Michael Briguglio is a dad, sociologist, activist, local councillor and drummer from Malta

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why Malta needs a clean-up

(This article originally appeared as 'Summer Rain Brings Relief')
Times of Malta 24 August 2015

The rain in the past days might have spoilt some summer events, yet it also brought some relief in other quarters. Indeed, public discourse that featured quite prominently referred to the rain’s cleaning of the streets, pavements, beaches and promenades.

Malta does not seem to be coping with the increased volume of waste littering every corner of the island, albeit being more pronounced in certain areas. The summer season, where tourism numbers increase, makes matters much worse.

All sort of rubbish is accumulating. Dog pooh, plastic bottles, loose construction bricks, garbage bags galore, odd household appliances, you name it. No wonder Facebook pages dedicated to rubbish are being set up, powered by mobile and smartphone technology.

The accumulation of rubbish adds up to the lot of vacant buildings, including those in a dilapidated state, which have unfortunately become a permanent eyesore in Malta. The same can be said of industrial areas, from Mrieħel to Ħal-Far, parts of which are suitable for film scenes of ruin. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Malta was recently chosen for the filming of scenes for a film in war-torn Libya.

The accumulation of rubbish and dilapidation is not only adding up to the uglification of Malta but has other negative impacts too. Think of persons with disability, those with pushchairs and elderly people whose access is impaired due to the occupation of walking spaces by rubbish.

Think of the impact on tourism, a pillar of the Maltese economy. It is true that, quite often, some tourists themselves add to the mess but, if anything, this only means that the problem requires even more attention.

The current state of policymaking and implementation does not help things. Local councils tend to spend a substantial amount of their limited budgets to waste management but the battle is draining their resources. The fact that councils cannot generate revenue and remain dependent on minsters’ priorities for various services does not help.

Green wardens come at a high expense to local councils, thus making use of their services prohibitive. Such wardens do impose fines on offenders, and rightly so, but enforcement is the exception, not the rule. The upcoming centralisation of wardens within a government entity will not improve matters in terms of local council management.

It would make much more sense to have a decentralised warden system managed by councils, whereby a substantial amount of revenue from fines is used for the benefit of the locality rather than to feed an expanding bureaucracy. Unfortunately, however, subsidiarity does not seem to be on government’s agenda.

The waste problem reveals another challenge for Maltese society: that of having stronger communities.

When people litter public space one notes a lack of civic pride. Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain had referred to this as “amoral familism” when referring to Malta and I would imagine American sociologist Robert Putnam would relate this to the breakdown of social capital.

In the case of the latter, social networks are threatened by an ever-increasing rise of individualism and unconnected individ-uals. A striking example that many can relate to is having neighbours in apartment blocks putting out garbage bags at untimely hours despite having clear signs in the condominium with rubbish collection times. Or having dog pooh on pavements in front of schools.

The increase in food waste, from milkshakes to half-bitten burgers, from pizza boxes to cans and bottles, is also a main reason why pigeons are increasing at a level almost similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Many people complain about their presence and even about rats roaming the streets at night but what about human behaviour, which is actually attracting such animals?

Hence, investing in education and social capital is just as important as enforcement. The former can have a cultural effect whereas the latter is more immediate, provided that it is not tarnished by political patronage.

The fact that such policy-making is so low on Malta’s national agenda reveals that quality of life is second fiddle to other concerns. I can only sigh when I hear ministers speaking of Malta as a hub of excellence, high worth and what have you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trans-Atlantic Trade Queries

The Times of Malta, 17 August 2015

A few weeks ago, the European Parliament gave its go-ahead to the European Commission to keep negotiating with the United States for a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The main aim of the proposed partnership is to create the world’s biggest free-trade zone. This covers a wide range of areas, from public services to intellectual property rights, and all sorts of regulatory issues dealing with goods and services.

Supporters of the TTIP say that it would provide an economic equivalent to Nato, creating a massive economic force that would have a huge influence on global trade rules, in the process countering the growing influence of other blocs in a multi-polar world.

Opponents, on the other hand, make the argument that the TTIP would threaten social and environmental standards in the European Union to the benefit of American-style neo-liberalism.

Mainstream political parties within Europe’s centre-right and centre-left tend to support the TTIP process, albeit with some reservations, whereas, left, green and even right-wing parties tend to be critical, though for different reasons.

Opponents of the current TTIP process also include a number of environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as well as various trade unions apart from others.

A European-wide initiative, ‘Stop TTIP’, has the support of 500 organisations spread all across EU countries, including Malta, and has collected 2.4 million signatures against the process.

The European Committee of Regions has also expressed concerns on negative impacts on local councils.

In the meantime, late in 2014, a Eurobarometer survey was held on the TTIP and it transpired that 75 per cent of Maltese respondents were “in favour of a free trade and investment agreement between the EU and the USA”. Only Lithuania had a higher percentage than Malta. Comparatively, Germany and Austria’s favourable percentage read 39 per cent each.

Well, one can be in favour of a free trade and investment agreement but different from the one being proposed. At least, that is my position.

I also think that it is quite worrying that this issue has hardly featured in major political debates in Malta. To be fair, Maltese MEPs Roberta Metsola, Alfred Sant and Miriam Dalli recently stated that the that final version of TTIP should not come at the cost of Europe’s protection standards, though they did not go into much detail.

For example, what is their position on agriculture and food regulations? The EU has stronger regulation than the USA on various matters, with the former banning 82 pesticides used in the USA due to health and environmental impacts. Also, the EU has a tougher regime against genetically-modified products, particularly due to consumers’ concerns.

It would also be interesting to see what mainstream politicians have to say about public services such as education in relation to TTIP, especially if these become subject to regulation which treats them as other economic services.

A main bone of contention on the TTIP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). If approved, this will allow corporations to sue governments for actions deemed to limit the formers’ future profits. Cases will be heard by arbitration panels in jurisdiction of the corporation’s choice and will likely give primacy to ‘free trade’ values, possibly at the expense of other concerns, such as public health, human rights, environmental protection, workers’ rights and other social rights.

Opposition to this clause is relatively high within the EU and it continues to grow even among mainstream parties within the European Parliament.

Hence, one would expect that the TTIP process is given more prominence so that the genuine concerns that citizens, civil society organisations, businesses and other stakeholders harbour can be discussed in a constructive manner.

It is pertinent to note that both the European Parliament and the European Council had given their consent to the European Commission for a negotiating mandate for the TTIP process.

Yet, in accordance with the EU Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (article 207(3) and article 218 of the TFEU), the final TTIP agreement can only be concluded by the European Council and the member states if the European Parliament gives its consent.

Hence, the potential for an agreement which has a stronger social and environmental dimension exists.

It would be interesting to know if and when the Parliament in Malta intends to discuss the issue and whether this will be a proper debate or merely a rubber-stamping formality.