Enrico Letta does not mince his words when asked about the need to fix Europe’s single market and make it more equitable. “We have left parts of our regions and part of our societies empty.

This is partly why we’re seeing parts of Europe turn towards populism.”

Letta was speaking to Times of Malta after a recent trip to Malta, during which he held meetings with Prime Minister Robert Abela as well as other ministers and social partners.

The former Italian Prime Minister, now at the helm of the Jacques Delors Institute, was recently appointed by the European Commission to review Europe’s single market and map out the future of the freedoms it has always promised, including the freedom of movement, goods, and services across Europe.

Letta is quick to acknowledge that this is easier said than done, with each of Europe’s 27 member states facing its own specific social and geopolitical challenges.

“I know very well that the single market can’t only be an asset for the centre of Europe,” he says, outlining how decisions on the single market’s future need to be sensitive to the countries on Europe’s margins.

People have to be free to choose and not obliged to leave

Islands ‘more at risk’

This issue, Letta says, was at the heart of his “very concrete and very focused” meeting with Abela. “We discussed how to overcome obstacles related to the fact that Malta is an island,” Letta said, pointing out that the prime minister highlighted medicines, energy and transport as three areas of concern to Malta.

Nonetheless, Letta describes himself as “very optimistic” that European countries are capable of finding common ground on these issues, deve­loping policies that do not place countries on Europe’s periphery at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to issues such as state aid.

Malta’s recent brush with state aid suggests that this could be difficult.

Last year, the government’s last-ditch attempt to save the beleaguered Air Malta by pumping almost €300 million in state aid into the airline was turned down by the EU, effectively sounding the company’s death knell.

Letta sidesteps the issue, saying that he is not familiar with Air Malta’s particular situation, but admits that “it’s true that peripheral regions have a bigger risk” when it comes to bearing the brunt of decisions taken across the European bloc.

“It’s clear that we have to take into consideration the transport problems of islands,” Letta says, promising that the issue will be at the core of the report he is due to submit in the coming months.

Offer people the ‘freedom to stay’

Even more critical than transport is the brain drain being faced by many countries and regions on Europe’s margins, with many of their most skilled workers leaving to seek their fortunes in Europe’s big cities or urban areas.

Malta is no exception to this. Surveys show that young people are increasingly looking to leave the island, often citing low wages, the environment, and a desire for new experiences. Meanwhile, employers are finding it ever more difficult to find workers with the skillset they need to grow their business.

Upon taking the job, Letta said that addressing this brain drain would be one of his top priorities, hoping to stem the flow of workers from countries such as Romania, Portugal, Poland, as well as his own homeland, Italy, towards the bloc’s richer countries.

Letta quickly coined the phrase “freedom to stay”, playing on the single market’s emphasis on mobility and freedom of movement, warning that despite its benefits, mobility has meant that some people have been left behind.

In essence, Letta argues, Europe has a responsibility to provide people living in its poorer areas with high-quality infrastructure and services that will entice them to stay and contribute to growing their home regions.

“People have to be free to choose and not obliged to leave,” Letta says, arguing that a lack of opportunities in their hometowns often leaves people with little option but to leave.

He believes that the first step in addressing this is to invest in improving essential infrastructure in countries suffering from a brain drain. Investing in crumbling hospitals and schools, as well as offering efficient public transport, employment services and social security provisions are all key to incentivising people to stay, Letta says.

Failure to do this, he argues, has seen many people in some of Europe’s more impoverished regions embrace populism.

EU migration pact ‘not enough’

Throughout his career, Letta also made his name as a vocal critic of Europe’s response to migration. As the figure behind the launch of the short-lived sea rescue operation Mare Nostrum, Letta was critical of the decision to scrap the programme, saying that Europe needs to pull its weight in funding sea rescue operations and rescuing migrants.

Does Letta see this happening through the recently agreed migration pact? Not quite. “I think the pact is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” he says.

Letta doubts whether all 27 member states can truly join forces and find common ground on the issue of migration. “We always have to overcome the veto of one country or another, so that often makes it impossible to find a solution. I always thought that the best way to tackle the issue is to organise enhanced cooperation among a group of the EU’s biggest countries.”

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