More for businesses from EU - Peter Agius
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More for businesses from EU - Peter Agius

Since I accepted the call to be a candidate for the European Parliament elections on the PN list, I have met people from all walks of life to understand their concerns and propose possible European solutions. I quickly realised my occupational hazard of having to be the one to clarify where Europe can help and where it may not.

Along with my colleagues, candidates of the PN, PL, PD and AD, my ambition is to attract citizen support by triggering public debate on the issues closest to them.

None of us should exclude the possibility of being elected. When that day comes for six of us, we will be held accountable for every word uttered before May 25 (election date). It is hence imperative that the issues we tackle as harbingers of new hope are indeed those that can be battled in European Parliament committees and plenary. The gladiators in the arena right now must foresee at least a possible victory for the cheering crowds also beyond election day. 

One sector which can certainly benefit from vociferous representation in Brussels is the Maltese business community, from the self-employed and the smallest companies, representing 90 per cent of our businesses, to the medium and larger members of our industries.

Business is indeed the motor of our economy and society, and our handling of Europe will be instrumental to the challenges ahead.

Let me start with the most obvious: EU funding. Maltese businesses have been the prime beneficiaries of the EU benna since our accession. It is clear that EU investment has opened the path towards levels of business opportunity unknown in Malta before.

A study commissioned in Latvia, which received similar levels of funding to Malta, shows that EU funds between 2004 and 2014 were responsible for trickle down economic growth affecting up to 17 per cent of the Latvian GDP. The Maltese government’s zeal in insisting that Malta will not secure EU funds for the next seven years on a par with the package of 2013, is therefore bad news for Maltese business.

Time is clearly not ripe to severe this young Member State from the umbilical cord of EU cohesion policy

Should we throw in the towel before the gong, as the government is doing? No, we should not.

Malta will no longer fall in the category of the least developed regions but we remain below the EU average. Hence, we have a solid argument for cohesion funds to keep flowing to these islands which are in dire need of new infrastructural investment to address their booming demography.

We are fast becoming an oversized population in an undersized infrastructure. A trip to Malta International Airport, to the emergency department at Mater Dei or to Ċirkewwa in peak hours conveys an immediate picture of this phenomenon.

Malta should not accept a lowering of ambitions on cohesion funds simply on the argument that 15 years of accession have delivered enough. A quick look around us shows a good number of regions in Spain and Italy, in particular, which have been net beneficiaries of EU funding for over 30 years. Time is clearly not ripe to severe this young Member State from the umbilical cord of EU cohesion policy.

A second and even more important element to consider is the way funding works in the EU. Readers should know that only a few chapters of EU funds are subject to country allocations. While cohesion and agriculture funds are indeed set aside per country before the seven-year budget period, several other areas including education, innovation, research and digital investments remain open to the most successful projects submitted EU-wide. The next EU budget will put more money into these kinds of funds, which reward the best prepared Member States and projects.

If we judge future possibilities on past success, the above is not good news for Malta. In the past 15 years we have not managed to tap into these so-called ‘direct funds’ well enough. Our main emphasis for the next seven years should therefore rest on the empowerment of Maltese businesses, bodies and authorities to be more competitive in tapping these funds, by presenting well-prepared projects involving strategic partners. This would increase the rate of success, which remains very low for Malta.

The challenges above, together with a diligent scouting of upcoming EU rules that might affect Maltese business and timely intervention to adapt them accordingly, would be an area where an MEP could make a sound difference to the Maltese through his power of lobbying, amendment and vote in the Union’s most powerful legislative body.

Let’s make sure that we concentrate the debate there, where it can make a difference to people’s lives in Malta. I certainly will. I hope you can join me in fruitful debate.

Dr Peter Agius, a PN candidate for the European elections, is a former head of the European Parliament Office and cabinet member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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