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‘Why I felt I needed to aid Malta join the EU’

Ten years since the big expansion, former president of the European Commission and Italian prime minister Romano Prodi reveals how he helped Malta’s accession behind the scenes and expresses his concerns about a fractured Europe. Interview by Herman Grech.

It was around midnight on December 13, 2002, when European Commission president Romano Prodi emerged from a gruelling marathon negotiating session with 10 EU candidate states.

Malta was the smallest candidate and, given the political division in the country at the time, the most eurosceptic of the 10.

Prof. Prodi said to then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami: “e arrivato Babbo Natale” (Father Christmas has arrived) as he presented a €194 million net financial package to Malta.

At that time it was evident to Prof. Prodi that Malta’s EU destiny relied to a large extent on the package derived from negotiations.

“Yes, I did intervene with other European leaders. I had to battle a bit but with the help of (Enlargement Commissioner) Gunter Verheugen, everybody understood that to have a ‘no’ from Malta could have been also a defeat for us,” the 74-year-old economics professor tells The Sunday Times of Malta.

By then, Prof. Prodi was a man with a mission. A strong supporter of European integration, he became president of the European Commission in September 1999, following the scandal and subsequent resignation of the Santer Commission, which had damaged the institution’s reputation.

During his term as president, he oversaw the introduction of the euro.

He was also a key factor in persuading EU member states to merge two negotiating groups and take in 10 new member states at once, and not five as originally planned.

Just three months after the Copenhagen summit, Malta was the first one to hold an EU referendum.

With the Labour Opposition vociferously opposing membership, Malta’s EU destiny was in the balance.

Dr Fenech Adami welcomed a little help from a foreign political giant; Prof. Prodi immediately went into overdrive to lobby other leaders to secure a good package to aid Malta’s membership:

“I was telling friends in Europe if you double the engagement with Malta we wouldn’t be changing the European budget.

“We could help Malta overcome the idea of insularity or being alone.

“It was a politically wise decision that would not cost too much.”

During a Skype interview from his Bologna office, he recalls telling leaders that upping the budget for Malta was not much in comparison to the demands being made by large candidates such as Poland or Hungary.

Prof. Prodi felt it was important to add a Mediterranean dimension to EU enlargement.

“I wanted to send the message this enlargement is not solely for the former Soviet states,” he says, pointing out it was a good idea politically and economically to have 10 states join at once.

“I think Malta is part of Europe but even more since it’s in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta needed European backing.

“Because of its history, Malta’s full independence was much more guaranteed by being a member of the union. That was my general feeling.

“I’m Italian and for me EU enlargement through a Mediterranean country was by definition largely positive.

“I consider the Maltese very friendly and similar to Italians… sometimes with the same weaknesses and also with a very similar political passion,” he laughs.

Prof. Prodi could also bank on the support of Mr Verheugen, whose statements about membership had landed him in then Labour leader Alfred Sant’s line of fire.

Let’s remember my arguments were backed by a serious German Commissioner. It was not some southern politician with odd ideas

“I urged Verheugen to be very flexible on the economic aspects.

“In my mind, the problem of money was secondary. This helped a lot... let’s remember my arguments about Malta were backed by a serious German Commissioner. It was not some southern politician with odd ideas.”

Romano Prodi and his wife Flavia at Verdala Palace with Eddie and Mary Fenech Adami during the official celebrations marking Malta’s adoption of the euro in January 2008.Romano Prodi and his wife Flavia at Verdala Palace with Eddie and Mary Fenech Adami during the official celebrations marking Malta’s adoption of the euro in January 2008.

Prof. Prodi and Mr Verheugen had visited the island in March 2000 and assured Malta it could be able to catch up with the candidate countries that had started negotiating in 1998.

They were well aware that the Labour Party was mounting a strong campaign against membership, after freezing Malta’s EU application for two years when in government.

But once the negotiations were completed, Prof. Prodi made it a point not to dabble in Malta’s political affairs because he felt he would have lost credibility.

“When you are president of the European Commission or a foreign leader with a friendly country, you always take into account the fact that a government can change.

“My relations with Fenech Adami were very good – but for me first it was Malta, then the leader at the moment.

“You need to distinguish between long-term political goals and a personal relationship.

“I simply took the concrete steps that could help a pro-European decision. I helped a country to take a positive decision.”

Malta embarked on a divisive EU referendum campaign, fought along sharp political lines and often dominated by scaremongering and misinformation about what membership would mean for Malta.

But the campaigning paid off and on March 8, 2003, a total of 53.6 per cent voted in favour of membership. In Brussels, Prof. Prodi hailed the result as “a choice for stability and growth, as well as for the peaceful reunification of Europe and the European people”.

The battle was won, but the war was not. Dr Sant refused to acknowledge the referendum result and said only a general election would determine Malta’s EU fate.

I told Eddie Fenech Adami, look, the referendum is won, everything was peaceful, tranquillo

Dr Fenech Adami called the Italian and informed him that he would call an election right away.

Prof. Prodi’s relief was short-lived and he asked the prime minister whether he had taken leave of his senses.

“I told him, look the referendum is won, everything was peaceful, tranquillo. If you call an election, you resurrect the problem again, so please don’t give me such uncertainty when it was such a big battle.”

Dr Fenech Adami said he was sure he would win the election considering the scale of the referendum ‘yes’ vote, but the EU boss was not convinced.

“Look, the convictions of politicians before an election are not really credible, no? Everyone says they will win elections.

“I trusted Fenech Adami but you have to be very prudent when you say you will win. Fenech Adami told me there was a political obligation. Luckily it was won... it showed there was wisdom in the people’s spirit.”

Prof. Prodi says he had a spontaneous understanding with Dr Fenech Adami, possibly due to the fact they had a common background, entrenched in Catholic education.

“In theory we could be political opponents, I was centre left, he was centre right, but when you have to decide a programme which will have a consequence for centuries, it’s not the political belonging that should guide you but the spirit of basic principles and values. European belonging was important for both of us.”

A general election was held a month later and the Nationalist victory sealed Malta’s European fate. Malta and nine other states signed the EU treaty and joined the European bloc on May 1, 2004.

The upcoming (EP) elections will see a bad result but they will be important to wake up the pro-Europeans

Ten years later, does he still think the big bang enlargement was a good idea?

“I was very conscious of the challenge. You have to catch the train of history when it passes through. That’s why Verheugen and myself worked so hard for 10 countries.

“It wasn’t propaganda; it was the European feeling. I think we were right. Look at the difficulty faced by non-EU states now.”

But Prof. Prodi’s tone changes as he expresses his disappointment at the division that has gripped Europe in the past five years, fuelled by defaulting countries.

“History is changing and we are now full of fear. When you have a country you respect and love – like the UK – that decides to hold a referendum whether to stay in the EU you’re going deep into the problem. You have to say Europe is divided.”

He points fingers at politicians today who he accuses of prioritising merely national, and not international, matters. Fear dominates and there seems to be no spirit of cooperation among European leaders.

However, he is optimistic that in the long run, Europe will recover from the doldrums of the half-decade. History has shown Europeans to be hesitant but ultimately they do realise the importance of building a common legacy.

Prof. Prodi is confident Europe will crawl out of the economic crisis, which has brought countries like Spain and Cyprus to their knees.

When you have a country you respect and love – like the UK – that decides to hold a referendum whether to stay in the EU... you have to say Europe is divided

“Let’s be concrete – Germany has no interest to dissolve Europe. The Germans know if the euro breaks up it will be a disaster.

“We need to assist Europe to build solidarity, which is now lacking.”

With European Parliament elections taking place in four weeks, Europe sees the far-right making inroads at the expense of centrist parties, showing widespread disgruntlement with mainstream politics.

Does it worry Prof. Prodi that many Europeans are embracing anti-immigrant and extremist views?

“Of course I worry – just look at the last Dutch elections. The upcoming (EP) elections will see a bad result but they will be important to wake up the pro-Europeans and help the necessary change we need.

“In Europe there is no common policy, no common solidarity, no common sense of the future, and this of course is fuel for eurosceptics. But the remedy is to do more, not less.”

One common issue that both Italy and Malta feel the EU is not doing enough is immigration from Africa. Is Europe failing to put solidarity into practice?

“If you look at it in quantitative terms you could say Malta and Italy could manage, but if you analyse it in perspective it is a European problem.”

He describes migration movements into Europe as having reached “biblical proportions” and insists it is up to EU leaders to hammer out a workable European policy, not simply throw money at the problem.

The two-time Italian prime minister claims he knows Malta and the issues that bother its people all too well, especially since he had done business on the island before his venture into politics.

In his autobiography My Journey, Dr Fenech Adami says Prof. Prodi always had a soft spot for Malta.

“Perhaps Prodi knew us too well. While we were in the car together on the way to the airport, fresh from his assurances that we would be a net beneficiary, he turned to me and told me: ‘You’re telling me you need assistance because you are a poor country. The way the Maltese live certainly doesn’t reflect that. You’re well off’.”

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