The final report on the outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which started in spring last year, has been drawn up and formally submitted. In sharp contrast, in Malta, the constitutional reform the presidency has been spearheading for some time remains in the ‘proposals’ stage.

President George Vella admitted with the state broadcaster late last month it pained him to see that the matter has been dragging on for so long.

He had launched a broad public consultation on constitutional reform at the beginning of August 2019, just four months after his appointment as president. Acknowledging the process had been initiated by his predecessors, the president had pledged the exercise “will be prioritised so that the constitution may be revised to represent the people better in the present times”.

The purposely set up constitutional reform committee met for the first time in late May 2019 and the public consultation was concluded in February 2020, attracting 453 proposals.

Not much more has happened since, even if, admittedly, the COVID-19 outbreak and the political turmoil that culminated in the resignation of prime minister Joseph Muscat did slow things down.

Vella told TVM he was hoping the discussion on constitutional reform would be boosted during this new legislature. However, he did not raise the issue in his ‘speech from the throne’ at the opening of parliament. True, such address is traditionally drafted by the office of the prime minister, which could indicate the government is either not interested in the exercise or the matter does not feature high on its agenda. A stand that contrasts with the prioritisation the president had stressed.

That the constitution needs improvement and fine-tuning was acknowledged by the government itself when, in 2020, it rushed to pass through parliament amendments demanded by the Venice Commission. The government does not seem to be demonstrating the same kind of enthusiasm to consider, let alone, act upon the changes the public would like to see being made to the constitution.

The president, the present justice minister and the Venice Commission itself are among those who argue that the voice of the people must be heard, especially in such matters.

“I wanted to broaden public consultation and promised that, if a Constitutional Convention was to be formed, civil society, non-governmental organisations and the people in general would have an important role to play and I wanted to reassure everyone that the process would not be dominated by the influence of political parties,” the president is on record as saying.

In a contribution to this newspaper in early 2019, Jonathan Attard, then a lawyer active within the Labour Party and now justice minister, had insisted on “effectively” placing the individual at the centre of constitutional reform.

For the Venice Commission, constitutional amendments that are meant to have a profound and long-term impact require wide consultation within Maltese society.

Hopefully, the delay is only the result of circumstances beyond the government’s control. If, however, the initiative remains in suspended animation, one would be justified in agreeing with what Saviour Rizzo said in an opinion piece on The Sunday Times of Malta earlier this month. The former director of the university’s centre for labour studies argued that the high polarisation prevalent among the supporters of the two large political parties gave “rise to a policy of entrenchment that makes constitutional change difficult to be actuated”.

The level of difficulty could, however, be considerably eased through the president’s good offices and the pressure exerted by the public.

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