Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Energy Roadshow

Yesterday’s Parliamentary Debate on Malta’s energy plans did not result in any significant development on the matter.

On the one hand there were hard-hitting questions from Nationalist members of Parliament and also from Labour’s Marlene Pullicino. The main focus was on Labour’s broken electoral promise to have the new gas plant ready by March 2015.

There were also various questions regarding the financial and contractual aspects of Government’s plans as well as on various factors such as renewable energy, total energy supply and so forth.

On the other hand, Labour maintained its stand on reduced tariffs for households and business and on the general drift of Government’s plans.

It is obvious that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will not resign on the matter, but it is also obvious that the credibility of the Labour

Government received a blow, particularly when this was a flagship theme in Labour’s electoral campaign in 2013.

The lack of transparency on various aspects of Government’s energy plans does not help things, particularly when energy policy is inherently related to management of risk. For example, it is not clear what will happen after 5 years pass from electricity prices. Civil society is in the dark on specific aspects of the renewable energy plans. The talk of Malta as an energy hub is not being substantiated, and the lack of impact assessments adds mystery to the plot.

For all its worth, the delay in the development of a gas power plant may be worth the wait. This would be the case when the Marsa power station is dismantled, when Malta frees itself from oil dependency and if gas and renewable energy provide Malta’s energy requirements through diversified options in terms of provision.

Chinese investment might bring Enemalta back to financial stability, though there is rarely such a thing as a free meal. Possibly such financial outlay might be linked to the talk of Malta as an energy-exporting hub. Alternatively, it might shift Malta’s energy dependency from one source to another.

As far as the electoral term goes, the Labour Government can thus recoup loss of credibility sustained during these past days, though this is also overdetermined by other issues.

In this regard, Labour is performing well in areas concerning civil liberties and policies such as childcare and educational services, and as far as European election results go, Labour solidified its historic 2013 general election victory.

On the other hand it remains to be seen if Labour will deliver on a myriad of promises concerning precarious employment, sustainable finance and public transport, among others.

Labour’s policies – often characterized by conflicting promises - and performance can lead to implosion or to a hegemonic formation. It’s a long road to the next general election.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Environmental Impact and Civil Society Matters


Environmental activism in Maltese civil society was already in place prior to Malta’s EU accssion.

During the 1960s, Din l-Art Helwa, Malta Ornithological Society (which eventually became Birdlife Malta), and Society for the Study and Conservation of Nature (which eventually became Nature Trust) were established, mainly emphasising issues related to conservationism and development of land.

During the 1980s Żgħażagħ għall-Ambjent (which eventually became Moviment għall-Ambjent – Friends of the Earth Malta) joined the fray, introducing the discourse of sustainable development in Maltese environmental politics.

In 1989, Malta’s Green Party, Alternattiva Demokratika, was born. This party, which was briefly preceded by the Democratic Party (PDM), helped ensure that the environment became a major political issue in Malta. Its presence in a small number of local councils has been another achievement.

During the 1990s, collaboration and cooperation amongst ENGOs increased.

The militant and socially-oriented NGO Moviment Graffitti joined ranks, and eventually, other NGOs also joined environmental campaigns.

Examples of such alliances included the Front against the Hilton redevelopment project in St Julians and the Front Against the Golf Course, - the latter comprising a broad coalition made up of diverse environmental, social, cultural, religious and political organisations.

The proposed golf course development was refused by MEPA in 2004, but this victory was not connected to Malta’s EU accession.

This historic environmental victory was similar to others which were not related to EU accession. These included alliances against a proposed leisure complex in Munxar in the mid-1990s; against the proposed Siggiewi cement plant and against a proposed landfill near Mnajdra temple. Another proposed development – that of an airstrip in Gozo –has been disappearing and resurfacing from one legislature to another.

In the meantime, Malta joined the EU. In line with the EU acquis, the country introduced legislation related to the environment, in areas which previously had no regulations. This generally led to environmental improvements and structural upgrading, though there were some notable exceptions, such as Malta’s shift to plastic soft-drink bottles.

Upon Malta’s EU accession, new ENGOs, such as Flimkien ghall-Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) and Ramblers’ Association emerged.

EU membership was discursively constructed as being beneficial to Malta’s environment. New lobbying opportunities were created for ENGOs.

In the first years following Malta’s EU accession, ENGOs were mainly active in issues such as development of land and hunting and trapping.

They were rather successful in relation to sensitizing and procedural impacts. These relate to processes such as raising public awareness and in being consulted by State authorities, though the latter leaves much to be desired.

As regards substantive impacts, ENGOs were generally not succesful in environmental issues in which they were active.

For example, as regards development projects, Malta’s EU accession was not deemed as a sufficient source of ENGO empowerment. Indeed, in most instances – for example in the environmentalist struggle against the so called ‘rationalization’ process of land development - the discourse of economic growth and neo-liberal ideology prevailed.

There were specific exceptions to this however – such as the environmentalist victory over the development of a carpark and shopping centre beneath a popular public garden in Sliema - but this had more to do with local and national political considerations.

An area were ENGOs achieved substantive impacts was the climate change, where Malta adopted binding EU targets, which, however, were subsequently not adhered to.

As regards hunting and trapping, environmentalists pressed for Malta’s conformity to the EU birds’ directive. Many believed that EU legislation would effectively result in an end of hunting during the Spring season.

What actually happened was that ENGOs like Birdlife Malta experienced institutionalisation and had considerable access to European institutions, but hunting in Spring remained largely in place. The ambivalent decision of the European Court of Justice on the Maltese case resulted in plural interpretations.

This resulted in further antagonism from the environmental movement, which has collected enough signatures for an abrogative referendum on hunting. Hence, as far as the case of Birdlife shows, institutionalisation of ENGOs does not always render an organisation docile to the State.

Yet the hunting issue also shows that even Europeanized issues are very much subjected to national political antagonisms.

In short, though empowerment of ENGOs was generally enhanced through EU accession, this was an uneven process.

(Note: This was also published in Zminijietna Oct-Dec 2014)