It is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but probably also of some relief, to many, to state that Malta is not going to build a tunnel to Gozo. Nor is “a consortium of Gozitan businessmen” going to build one.

Economically flush though Malta may be, it can’t afford to do it. It doesn’t have the know-how or the workforce (most of which is pre-occupied with the building of high-rises in ODZs), nor even the experience to maintain a tunnel under the sea.

The EU, pressed for cash without the UK’s input, is unlikely to agree that there is any urgent need for a “fixed link” across a mere five kilometres of water, but would take years to reach even that negative conclusion.

And there’s the rub. The current government – like most governments in living memory and reportedly even earlier – has promised a tunnel. More important, impressed by the results of a spurious opinion poll showing that “82 per cent of the people want it”, it has published a timeline for action. And the Opposition, faced with such a figure, has decided that it also favours whatever this reported “majority” wants.

So, where will the money, and the experience, and the manpower come from. The answer – also blindingly obvious to many – is… China.

It isn’t even an original idea. When Dom Mintoff wanted to signal that post-colonial Malta didn’t need the West any longer, he decided to chummy up to Red China, and became the first European premier to visit the country (receiving, it was claimed, here, a far more enthusiastic reception than President Nixon, who made a better-publicised historic visit).

As a direct result of this concord, hundreds of employees of the Shanghai Construction Company arrived in Malta to work on the cash-strapped Freeport project in the 1970s. Among other things, they kept Malta’s fledgling casino industry afloat.

Ignoring the world’s (then) superpowers, Mintoff started other dealings with China. Malta was, after all, “neutral”.

It all worked. When Enemalta was facing bankruptcy, Shanghai Electric was there to save it. On the other side of the coin, you can now buy Cisk and Kinnie in some bars in Beijing, while Malta has become the fifth most popular country for rich Chinese emigrants.

It sounds like a win-win trade deal. Doesn’t it?

So, when it comes to tunnelling, China – with this near 50-year long special relationship – will be up for it. It needs work for its enormous population, it wants investment (and is prepared to wait long-term for a return), and it wants a presence and thereby influence inside Europe.

Once China is inside the fold, with its tender (however unethically) accepted, it will be in place with its Chinese sub-contractors to bid for other EU projects

It already has significant contracts around EU border countries. It is, for example, committed to the construction of a high-speed rail link between Belgrade and Budapest. 

This will involve Chinese technology, equipment, material and manpower and cost around $4 billion, all financed by China’s loans to the countries at either end of the line.

There’s been a $580 million loan to Northern Macedonia and $500 million to Montenegro for massive (Chinese built) superhighways, and a 63 per cent stake in a struggling Serbian copper-mining company plus the $55 million takeover of an ailing Serbian steel mill.

So a few low billions for a tunnel inside the EU would be small-fry.

The EU won’t like it (as it doesn’t approve of the Hungarian end of the railway line) – partly because the tendering process will be neither formal nor transparent. But that sort of technical triviality is not likely to bother the Maltese. 

Malta will prefer it because EU bureaucracy is slow – a big problem when a dateline has already been published – plus, EU approvals come with strings attached, which Chinese deals usually do not… much.

But once China is inside the fold, with its tender (however unethically) accepted, it will be in place with its Chinese sub-contractors to bid for other EU projects with which, quite clearly, European businesses will be hard-pressed to compete.

Support industries for tunnelling in Malta will include the setting up of a branch, or two, of the Bank of China and of ExIm (the import-export bank), of English language schools and of technology companies along with increased tourism – all of which Malta will like, even though the vast majority of employees, and the people who tend to their domestic needs, will be Chinese. And, it goes without saying, there will need to be a no-visa policy for Chinese nationals.

It all sounds so simple that the only surprise is that they haven’t already started digging.

Revel Barker is a long-time resident of Gozo.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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