The head of the Maltese delegation in the S&D Group at the European Parliament (EP), Alfred Sant, is looking forward to retirement from political life after next June’s European elections but his upcoming chapter will be far from one of inactivity.
Last April, the former Prime Minister and Labour leader, who has twice been elected to the EP with a staggering number of votes, announced that he would not contest the next EP election in order to make room for others.
A distinguished writer and playwright, Alfred Sant has set his sights on penning the continuation of his memoirs once his term as MEP comes to an end. The third volume will delve into the transformative years of 1992-1998, spanning his tenure as Labour Party leader, his successful efforts to modernise the party, his historic electoral triumph, and the subsequent snap election loss amidst internal party turmoil.
In a conversation with The Journal on the margins of the European Parliament’s last plenary session of the year in Strasbourg, Alfred Sant expressed his strong conviction that former leaders should not trespass into their successors’ territories. In response to a question about whether he plans to remain active within the Labour Party, Sant, who is now 75 years old, stated: “Life is a journey with different seasons. I will have other endeavors to pursue. The party is in the hands of capable individuals. I will not intrude, but if my help is needed, I will undoubtedly be available to serve the party.”
What happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels
Dr Sant then turned to the Maltese electorate, calling for a high turnout in the EP elections to be held on the 8th of June. He highlighted that the EP holds significant sway over decisions that directly affect the lives of Maltese citizens, making their participation in the elections a crucial step in shaping their future. As an example, he highlighted the EU’s attempts to impose a standardised tax regime. This one-size-fits-all approach would disregard Malta’s unique economic circumstances, he maintained. Furthermore, there are EU proposals aimed at regulating the management of financial systems and the formulation of budgets
Furthering the citizens’ interests
“Whenever we Maltese Labour MEPs have the opportunity, we speak up, lobby, and vote against such proposals that we believe would harm Malta,” Dr Sant said.
Despite the numerical disadvantage of having only four Maltese Labour MEPs in an assembly of 705 European legislators, Sant recognized the need for strategic partnerships. He stressed the significance of building alliances with MEPs from other countries who align with their interests, depending on the matter at hand. These encompass MEPs elected from island nations or territories with a sizeable island population, from countries where tourism holds a prominent position in the economy, and from Member States with a keen engagement in Mediterranean affairs and migration.
In reality, given the immense volume of work conducted within the European Parliament, it is practically inconceivable for Malta’s six MEPs – effectively reduced to five following PN MEP Roberta Metsola’s election as EP President in January 2022 – to comprehensively address all committees and files. Consequently, the MEPs and their teams must spread themselves as widely as possible to obtain as thorough an understanding as they can of the multitude of matters being discussed.
Two major developments
Dr Sant points out two significant issues that have taken centre stage within the EU over the past five years: the focus on the Digital Europe Programme, a new funding programme focused on bringing digital technology to businesses, citizens, and public administration; and the programme related to the Green Deal, a package of policy initiatives which aims to set the EU on the path to a green transition, with the ultimate goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050.
Dr Sant maintains that these two initiatives, which will continue to be pursued during the next legislature, have both positive and negative ramifications, depending on how they affect different societies and economies. The Maltese MEPs who will be elected in June must carefully analyse how these programmes will impact Maltese interests. They must also stand ready for unexpected global or regional developments, as was the case with the outbreak of Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Israel-Hamas war during the current legislature.
Call for a strong Maltese S&D delegation
Every development or legislative proposal on the European level will affect different EU Member States differently. That is why, Dr Sant believes, it is important that the Maltese electorate’s representatives in the European Parliament are capable of working effectively to ensure that, despite being a small island state, Malta does not end up being marginalised or isolated.
He also emphasises the significance of another strong showing for Labour Party candidates in the upcoming EP elections, expressing his hope that the incumbent party will maintain its current four seats out of the six allocated to Malta. “Aside from our primary responsibility of representing our constituents’ interests, we have also confronted the negative image that some have persistently sought to project onto Malta during this legislature,” he stated. “We have endeavoured to explain the facts and refute misinformation, while the PN’s MEPs have chosen a different approach. It is critical that the forthcoming Labour delegation to the European Parliament is a numerically strong one and maintains this commitment.”
Freedom of action
Might the instances where Maltese members of the S&D Group deviate from the Group’s stance or vote differently from each other lead Maltese voters to perceive Labour MEPs as an uncoordinated and fragmented group?
Alfred Sant explains that political groups in the European Parliament are not characterised by the same choesion that we Maltese are accustomed to seeing in our national parliament. The way politics are made on the Euopean level is simply different.
“Take my own case. I am one of the S&D MEPs who do not always follow the Group’s voting consensus,” he points out. “While I fully align myself with the Group’s stance on social issues, I more often than not take a dissenting position on EU and international political matters.
Commenting that the other Maltese members of the S&D Group may not always share his views, he underscores that, as the leader of the Maltese S&D delegation, he consistently granted the three other members autonomy in their voting decisions.
Indeed, on issues like abortion, different members of the delegation have voted for, against, or abstained depending on the specific circumstances. He maintains that he only provides voting guidance on matters that would significantly impact Malta’s interests, such as taxation.
Commenting on the worrying trend of extreme right-wing parties gaining traction across the continent, Dr Sant observes that these parties are chipping away at the electoral support of mainstream centre-right parties that are members of the European People’s Party
In Spain, for instance, the far-right Vox party has managed to take quite a substatial part of the electorate that usually voted for the Partido Popular (PP). In this light, the PP felt it would be a smart move to get closer to Vox, thinking that this would eventually lead them to be able to join forces in forming a coalition government. However, this strategy backfired, as many voters abandoned the PP due to its close alliance with Vox.
In Italy too, the centre-right and far-right have become increasingly close allies, working together on a number of issues such as immigration, security, and the economy.
Dr Sant underscores that the growing success of populist parties is not solely due to their populist discourse; instead, it stems from the widespread belief among people – families, workers, pensioners – that these parties effectively address the issues that most impact their daily lives.
As democratic socialists, despite our generally well-intentioned messages, our communication style often appears detached and fails to resonate with the public, leaving them uncertain about our genuine understanding of their concerns. This is why Socialist parties across Europe are losing ground to far-right parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. The AfD is successfully mobilising workers towards populisms and even fascism. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these parties are effective or that these workers are embracing fascism, but it does highlight that we socialists need to speak more forcefully and consistently about the issues that matter to people.
A void exists in the middle of the political spectrum, he warns, and someone will surely rise to fill it in.
Photo: European Union