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Brussels-Malta playacting

I am, of course, happy that Tonio Borg will now be a European Commissioner. I must say, though, that I am not at all happy at the manner of his becoming so. The letter he was made to sign at the behest of a number of MEPs was humiliating, to him, to Malta, to us all. He should have been endorsed on the basis of performance and personality.

The deputy leadership contest is going to be much closer than he imagined
- Lino Spiteri

Instead he was made to give a number of hostages to fortune. The ugliness of what happened reflects warped thinking both in Brussels and in Malta.

In Brussels, MEPs used to complain of a democratic deficit. They felt that, as directly elected representatives of European citizens they did not have enough power in the EU scheme of things. Structural changes appeared to have remedied that. But a different democratic deficit now exists.

MEPs are not elected to a programme. Granted, they are labelled under one political banner or the other. But to a considerable extent they represent themselves with the views they express, and how they go about pressing them.

I got this feeling early when, still a parliamentarian in the mid-1990s. I was a member of the joint EU-Malta committee set up between the institution and applicant countries.

The members on the Maltese side used to take their role very seriously. We used to go up to Brussels or Strasbourg prepared to debate our respective positions as best as we could. At times the level of our contributions was better than when made in the heat and turmoil that is Malta.

Not so when it came to the MEPs sitting on the joint committee. At an extreme, a number of them never, but never, attended any of our meetings.

At other times the few that did turn up would astound the Maltese members by speaking about some issue completely unconnected with Malta. They had their likes or pet hates, spoke briskly about them and, having done so, left the meeting.

Our main and worthwhile exchange of views used to take place off the record with the EU officials attached to the committee, or at side meetings with the political groups.

Perhaps things have changed. We know for a fact that the Maltese MEPs are not so lackadaisical in their performance. Their expertise and commitment is recognised in Brussels and they hold important positions on a number of committees and delegations. Perhaps not all of them are as good as Simon Busuttil in keeping Malta informed of their contributions. But all of them make them and are respected for it.

I cannot say I respect those MEPs, Socialist or not, who felt they had to humiliate Borg and Malta. They should have better things to do than to try to make Commissioners act according to the personal beliefs of individual MEPs, especially when their idiosyncrasies are not always admirable. One example is abortion. Those for or against it have no right to impose their conviction on someone else. That is what MEPs did through the command list they sent to Borg.

In normal circumstances he should not have put his name to it, careful though he tried to be. Pride and conviction should have made him say, take me as I am or not at all.

But the Deputy Prime Minister was not his own man. He is part of the larger scheme of things mapped out by the Prime Minister. That was made clear as soon as John Dalli was made to give up his Commissioner position by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in circumstances that still have to be properly revealed and understood.

Lawrence Gonzi saw that unexpected development as an opportunity. Not an opportunity for Malta, of which he is Prime Minister, but for the Nationalist Party, of which he is a beleaguered leader. With almost indecent haste he put a plan into action considered to breathe some life back into his party’s waning fortunes and appeal.

Using Borg as a pawn, Gonzi reached out for Busuttil as an important part in his chess game. Only he can tell, but I should think Borg was not over the moon to be told that he had to end his Malta political career in exchange of a year-and-a-half as a Commissioner, and that was before utter humiliation was attached to the post.

Brain whirring overtime, Gonzi saw to it that Borg immediately resigned as deputy leader of the Nationalist Party, while reaching out to massage Busuttil, who had hitherto turned down the general secretary post, more vigorously than ever to contest the sudden opening. Clearly Gonzi saw Busuttil as a ray of hope who could possibly revive their party’s fortune.

When Brussels threatened to stymie those plans, therefore, it is easy to conclude what advice the leader gave to his former deputy. Borg took it and in the process stepped into history as a marked man led by two leashes, from Brussels and from Malta.

Even so, one can be too clever by half. On the domestic front it was becoming obvious that anointed Busuttil was going to be left to ‘contest’ on his own.

Conscious that this would be as ridiculous as when he had contested the leadership alone Gonzi egged on one of his closest allies to contest. Tonio Fenech finally did so, but not simply to make up the numbers. He had carefully gauged where he stood with the Cabinet members and the result was another surprise to Gonzi.

The deputy leadership contest is going to be much closer than he imagined. Busuttil might still make it. But Gonzi now knows he will have the Cabinet against him almost to the last member of it.

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