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Seizing the opportunity to ease migration crisis

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Malta will table an ambitious proposal for the setting up of a global relocation mechanism as a long-term measure to address migration crisis, Joseph Muscat tells Keith Micallef.

Expectations for this two-day summit starting next Wednesday seem to be very high as the government has already decided to erect a marble monument in Castile Square to mark the event. What if it turns out to be an anti-climax?

We want to seize the unique opportunity of having European and African leaders side by side to unveil this monument marking victims of migration tragedies, as well as the historic step of debating this matter in Malta.

I compare this summit to the 1989 Bush-Gorbachev meeting which symbolised the end of the Cold War, and the wartime visit of former US President Franklin Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in 1945, while on their way to the Yalta Summit which decided the fate of the post World War II political map.

I am not expecting any sweet talk, as it is evident that tensions are already rising in some quarters. One of the hot issues will be the repatriation of those whose asylum application has been rejected, as some African countries are strongly opposed to it. Europe is intent on adopting the ‘more-for-more’ approach, through which the level of aid received by African counties will depend on their degree of commitment. Some African countries are already being accused on social media of coming to Malta to sell their people in return for European aid.

What long-term solutions do you foresee?

In the short-term, there must be efforts to rescue people at sea, opening legal channels for migration and reception centres in African countries to combat illegal human trafficking.

I am not expecting any sweet talk, as it is evident that tensions are already rising in some quarters

In the long-term there must be international institutions to address this problem from a global perspective. In a certain sense we need to emulate what happened in the post-war years, which saw the creating of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a direct consequence of the Bretton-Woods conference.

We need to have a worldwide relocation mechanism. If need be, Canada has to take migrants from Syria, for example, and Malta must contribute too. In this manner the load would be reduced, and be distributed according to set regulations and mechanisms.

The situation is continually evolving. Countries like Ghana and Botswana, which were considered as countries of origin up to some years ago, have made huge strides and are now experiencing a huge influx of migrants from neighbouring African countries.

Have you ever floated this proposal?

I hinted at such an approach during last September’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, but intend to table this idea during the Valletta Summit.

Last week former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi questioned if Malta had horse-traded national assets with Italy in return for absorbing migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. Is this true?

This is absolutely false. No formal or informal agreements have been reached in this respect.

So how come so few migrants have landed in Malta in recent years, in contrast with the huge influx experienced in neighbouring Lampedusa and Sicily?

As soon as I became Prime Minister I sought to improve relations with Italy in the wake of various disputes most notably the stand-off over the MT Salamis in 2013 which resulted in a humanitarian crisis.

This proved to be a good opportunity to start a good working relationship with then Prime Minister Enrico Letta with whom I had worked with during my stint as an MEP. This close relationship was strengthened further with his successor Matteo Renzi. Both sides have committed themselves to go out of their way to address this issue, and this is the reason for the dwindling number of arrivals.

Many people have still not come to terms over your policy shift from pushback to burden sharing. How can you explain such U-turn?

When I became Prime Minister, the impression in Brussels was that Maltese requests for aid could be silenced by throwing money at the problem. Nevertheless, I admit that the pushback threat was a mistake, as I could have addressed the crisis in a different manner. The message I wanted to convey was that it was no longer a case of ‘business as usual in Malta’ in the wake of the unsustainable number of arrivals we had to contend with.

We are prepared to do our bit to address the problem, as long as the numbers are manageable. This is why we agreed to take a number of migrants under the EU relocation programme, as this puts the onus on other member states to reciprocate this gesture if we experience a crisis.

This month Malta will also host the Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting for the second time in a decade. What are your expectations given that this summit so far has been very low profile?

One fundamental difference from the Valletta summit is that Commonwealth countries have no legal framework within which they need to reach an agreement. Besides, Commonwealth states have very little in common apart from their colonial history.

There is also the ceremonial aspect, which this time round will be very strong as it is quite rare that the Queen and her heir to the throne travel together outside the UK.

On a political level, this will be a good opportunity to debate issues like global warming which greatly affect certain countries like the tiny Polynesian Island of Tuvalu. The greatest threat facing the 10,000 inhabitants of this tiny island is the rise in sea level, as sizeable amounts of land have already been lost. Having such a country on the same table as world giants like Canada, Australia and Malaysia could be a good opportunity to pave the way for next month’s climate change COP 21 Conference in Paris.

The fact that French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be also present for the CHOGM summit is testament to this.

Incidentally, (in recent days) I was invited to take part in a conference call with Mr Ban together with seven other countries, as part of an effort to reach a draft agreement before the COP21 Conference.

For this reason I have been invited to report on the CHOGM summit conclusions on the first day of the conference.

It seems that the country will come to a standstill, with schools being kept closed and huge parking and traffic restrictions around the capital. Are such measures an admission that the government cannot handle the massive traffic problem?

The exposure Malta will be getting from these events is priceless as we will be conveying a very positive image of our nation.

Security-wise the current circumstances are a world apart from those of 2005 when Malta had hosted the CHOGM summit for the first time. The threat from Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, rising tensions between the West and Russia, as well as the instability in neighbouring Libya have contributed to a completely different scenario.

Though there is no imminent threat against Malta, we still need to take every possible precaution. I apologise for any inconvenience caused, but I’m not willing to take any risks.

One of these measures will be a temporary suspension of the Schengen travel arrangements. We could not have announced this earlier as it would have defeated the entire purpose. We had already done such a thing when the Pope visited the island. We reached an agreement with the UK to beef up security.

As you have certainly witnessed whenever you covered an EU Summit, access to certain arterial roads is completely barred. We have not resorted to such extreme measures but are following standard practices adopted in other countries. Of course traffic was a consideration. A single vehicle can disrupt the official delegations, so certain measures had to be taken.

This move, however, was interpreted as an admission by the Maltese government that it was not in a position to oversee the security, unlike 10 years ago.

Malta will still be in charge of the security operations but we lack certain military assets in fields like aviation. These will be on stand-by to safeguard Malta’s interests if need be. I consider this agreement as a form of insurance policy even if there is no imminent threat.

Moving on to the domestic political landscape, the ball is in now your court regarding the political future of Michael Falzon over the ‘Gaffarena scandal’ following the resignation of Joe Cassar. This is also a golden opportunity to prove that you meant business when you had promised a ‘new political season’. But it seems that you are shying away from taking a decision. Why?

I have always taken decisions, and at times have been criticised for not looking people in the face. On the other hand, the Opposition leader has taken no stand in Dr Cassar’s case, as he kept defending him till the very end, and the only action he took was to remove him as Culture spokesman. If anything it was Dr Cassar who decided to step down, as by then Dr Busuttil was already treating it as a closed case.

Dr Busuttil has failed to take action over a number of MPs like Toni Bezzina who is being accused of sending government labourers to carry out work in a political club and forcing them to lie under oath, Claudio Grech who said he forgot he had met somebody [George Farrugia] involved in the oil procurement scandal, as well as the fact that he (Dr Busuttil) kept defending (former Gozo Minister) Giovanna Debono after she resigned from the party and even offered her the Opposition’s time to speak in Parliament. It seems that somebody else is taking decisions for him

But in Dr Falzon’s case the buck stops with you. You have to decide. What are your intentions?

I decided in the wake of the conclusion of the internal probe carried out by the Internal Audit and Investigation Department – to which I am privy. This report delves into important considerations but I will wait for a separate independent inquiry by the National Audit Office before taking any action, to have the entire picture.

I admit that the pushback threat was a mistake, as I could have addressed the crisis in a different manner

Decisions will not only be taken about the Gaffarena case. All decisions are clear in my mind and I will take them when the time is right.

In the past there have been identical cases, and somebody must also shoulder responsibility for them, and it would be better for the Opposition leader to do a like-with-like comparison.

But it is no justification pointing fingers at others to exonerate yourself. Do you rule out removing Dr Falzon from Cabinet?

I never shied away from taking tough decisions even when I was Opposition leader. The point is that Br Busuttil only limited himself to removing Dr Cassar from the shadow cabinet. His resignation came later.

It is not credible that Dr Busuttil only learnt about certain details last Sunday from the newspapers. The same applies for the allegations involving the husband of former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono as he was already aware of what was going on.

Is this just a hunch or can you back it up with evidence?

It is an educated guess based on what I think was known at the time and the manner in which he behaves. In Ms Debono’s case, he was privy to the facts, long before these were revealed to the public. He only decided to act when her husband was arraigned in court.

In the case of Dr Cassar he kept defending him and vouched for his integrity. This was an error of judgment by Dr Busuttil who at one point even claimed that Dr Cassar had been framed.

Had you ever met Joe Gaffarena before the last general election and did he ever approach you over his problem about the fuel station permit?

I did not meet with any member of the Gaffarena family before the election… I met him twice when I was Opposition leader. Once was during a social occasion, and another time he was in the presence of other businessmen. I did not have any meetings with him on the eve of the election unlike the Opposition leader, and I am informed that Dr Busuttil’s version of events on that meeting is not the correct one. While Dr Busuttil said he refused to acquiesce to the request made by Mr Gaffarena to sanction his fuel station, I am informed that it was Dr Busuttil who asked for something, but no agreement was reached.

Did he request anything from you?

Definitely not. He never asked for anything.

You have not told me yet, what will happen with Dr Falzon?

Rather than this particular aspect, there are wider issues to address such as the Land Department governance.

Who is politically responsible for the Land Department?

Ultimately it falls under Dr Falzon’s remit who in turn is answerable to me. The issue is whether Dr Falzon was aware of what was going on or not.

But is it possible that you’ll get to a stage where Dr Falzon’s resignation is inevitable?

A report compiled under the previous administration highlighting a lack of governance had been shelved. One of the possible solutions is to have a board of governors at the helm of the department. From the IAID report it seems that the Gaffarena case was not unprecedented. So I am also interested in making comparisons with other cases where there were marked discrepancies in valuations, from which somebody profited. Who took the decisions back then? What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Nevertheless, somebody still has to shoulder political responsibility for the Gaffarena scandal. Who?

This can be shouldered in different ways. My decision is very clear, but I have to see if the NAO arrives at the same conclusions or if something new crops up. I always had the courage to take decisions, even when I had to expel a member of Cabinet.

Traffic is probably people’s biggest complaint but once again little action has been taken aside from the political bickering. What concrete measures are in the pipeline?

There are no overnight solutions but the problem has been coming for a long time. It is a fact that under previous administrations, arterial roads became narrower while the number of new cars on the road has reached 40 a day. Nevertheless, I am not looking at measures to limit vehicle circulation.

In the short-term we are looking at measures to facilitate and encourage motor scooter use like the ones announced in the Budget, and a better bus service which is still a work-in-progress. For the long-term we are looking at new infrastructural facilities like tunnels.

But is this just pie in the sky or something feasible?

We are working on such proposals. Unfortunately, we have to start from scratch. We are looking at new technologies. A case in point is the new Kappara Junction where the flyover will be prefabricated and transported on site. This will save a lot of time.

A word about your relationship with the Opposition leader: You recently described him in Parliament as a “bitter” person. Did you really mean it or was it just a remark in the heat of the moment?

I had a good relationship with Dr Gonzi, maybe due to the fact that as Opposition leader I respected his function as Prime Minister. We knew our limits, and never went a step beyond. I do not know if Dr Busuttil respects me. Regretfully I have to say that I see a degree of bitterness in the Opposition leader as he acts as though the PL has no right to be in government. Ultimately it will be up to the people to decide.

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