Of Change, Opportunity And Evolving New Roles

Martina Said - 23rd July

Minister for European Affairs and Equality Helena Dalli speaks about the primary achievements of Malta’s EU Presidency, Malta’s opportunities post-Brexit, and the new challenges she faces within her newly-established Ministry.

After six months of intense activity, June 2017 witnessed the culmination of Malta’s turn steering the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the very first time. Locally and beyond our shores, the Maltese Presidency was hailed a success, but to what extent?

Minister Helena Dalli says the results speak for themselves. “The chief task of any Presidency of the Council is to lead discussions between EU governments, at various levels, and to negotiate draft laws with the European Parliament. I was very pleased to read the report by POLITICO which praised Malta’s ability to negotiate deals to push through legislation in dozens of policy areas. In fact, our Presidency has been one of the most successful in terms of the number of agreements it has brokered with respect to EU laws,” she asserts.

Dr Dalli’s ministerial portfolio is not entirely new to her, as she retained many of the responsibilities entrusted to her in the previous legislature, particularly those relating to equality, social dialogue and employment relations. A responsibility new to her portfolio, however, is European Affairs – a challenge Dr Dalli states she faces with confidence, “though fully aware that I am stepping into the shoes of Louis Grech who, together with Ian Borg, did such a great job which culminated in a highly successful Presidency of the Council of the European Union,” she asserts. “My first task was that of bringing the Presidency to a conclusion. Now, I am taking stock of the situation, including both the structures in place, such as the Permanent Representation in Brussels and the EU Secretariat within my Ministry, as well as processes in relation to the way EU affairs are handled in Malta.”

A development she’s satisfied with is the fact that MEUSAC now falls under the remit of ‘European Affairs’. “One has to see how this vehicle for social dialogue, recently established as a Government agency in order to provide it with a better standing, can play an even more important role not only in engaging stakeholders such as the social partners and civil society in the EU-decision making process locally, but especially in bringing the EU closer to citizens,” says Dr Dalli. “This was, after all, one of the main aims of our Presidency and something we shall be continuing to push for, particularly in the context of the debate on the future of the EU post-Brexit.”

On the issue of Brexit, Dr Dalli reiterates what Prime Minister Joseph Muscat stated during his meeting with the MEUSAC Core Group, where, now that the MT Presidency is over, Government can be fully focused on Brexit.

“The Government has set up a Brexit team which is also geared towards analysing the effects of Brexit on various sectors. Obviously, much will depend on the withdrawal negotiations themselves with the two sides having agreed to tackle first the matter of the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK nationals in the EU27 once the UK leaves the EU (the so-called ‘Brexit bill’), as well as the border issue, particularly in relation to Ireland. Once sufficient progress has been made on these questions, the EU and the UK will start negotiating the nature and scope of the future relationship of the UK with the EU once it exits the Union.”

Dr Dalli adds that, during the MEUSAC meeting, the Prime Minister had also announced that a task force with the private sector would be set up to see how to attract investment to Malta, and that through the MEUSAC structures, the Government would keep social partners updated on the ongoing ‘Brexit negotiations’.

“It is important that an agreement is reached by March 2019, because otherwise EU law will simply cease to apply to the UK unless the EU Council unanimously decides to extend the two-year period stipulated in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union,” she asserts. “In terms of trade, ‘no deal’ would mean that the UK would have to abide by World Trade Organisation rules which could mean the re-introduction of customs, checks and tariffs. Both sides have, however, expressed confidence that a deal can be reached. As stated by the European Commission's Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, ‘for both the EU and the UK, a fair deal is possible and far better than no deal’.”

Throughout the Maltese EU Presidency, the Malta Business Bureau participated and collaborated on various projects, making its resources and European network available. Dr Dalli lauds its efforts, stating that the MBB “played a supporting role in several events that took place in Malta, and served as an intermediary between Maltese public officials and the European business community through the MBB’s representation office in Brussels.”

Such an alliance, she continues, reaffirms the Government’s commitment towards public/private collaboration. “I consider that this is the best way to ensure we are effective particularly within the EU fora. I will support initiatives that will seek to enhance stakeholder engagement as this provides the best guarantee that we maximise all opportunities of our membership of the EU,” Dr Dalli concludes. “What the Prime Minister told social partners regarding a private-public task force on attracting investment to Malta in the wake of Brexit, is one concrete example of Government’s commitment. I am also willing to engage directly with all the relevant stakeholders, including the MBB, on how our collaboration may be further developed in the coming years.”

The full version of this interview appeared in the latest edition of Business Agenda.