I have just launched my campaign as candidate for an MEP seat with the Nationalist Party. I believe that European accession was a big leap forward for Malta. However, the European benna did not reach all quarters of society. It also failed to reach up north, beyond the pier at Ċirkewwa.
Gozo was lagging behind Malta in 2004. It is now lagging behind even further. Its GDP per capita is barely half that of Malta. The flagship industries that have grown and diversified our economy, namely financial services, gaming, pharmaceuticals and other high-end manufacturing, are virtually absent from the island. Moreover, more than half of its economy is solely dependent on tourism, a risky economic strategy.
A quarter of Gozitans commute to Malta every single day for their employment, and while employment opportunities have picked up of late, these relate mainly to public service contracts which are now reaching 55 per cent of all the labour force in Gozo.
The picture is as bleak now as it was in 2004. The slogans of the Labour Party reveal themselves to be just that, slogans.
In a sense, Gozo is blessed by nature. Its insularity and its rich culture have protected it for decades. They have created a uniqueness of being.
In 2013, as head of the European Parliament Office, I organised an event with the Gozo University Group where we conducted a study into the Gozitan sense of identity. This revealed that 60 per cent of Gozitan students feel they are primarily Gozitan prior to being Maltese and European. A minor detail perhaps, but one which may explain part of the situation.
Let’s face it. Solving major societal challenges in Malta requires political intervention, hence a leverage on political parties come election time. Our electoral system, with Gozo being set aside in the precious 13th, means that the Gozitan issues are mainly addressed at district level rather than at national level. This translates into a phenomenon whereby the Gozitans have their champions in Gozo but they hardly find any champions to change the national attitude in Malta.
Gozo was lagging behind Malta in 2004. It is now lagging behind even further
That is, my friends, the thing about Gozo. It is caught in the perverse effect of Maltese politics, which to the rest of the islands may have translated into prosperity but in regard to Gozo it leads to short-term solutions within a short-term agenda.
Should anyone care to challenge my thesis, I am here to face it with facts. Let me share with you one particular fact by way of illustration.
This summer our government appointed a new Permanent Representative in Brussels to lead our country’s effort in representing Malta in the European Council. Daniel Azzopardi, a technocrat with political experience, is expected to do well in Brussels. Before his departure he was subject to scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
Asked about the challenge of attracting EU funding to Malta he was reported in the Times of Malta of June 20 as replying that “Malta had a compelling argument for its package of EU funding to be retained or increased. Should the worse come to worst, Malta could make use of Gozo’s regionality in order to obtain funding for Gozo as a separate region”.
Here you have it black on white. Gozo’s necessities and its permanent structural handicaps are not a main cause for action, but an afterthought, a trump card, to use in case we face problems with EU funding for Malta. It is indeed a raw deal Gozo.
The intention may be noble, and yet its effects are devastating for Gozo. Government will retort that it is setting aside 10 per cent of funding for projects in Gozo. Those projects are, however, decided in Castille, not in Victoria.
If we are to speak sense on giving new life to the Gozitan economy, we have to start by listening to its private sector. Notwithstanding all odds, there are indeed cases of business success in Gozo. Last week I visited a few of them. I will be there again in Xewkija and Victoria next Friday to see the Gozitan reality first hand. Gozitans have a tough skin and a formidable business acumen. Some businesses have survived and are growing notwithstanding all the odds against them.
Some may not know this, but Gozo also has the largest density of graduates per capita. Most of these talents need to seek greener pastures on the bigger sister island rather than close to home. Imagine the potential we can catalyse with such a resource if we stand by Gozitans and heed their advice.
To start with, we must devise ways for EU funding in Gozo to be planned, prioritised and deployed by Gozitans and with Gozitans. Secondly, we must make sure that the yet chimeric permanent link is not the mammoth distractor it has been so far. We need to consult the Gozitans themselves about this and set a clear time frame.
Finally we must set in motion a drastic change of mentality on the Gozitan question. The real thing about Gozo is that it has a huge potential waiting to be tapped.
Dr Peter Agius, PN candidate for the European elections, is former head of the European Parliament Office and cabinet member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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