Membership of the European Union was possibly the most divisive political question since our Independence. Once the decision was taken Malta embarked on a process which saw us officially join the ranks of fully integrated members of the EU some 15 years ago. Since then, Malta undertook a complete process of modernization, in terms of economic activity as well as its people’s mindset.
Opening to a market of 500 million consumers brought competition challenges, but also ample opportunities for our businesses to internationalise. Being part of a union adopting common rules of the highest standards brought consistency and strengthened our credibility in key sectors such as financial services. Thousands of students gained valuable exposure while studying and living abroad which in turn gave our youth a wider view of the world that is much needed to challenge the ‘island mentality’ in the context of a globalized world. The digital revolution was embraced by Malta as it is taking leadership in new niche sectors such as blockchain and artificial intelligence. Various programmes were implemented to upskill workers and provide life-long and digital learning to adults and senior citizens.
On the downside, the EU has let Malta down in some areas, particularly on the issue of migration. While there is evident lack of solidarity by several member states, ultimately the lack of a common and comprehensive migration strategy is an EU failure. In the face of ageing population and a skills crisis, the EU should look beyond the short-term burden sharing disputes, and rather see the benefits that migration brings to EU productivity and the sustainability of social systems in the long-term by spreading the weight of social contributions on a larger pool of people.
This dent has however not damaged the EU’s reputation in the eyes of the Maltese, whereby according to a 2018 EU barometer, at 93 per cent the Maltese are recorded to be the most people believing their country has benefited from EU membership. In view of rising populism across the EU, this is an encouraging indicator, but one that should not be taken for granted. For as long as the economy keeps growing, people are employed and social services remain strong, public approval of the EU can be expected to remain intact. But as experienced in many other EU member states where the economic crisis hit the hardest, seeds of populism are easily planted, and the EU can quickly turn into an easy target to blame for one’s economic misfortunes.
While proud of the achievements from the past 15 years, countries do not stop evolving, and continuous progress becomes only possible if planned and implemented through holistic strategies. Malta remains a small open economy subject to international volatilities. Economic forecasts already indicate smaller growth in the coming years. Malta needs Europe to do well, and therefore, this is an appropriate time to use all our resources in Brussels to ensure that competitiveness is put at the centre of EU policy making. Further deepening of the single market, an EU budget stimulating public and private investment, smart legislation that adds no financial or administrative burdens to SMEs, the opening of more market access globally, and promoting economic sectors that bring value added to the economy such as tourism, are all policy practices that continue creating the conditions for businesses to do what they know best, creating value through productivity and jobs.
We also need to ensure that Malta makes the best of the opportunities offered by the EU. During the past 15 years, Malta has been an exemplary member state on how to maximise the use of cohesion funding allocated to the country through targeted investments, good management and timely implementation. Funding from this source will probably reduce primarily due to Brexit, if and when it happens, as well as due to the achieved prosperity of our country. It is, therefore, now time to think seriously on how to bring more EU funding towards Malta, this time from EU programmes that are managed directly in Brussels. This goes for both Government as well as the private sector. The EU uses various instruments, including financial guarantees or grants, to stimulate investment in areas that meet its broad objectives, such as climate action, innovation, digitalization, cybersecurity, education and social inclusion.
Lack of awareness, expertise and capacity issues have been identified as bottlenecks from accessing direct EU funds in the past years. This should not be an impediment for the future. There have already been various successful Maltese entities participating in international consortia tapping direct EU funding. Moving forward, we do not need to recreate the wheel but work on expanding it instead; firstly, by encouraging current beneficiaries to build on their successes, and secondly by bringing these positive experiences to others through best-practice sharing, intensive coaching and where possible incentives to tap direct EU funding. At the Malta Business Bureau, this was part of our core mission in recent years, whereby we have built a network with likeminded international organisations and partnered to submit and implement EU projects with the engagement of local businesses. Our team has also obtained experience and built expertise that is now shared with companies that seek guidance.
I conclude that the Maltese were responsible for making a success of Malta’s first 15 years of EU membership. The same responsibility falls upon us to consolidate and keep this success alive in the coming years. As president of the Malta Business Bureau, an organization whose very purpose is to make EU membership a success for Maltese business, I believe this is all possible with the support and cooperation of public and private stakeholders working together.