put on the road and where the electricity to power the cars is coming from. That is something that current government seemingly forgotten. The biggest question is where is the energy coming from the charging stations coming from.

Secondly, and this is something that our political group pushes for intensely is research. We are putting to ourselves massively ambitious targets- and we should. Where is the research that will allow our transport systems to be cleaner? Starting from the individual’s car to aviation. There, the EPP will be very insistent from now on. We are also looking at, if we are going to trading systems- where you pay for what you emit.  Where is that money going? Who is it going to help? I believe it should help researchers to actually invest their time and their brains in coming up with environmentally-sustainable solutions.

If we have cars that run on electricity, can we have ships that do too? At the moment it is impossible, unless it is a small ferry. Taking it back to Malta, are we even looking at, rather than the tunnel, a Gozo channel that can run on electricity?

How feasible is that in the short-term?

 At the moment we’re negotiating the multi-annual financial framework. Where is our government in ensuring that the money that is going to our country is going to be used for this investment? Why are we still so lagging behind with solar panels everywhere? Why have other countries managed to harness energy-saving projects? It cannot be about widening roads and cutting down trees.  We need to be better and there is nowhere more urgent than to do it in Malta. We need to have long-term planning. Where is our waste going to go?

You mentioned waste. What do you make of land reclamation?

Well I certainly don’t think that dumping construction at sea is necessarily the best way to get rid of waste. The arguments that have been made for and against land reclamation remain valid. Though we cannot decide that we are suddenly full up and start expanding our shoreline. And we cannot on the one hand organise clean-ups to remove rubbish from our seas in order to save the little marine life that we still have, and at the same time say we are going to dump construction waste on top of that marine life. So my argument is let’s stop thinking about government and Opposition, let’s get everybody around the table with experts and see what can be done.

Unfortunately, we have too many politicians who think that as long as it’s not in their district their happy, and if it comes to their district they would just reject it, because the aim is about being re-elected. This is the reality.

What happened to the rule of law mechanism that you had been pushing for the past legislature?

In July, the outgoing Commission formed a proposal for such a mechanism. It will start to be negotiated by Vice President designate Vera Jourova and Commissioner Reynders. The idea will be for a tool box that does not only talk about Article 7. At the moment, you go from accession to the EU to an immediate pushing of the nuclear button. What we want is that, just like every state’s financial system and regulatory authority are placed under a stress test every year, so too should our judiciary, our executive, our law enforcement authorities, our checks and balances, our overseeing authorities.

I wanted to turn the Metsola law- I know that will allow for 10,000 more coastguards to be placed at the border. What will happen to the people that will be found by those coastguards?

There are many different ways of entering the European Union. So, at the moment, we do not have enough capacity at the external borders to take care of migrants, to process them, and then decide whether they will be granted protection or sent back.

What we have seen, for example in Greece, is that these border guards cannot cope by themselves. So we’ve had to send ad-hoc border guards to that area. We want to implement a model where we harmonise the external border with, eventually, these 10,000 border guards. Unless we tackle the challenge at source with offices at third countries like Macedonia, Egypt or Tunisia, you will have persons deployed there at times of crisis.

We to prevent people from getting on boats in the first place. Because once they get on those boats, a very large majority of them are not eligible for protection and they stay for a long time waiting to be returned. Our return rate is very low: at 36-40 per cent. The essence of the “Metsola law” is that migration can only be effective if those with eligibility protection get it.

So, once they are found by coastguards, what will happen to them?

 They are brought to territory or, as we would like to see, they would be taken to a closer port of call. So if you are off to coast of Libya, we know Tunisia is closer. Now- and the Tunisian government is very reluctant about this, there will have to be a deal whereby in return for a lot of money and building reception facilities on their territory, then the process for applying for asylum can be done there. But at the moment, there is no such agreement. The left in this house is very reluctant to accept these sort of disembarkation platforms. What the extreme right want to do is for an asylum application to be processed at sea. But that is, I think, impossible to do that right now. Also a lot of people who suggest this have no idea what it is like to save people from drowning and the conditions that persons who are in the boats are when they are saved. What we fail to understand when we talk about numbers is that these are all individuals. For them to be on the boat, or to send their children on the boat, there is only one reason: that it is safer to put their children on the boat than it is to remain on land.

We need to work with our commissioners responsible for development aid. Where is the money going? Where are all those millions we gave from taxpayers to help Africa gone? If you are a 19-year-old Moroccan boy, you will not be given protection, you will be sent back! So we have this bizarre situation where the Moroccan boy has no choice but to come to Europe, apply for protection and then be sent back.

Via CiConsulta – Europe Explained 

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