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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation: Social Science Research and Transitions to Urban Contexts

Dr Michael Briguglio and Dr Marie Briguglio, both from the University of Malta, feature in the ‘Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation’, which features 70 researchers from around the world in an online 7-month project known as ‘blog of blogs’ organised by the International Social Science Council (ISSC).

Michael Briguglio writes about ‘Malta's EU accession, environmental sustainability and ENGO activism’.
Marie Briguglio writes about ‘A finger on the pulse of happiness in an urbanised island context’

eBook version:
PDF version:

More information:
Press Release:

The book will be available in print version (at a cost) as soon as possible.

Reference: Condie, J., & Cooper, A. M. (2015). Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation: Social Science Research and Transitions to Urban Contexts. Penrith, N.S.W.: University of Western Sydney.

Twitter: #ISSCBookofBlogs

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Never-ending energy story

Times of Malta, 10 August 2015

Gasol, one of the companies originally involved in the new power station project in Malta, recently announced it is no longer involved in this project.

Its official website, however, still states that it is providing 30 per cent equity for the project, as “Gasol is part of Electrogas Malta, which was recently awarded preferred bidder status for the Malta LNG-to-power project”.

Gasol’s most recent financial statement declared a negative equity of €12.8 million and accumulated losses of €96 million.

The company has also been delisted from the London Stock Exchange and independent auditors have warned that it does not have enough cash or liquid assets to honour its commitments.

The remaining companies in the Electrogas consortium now are Siemens, the Azerbaijani State company Socar and GEM holdings, the latter being owned by the Gasan and Tumas groups.

In the meantime, the government of Malta is acting as guarantor for the Electrogas power station to the tune of €88 million on a substantial €101 million loan that Bank of Valletta is providing to the consortium. (Post-publication note: It has now been revealed that the State guarantee has shot up to €360 million [80% of the financing needed - The full loan of €450 million is 20 per cent financed by the consortium’s shareholders and is being provided by four banks: BOV, KFW IPEX-Bank Gmbh, HSBC Bank plc and Société Générale])

The government, which owns 25 per cent of the bank and appoints its chairman, is stating that its protection of Electrogas is in the national interest. Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi recently stated that the [€88 million] bank guarantee is temporary, pending clearance from the European Commission regarding State aid.

True to his ‘road map’ discourse, Mizzi added that the remaining companies in Electrogas would provide “a world class infrastructure” for Malta. Mizzi, however, did not say that if Electrogas fails to deliver it will be the Maltese taxpayer who will have to make up for the loss.

Mizzi’s Labour government has also refused to uphold requests by the media, in conformity with the Freedom of Information Act, to provide more information on this agreement.

Needless to say, the Malta Resources Authority has been publicly silent all along, despite its role as regulator.

If one puts things into perspective, one should keep in mind that the power station project was a flagship proposal of Labour’s electoral strategy in 2013.

Prior to the election, Joseph Muscat had promised that the power station would be completed by March 2015. However, once the Labour Party was in power and it became even more evident that this promise was unattainable, the goalposts shifted to July 2016.

In the meantime, Shanghai Electric bought 33 per cent of Enemalta in 2014. The government had also declared that Electrogas would provide 50 per cent of Malta’s energy, through a fixed price for five years, yet never explained what happens when this contract expires.

For example, if such energy is costly and is in excess supply, who will buy it?

Will the government step in to protect the consortium once again?

Neither did the government ever explain whether Malta risks playing an excessively high price for such energy in the eventuality that it can be obtained at cheaper sources from elsewhere, such as the interconnector.

Comprehensive impact assessments, which are supposed to be a basic necessity for risk and opportunity evaluations, are conspicuous by their absence. This only increases suspicion of political obligations rather than rational policymaking.

Indeed, it seems the government is protecting and guaranteeing private and foreign State interests against public concerns on a public project. Its excessive interference in what should be commercial matters, coupled with its lack of transparency, is only adding to the confusion to the never-ending power station saga.

It is therefore no surprise that the Opposition has called for an investigation by the National Audit Office into the contracts which the government signed with Electrogas over the power station in Delimara. Anyone who believes in transparency, due diligence and good governance should consider this to be a blessing, especially when, so far, the National Audit Office is one of the few remaining State institutions which have not been colonised by the Tagħna Lkoll quasi-feudal policymaking in Malta.

The power station saga is truly one in the national interest.

The provision of reliable, clean and sustainable energy is much more important than partisan interests and electoral obligations. Let us all hope that Malta is not locking itself into an unsustainable energy dependency path.

Ghaxaq ODZ: Front writes to PM, Archbishop, MEPA Chairman and Dominican Provincial

To the Prime Minister, Archbishop, Dominican Provincial and MEPA Chairman,

Dear Sirs,

Front Harsien ODZ, a citizens' movement with environmental aims is very preoccupied with the possibility of having St Albert's College being developed on ODZ land, despite the fact that such development falls within the local plan.

Front Harsien ODZ notes that the current premises of St Albert's College is inadequate and that an alternative site must be found to cater for its educational services.

We therefore propose that the Applicants of the proposed development withdraw the pending application at Ghaxaq and that concurrently, the Government of Malta and MEPA commit to identify alternative sites for the College. Such sites should not be on ODZ land but can include, among others, brownfield sites, sites previously used by the Government for purposes such as schooling, and other Government-owned land.

We believe that through goodwill, trust and mutual respect, a win-win solution can be found as regards the proposed development.

We trust in your good faith to resolve the matter and thus close this controversy once and for all, to everyone's benefit.

Signed By:
Monique Agius,
Dr Michael Briguglio,
James Debono,
Dr Shaun Grech.
f/ Front Harsien ODZ

Friday, August 07, 2015

New Publication: Ten Years of Malta’s EU Membership – The Impact on Maltese Environmental NGOs

Michael Briguglio’s paper ‘‘Ten Years of Malta’s EU Membership - The Impact on Maltese Environmental NGOs’ has just been published online. It forms part of the 'Reflections on a Decade of EU Membership’ series as Occasional Paper 7/2015.

The paper that investigates the impact of Malta's European Union (EU) accession on Environmental NGOs (ENGOs). For this purpose, environmental politics in relation to Malta's EU accession are analysed.

To read the occasional paper click here:

Citation: Michael Briguglio (2015). ‘Ten Years of Malta’s EU Membership - The Impact on Maltese Environmental NGOs.’ Reflections of a Decade of EU Membership: Expectations, Achievements, Disappointments and the Future Occasional Papers, No. 7, Institute for European Studies (Malta).

MEPA Demerger weakens environmental governance: Front Harsien ODZ

In a press conference held in front of the Office of the Prime Minister this morning, Front Harsien ODZ presented its feedback regarding Government's demerger of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.

Front Harsien ODZ is opposing the proposed MEPA demerger as this will weaken environmental governance. The proposed legislation makes it easier to develop on ODZ land, weakens enforcement, weakens transparency and weakens civil society participation in decision-making processes.

Government's demerger of MEPA will also give too much power to the respective Minister, who can override Planning Authority decisions. This will further decrease the Authority's autonomy and further increase political interference in decision-making which is supposed to be bound by clear regulations.

Front Harsien ODZ also expressed its endorsement of Din l-Art Helwa's and Friends of the Earth's statements regarding the MEPA demerger.

Front's feedback, in more detail, follows:

1.The law as proposed makes it possible for MEPA to regularise illegal development in protected zones and ODZ land, something forbidden by a specific article in present law (Article 70 and the Sixth Schedule). Currently MEPA cannot approve the legalisation of ODZ development carried out after 2008 and of any development carried out on scheduled zones irrespective of when it was carried out.

2. The law gives too many powers to the Minister and states that “any person who is served with an enforcement notice” in respect of development which may be regularised “by virtue of regulations made by the Minister”, shall have the right to request the new Planning Authority (PA) to regularise the development. This can pave the way to a planning amnesty through a legal notice. This is because the new law will give the minister responsible for the PA blanket powers to define both the illegalities which can be sanctioned, and the fines which would be applicable. This will be done through a legal notice issued by the Minister.

3. The law weakens enforcement. This is because the proposed law states that whenever an application for regularising past abuse is turned down, enforcement provisions will only apply from the date such from when such a request is turned down. Fines should apply from the moment an enforcement order is issued as is the case today.

4. The law weakens transparency by allowing people to make submissions anonymously. This means that developers will be able to propose changes to local plans etc.. without showing their names.

5. The proposed law does not include any mechanism through which the Environment Authority’s experts can screen all planning applications submitted to the Planning Authority. Without this screening and daily communication between experts of the two authorities, the future of the environment is endangered.

6. The law represents a loss of autonomy. All members of the Executive Committee of the Planning Authority are government appointees. Opposition representative and NGO representatives will be represented in Planning Board but not in Executive Committee but not in Executive Committee where policies are discussed. This risks creating a parallel structure in MEPA around the CEO figure. This means that nobody from the outside will supervise operations. Ideally all meetings of the Planning Authority’s Executive Committee should be held in public and minutes published on-line.

7. The outline permit should not be re-introduced. Past experience (ex Mistra) has shown that commitments taken at this stage are difficult to revoke at a later stage. It does not make sense to first approve something in principle without providing the full details.

8. All members of the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal should be appointed by the President on the advice of Prime Minister (as is case now) and not by Prime Minister as proposed as this weakens the judicial status enjoyed by current tribunal.

9. All appointees on MEPA boards should be grilled in parliament’s standing committee on the environment and planning. The CEO should report to parliament on a regular basis

10. The new law further weakens the SPED, which was already incomplete when it passed in parliament, as it contains only objectives and not specific policies. The national strategy for planning and environment should be a binding set of policies, which Government and Authority should commit to for a specified period of time, and any changes to it should be carried out through a formal process which is transparent and open to public consultation.

Monique Agius

Dr Michael Briguglio

Dr Shaun Grech

f/ Front Harsien ODZ

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Road maps and roads

Times of Malta, 3rd August 2015

The mismanagement of the Coast Road development hit the headlines these past days. This is not a surprise, given that public concern on traffic has increased. This has much to do with the government’s underperformance in terms of policymaking and policy implementation in this field.

The hefty increase in traffic is due to various reasons. Among others, these include one’s ‘freedom’ when driving a car and the fact that the public transport system keeps failing to deliver.

When Transport Minister Joe Mizzi demonised everything Arriva, he raised public expectations on the new public transport operator. Government subsidy to private operators and bus fares increased too. Ultimately, this is backfiring because it does not seem that the increases have been matched by a better service.

The increase in traffic has also got to do with the government’s lack of awareness on the need for holistic planning and on the perils of overdeveloping. The proposed 38- and 40-storey towers just a few metres away from each other in Tigné, Sliema is a case in point.

The area is already over-congested with cars, yet, thousands more will result due to these developments and new parking spaces will only cover a small fraction of the resultant demand.

One can also refer to the situation faced by many local councils, which do not have enough financial means to carry out urgently-needed roadworks. Instead of resorting to a decentralised system, which enables the council to generate revenue to cover such costs, the government is over-centralising, thus reducing local councils to beggars at ministers’ whims. Such methods are more common in less democratic societies.

Bus lanes, commendable as they are, also fall in the category of mismanagement. A bus lane is not simply about painting markings on a road and fixing some signs. It is much more about proper education, implementation and enforcement.

Taking the Sliema-Gżira bus lane as an example, one can unfortunately predict tragic accidents waiting to happen. At every time of the day, many irresponsible cowboy drivers speed along the bus lane to the dismay of pedestrians and bicycle users and to the anger of other drivers who observe traffic regulations.

Strict enforcement at random throughout all days of the week is required, together with more effective street lighting to enhance visibility.

Another area that is characterised by very poor enforcement is the pedestrians’ rights on pavements, especially along promenades. The number of vendors who are mushrooming, especially in tourist zones, is resulting in lack of walking space.

Apart from stalls, trailers, make-do rooms and so forth, pedestrians have to contend with signs, A-frames and other obstacles, sometimes even on ramps, which were designed for the access of persons with disability, parents with push chairs and the elderly.

Once again, it seems that centralisation is becoming the order of the day, wherein orders from ‘above’ are required to take concrete action.

I hope that the lack of enforcement in this matter is not related to some Malta tagħna lkoll electoral obligation.

The cherry on the cake on Malta’s transport matters must be the emissions from cars. I had the opportunity to write about this earlier this year, in the Times of Malta, on February 9, when I commented on the ridiculous under-enforcement with regard to emissions, according to official government statistics.

I do not envy Mizzi who is responsible for such a challenging ministry and I do empathise with the fact that problem solving takes time. However, I am sure that the minister can show some signs of hands-on implementation in various matters falling under his responsibility.

To begin with, enforcement should be stepped up in many areas. How about beginning by giving a genuine push to the SMS system where civic-minded citizens report cars thatg are over-emitting?

In a country which has one of the oldest car fleets and one of the highest number of cars per person in the EU, but which also happens to be the smallest member State, effective governance on transport is more urgent than ever.