Joseph Muscat is attempting to pitch the upcoming elections as a choice between him and Adrian Delia. I refuse to accept that, or to vote on those lines.

We are supposedly choosing local councillors, from among our own neighbours, to manage our towns and villages. If that is reduced to selecting the Prime Minister or the Opposition leader then something is fundamentally wrong with the system.

Malta is not just two people. Local councillors are elected representatives serving their communities not the mindless puppets of overbearing political leaders. The individual personalities and ideas of the persons on the ballot sheet do count and should be democratically respected.

This is also a European election and on that front Muscat’s tougher critic is not the Opposition leader. There David Casa takes the title. It is no coincidence that Casa is constantly being targeted by the PL and their campaign.

I have to admit that I had never paid all that much attention to Casa in the early years of Malta’s EU membership. He has been an MEP right from the start and must know the European Parliament inside out by now. But in those days a lot of the limelight in his political group naturally fell on Simon Busuttil, who had already defined his image as the head of the MIC office in the run-up to the referendum on EU membership.

But over the last EP legislature Casa has emerged as a serious challenger of the excesses of the government, particularly on matters related to the rule of law. Casa is opposing Muscat’s government, not Malta. They are not the same thing.

In this he is not some runaway train or traitor as the PL is trying to depict. Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament since 2014, has identified the rule of law as one of the issues that should be better addressed EU-wide, not just in Malta. And plenty of other MEPs appear to share this view. 

EU membership has been a success story for Malta. Most Maltese would today not vote to be out of the EU, according to a Eurobarometer survey. Muscat claims to be pro-EU now but it is under his premiership that Malta has first experienced tangible negative attitudes from the European Parliament, where he once held a seat as an MEP.

As we know too well, this is due to his slippery handling of a series of events, such as the Panama Papers, passport sales and the aftermath of the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Electric Gozo

One area in which the EU is strong is on environmental legislation. Malta has also been subject to these standards, although you would be forgiven for questioning the result when looking at the state of this country.

You could argue that Malta would be in an even worse state without EU pressure to clean up its act and achieve the agreed targets. But the EU does not get involved with decisions on land use in Member States, other than perhaps in projects requiring environmental impact assessments (EIAs). So the government is free to give carte blanche to rogue contractors and greedy developers, and to sing all the way to the bank.

Over the last EP legislature Casa has emerged as a serious challenger of the excesses of the government

One of the more challenging EU commitments in the years to come is the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles. Muscat has remarked that the shift to electric cars in Malta, when it happens, will be as big as joining the euro. And truly, knowing this country’s petrol-station mentality, he is right.

Muscat has repeatedly said that he plans for Gozo to be a test case in switching completely to electric vehicles. This is, of course, not the first time that politicians have dreamt of an eco-Gozo. The PN government also had this vision some years ago. It is a very nice dream, but so far it was always one of those which disappears as soon as you wake up.

The Prime Minister has now mentioned this plan for electric Gozo often enough that it is time for some details. Firstly, electric Gozo is hard to imagine with the proposed building of a road tunnel. This is sure to increase the number of passenger and commercial vehicles with polluting combustion engines, travelling to Gozo from Malta on a daily basis.

Secondly, there are the costs to consider. Currently, when domestic electricity consumption goes over a certain amount the tariff rate increases. This penalises those who charge electric vehicles at home as their consumption goes up due to the car and the household is charged at a higher rate. The PN has stressed this point, particularly MEP candidate Peter Agius. The Prime Minister has said, however, that discussions on preferential electricity rates for owners of electric cars is being discussed with Enemalta. In electric Gozo, will different tariffs be available to owners of electric vehicles? What about non-Gozitans in Malta?

Or will Gozitans be offered more attractive incentives to register electric vehicles than other persons? Or better grants to scrap older vehicles running on conventional fuels?

One practical problem with a switch to electric vehicles is charging points. It can be inconvenient to keep a car charged without owning or renting a garage space in which a charging point can be fitted. Will more charging points be set up in electric Gozo than in Malta?

Another question is whether the power grid can cope with an increase in electricity consumption due to this switch. Or will it actually solve a problem for excess generation capacity in Marsaxlokk? Increasing power generation from fossil fuels, including gas, is of course undesirable from an environmental viewpoint, but Malta lags behind on alternative energy solutions. Switching to electric cars on a large scale must be discussed and planned together with greener energy options.

The prize for pollution from traffic goes to commercial diesel vehicles. Not enough checks are in place here, presumably because the government is pro-business but not nearly as pro-environment.

Moreover, reducing vehicle emissions while increasing the population might just maintain the same total pollution levels. More people means more cars and congestion, more electricity and more waste. How many more people can this island take?

So the Prime Minister’s statement that Gozo will be switching to electric vehicles is not a light, throw-away remark. It cannot divert attention from the expected increase in traffic to Gozo with a road tunnel.

Finally, what time frames does the government have in mind for this move to electric cars? The government has set up a committee which will propose a cut-off date when conventional fuel vehicles will no longer be imported and registered in Malta, but as far as I know few details have emerged so far.

France has set its target date for ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars as 2040. What is Malta’s target date? If Malta going to be a trendsetter in the switch to electric vehicles, as Muscat says, then surely we must be aiming for an earlier date than others. Earlier than 2040. So when?

petracdingli@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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