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The year of judgements

Rumour has it that the two most popular New Year resolutions among readers of The Times are to grow a fat bank account and a thin body, although, regrettably, all too often the two aims are confused.

For the victors of Malta’s general election, the handling of the victory will prove tricky
- Ranier Fsadni

To such readers I bring good news and bad.

The good news is that this year the chances of confusion are scarce. The bad news concerns the reasons you’re unlikely to be confused.

The year ahead will be one of grim choices for Europe. It should be easy to forego thought of jam when the rest of the world is grappling with issues of bread and butter, to forget chocolate crunch when Europe faces a different kind of crunch time.

A year of grim choices is inevitably also one of stern judgements. The first one to be dealt will be at our own general election. Whichever political party loses will have a tricky road ahead.

If, improbably, Labour loses, for a fourth time in a row, the experience will be traumatic. The Nationalist Party may have an easier time in dealing with electoral loss but this will depend on the nature of the defeat. A heavy loss may be just the prelude to further descent into the doldrums.

Even a moderate loss, however, can be mishandled if the candidates who win seats are, first, unrepresentative of the full range of the party’s supporters and, second, decide to take the party down a route that leaves it detached from important segments of the grassroots.

We should hope that both parties are equipped to handle defeat. Collapse, or virtual paralysis, would not serve the country well. The experience of the UK in the 1980s, when Labour was dysfunctional, or of the noughties, when the Conservatives became unelectable, should be eloquent enough.

But the coming year may end up yielding its own examples of partisan disaster. If, for example, the rival leaders of France’s centre-right UMP do not manage to heal the current deep rift. Or if electoral defeat leads to the implosion of Silvio Berlusconi’s PdL. Or, indeed, if the UK’s two coalition partners continue their slide down the poll ratings, the Liberal Democrats skidding towards electoral irrelevance and the Conservatives becoming split, once more, over Europe.

For the victors of Malta’s general election, however, the handling of the victory will also prove tricky.

It is true that our finances appear to be in order. Our political wrangling is over the size of handouts, salary increases and investments not over the size of cutbacks and austerity measures. But the welfare of our economy depends on how well our trading partners are doing.

If our own spending plans depend on economic growth, then those plans may well be derailed if European economies continue to sputter. Promises based on economic growth may turn to vapour.

Hence why the choice made by the electorate in Italy will be of concern to us, as will the situation in Spain. Neither is in the position of Greece, with an unemployment rate of circa 25 per cent and wages down by 40-50 per cent over what they were in 2008.

Even so, the austerity measures in Spain, Italy and now even Ireland are leading to social unrest, which could in itself weaken market confidence in those countries and, as a consequence, the rest of the eurozone.

Outside it there is the UK, struggling with the consequences of the economic decisions of a government that was widely warned, at the time that it was taking them, that they would lead to today’s predicament. That is, high unemployment, stagnant wages, deep cuts in welfare and the possible prospect of a triple-dip recession (the first of its kind on record, if it happens).

Since the year is economically critical for Europe, it will also be a year of crucial political reform and restructuring of the Union. Whether the reforms will alter the distribution of power within the EU to the detriment of small countries is an open question because the answer will depend on judgements and decisions yet to be taken, including by the leaders of small countries.

They will have a heavy burden to carry. So, too, will our MEPs, four of whom will almost certainly be new by the middle of the year, since they will fill the seats of the four MEPs who have chosen to contest the national election and who will all, almost certainly, be successful.

The new MEPs will change the complexion of our representation in the European Parliament. For one thing, as many as three may be women: Roberta Metsola for the PN, Marlene Mizzi for Labour as well as, perhaps, one of the last two Labour candidates to be eliminated, in 2009, before Mizzi: Claudette Abela Baldacchino or Sharon Ellul Bonici. If Louis Grech is replaced by either of the latter two, the complexion of the Labour MEP group will change in more ways than one.

They will be interesting times, testing national resolve as much as well-meaning resolutions.

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