As the newest and youngest Maltese Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), Alex Agius Saliba and Josianne Cutajar have spent their first year in Brussels in sixth gear. Focused on making every minute count, they chat with Business Agenda about their achievements, priorities and their aspirations for the rest of this term.
Alex Agius Saliba
“Given that this is my first term as an MEP, I had to work very hard to build networks and gain the trust of my colleagues and my political family,” says Alex Agius Saliba, who was elected MEP under a Labour ticket for the first time in May 2019. He describes the past 12 months as “an eventful and hectic year”, and the progress he managed to achieve in his first year in this new role is “reflected in the number of tasks and important roles I have been entrusted with, and the several amendments and key contributions I have made.”
Looking back on the most notable highlights from the
past year, Dr Agius Saliba says every little achievement gives great satisfaction, particularly knowing your contribution can make a difference in the lives of millions of citizens across the bloc. “Among the several encouraging moments over the past year are the mention by authoritative journal POLITICO as one of the top 20 MEPs to be followed this year; the nomination for the best MEP award in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee; and the submission of my draft report on the Digital Services Act, on which I received positive feedback from colleagues, the European Commission and several stakeholders.”
He adds, however, that there have been plenty of challenges too, including “unjust criticism and personal attacks”, adding that “from the beginning of this journey, I chose to never shy away from a debate and always sought to be clear and truthful to what I believe. To me, accountability is of utmost importance – a politician should live up to his words and stick with stances and promises made before being elected.”
As the co-chair of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on mental health, Dr Agius Saliba has been active in discussions over the past year on how mental health should be at the centre of policy making. More recently, he’s been vocal about the elevated risks and mental health problems faced by LGBTQI+ youths.
“I asked the European Commission to clarify what actions it intends to take to address difficulties faced by this vulnerable cohort. Although societies have made major strides and are now more open, understanding and inclusive, when compared to their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQI+ young people are still disadvantaged, discriminated against and victimised,” he asserts. “The hostility they face at home and in society at large puts them under constant pressure, and this exposes them to higher risks of mental health problems. This is what prompted me to raise such an important issue and why I believe that this minority in society should be prioritised. I intend to keep up the pressure in months to come to see that concrete actions are taken at a European level.”
Turning his attention to the ongoing battle against COVID-19, Dr Agius Saliba believes that, on a national level, Malta set an example to the rest of the world on its tackling of the pandemic and, all in all, the situation was handled professionally and successfully. On an EU level, however, he believes it has been a learning curve.
“On one hand, there was definitely room for greater cooperation and a more coordinated response. Although several high-level meetings were organised to address the situation, this health emergency exposed difficulties in rapid response and solidarity between member states. On a positive note, and looking at the many important decisions made by the Union in such a short time, I believe this crisis also demonstrated the level of efficiency that can be achieved at EU level,” he asserts. “Looking forward, I hope we do not forget what we’ve learnt over the past months, and, more importantly, I hope that, in our path to recovery, we seek to choose the most sustainable path possible.”
Summing up her first year as a Member of the European Parliament, Josianne Cutajar, who is also currently the youngest Maltese MEP, describes it simply as “effective and productive” – though the leap from a local council in Gozo to the European Parliament could have been overwhelming, she took the steep learning curve all in her stride.
Touching on the highlights from her first year in office, Dr Cutajar says her biggest achievement is the trust she gained in the European Parliament and among the Socialists and Democrats’ political family through her moderate and researched style of politics. “It was that trust which led to my direct involvement in building a new European digital and industrial policy with dossiers on a new European SME strategy, artificial intelligence and the Digital Services Act.”
Taking her place within the Parliament’s Tourism Task Force has been especially meaningful, proving to be a powerful platform to influence debate within the S&D and the rest of the Parliament on the issue of cancelled flights and packages, and the impact on travel in the wake of COVID-19.
“Such influence ultimately led to unprecedented recommendations by the European Commission that respect consumers’ and passengers’ rights and, at the same time, took into consideration the long-lasting effects of the pandemic and how these will impact small flagship airlines and other intermediaries in the travel and tourism markets.”
More recently, Dr Cutajar underlines a personally significant feat for her – “managing to get all the Maltese MEPs behind my amendments on the proposed Mobility Package, which will be detrimental to the Maltese economy. It was the first time in this mandate that all the Maltese MEPs came together and cosigned the same amendments.” Turning back to the biggest crisis at hand for all countries as well as the EU, I ask Dr Cutajar how she thinks Malta and the Union will emerge in the coming months from the calamity that has gripped the world since the start of the year. Firstly, however, she praises the local management of the pandemic, saying it was handled “brilliantly”.
“When seeing the social disaster unfolding in several of our neighbouring states, we have to be grateful for the character shown by our medical professionals and decision-makers,” she asserts.
At EU level, Dr Cutajar says that unprecedented decisions were taken, proving that the 2008 economic crisis taught great lessons. “First among which is that there can be no economic success if people are not living decently. The temporary frameworks that were agreed upon, the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact, and the suspension of State Aid Rules, upped emergency packages intended to protect employment. Moreover, the flexibility permitted in the use of Cohesion and other European funds, and now the proposed Recovery Fund, sent a very strong message that the
European Union is not just a cold bureaucratic institution, but a political organisation with very strong social values.”
The bitter side of this experience, Dr Cutajar adds, was the lack of solidarity displayed by individual member states on several fronts, namely “the limitation on exports of essential medical supplies, including to other member states experiencing an exceptional crisis situation; the discussions on financial assistance to beat the crisis; and the disputes on the relocation of migrants entering Europe from the central Mediterranean route.”
Looking at the glass half full, the MEP says that a remarkable economic recovery can enable European member states and their SMEs to experience the least possible impact, while making their digital and ecological transitions even more possible.
Focusing on the tourism sector and her capacity as a member of the Tourism Task Force within the European Parliament, Dr Cutajar states that, as the virus worked its way across Europe and restrictive measures were imposed, including travel bans, the initial reaction was one of devastation among stakeholders in the tourism sector, both locally and at European level.
The MEP adds that the emergency measures enacted in March and April helped safeguard some employment and prevented a freefall situation for many enterprises. “I was in relentless consultation with local stakeholders throughout the past months, and still am,” she asserts.
“I am positive that if we can make optimal use of the grants included under the Recovery Fund to help businesses – especially the micro and small ones – face the liquidity crunch, and of other instruments to further facilitate their access to capital and help them continue to grow sustainably, we can proceed relatively swiftly to a new normal. Everyone expects a low demand in the first weeks and months as trust grows gradually, but I can already feel excitement brewing among the local population to return to a safer new normal.”
This feature was first carried in the July edition of Business Agenda