MANY may think of English-as-a-foreign-language courses in Malta as a “holiday with a few hours of lessons for groups of partying young people”, says Colin Scicluna, adding that there might be some element of truth to that image. Nevertheless, Malta’s ambassador to Slovakia readily adds that language schools in Malta, the country which “has carved quite a niche for itself in the teaching of English”, are fully accredited and internationally recognised institutions, and the young are not the only beneficiaries. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Scicluna about the challenges of immigration that Malta faces, the country’s energy dependence as well as the potential for cooperation between Malta and Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): According to the winter forecast of the European Commission (EC), Malta is expected to be the second fastest growing economy in the European Union, with 1.5-percent growth. What factors have prevented Malta from slipping into recession as several other EU member countries have?
Colin Scicluna (CS): Malta’s economy has proved to be particularly resilient during the past years of economic and financial turbulence. This has been the result of a number of factors. For many years, Malta was rather heavily dependent on tourism and manufacturing, especially in textiles.
In the past several years, there has been a deliberate strategy to diversify the Maltese economy and to transform the manufacturing sector into one that is knowledge-based and which brings high added value to a number of niche sectors. The ground for this transformation was prepared primarily by increased investment in education and training, as well as in information technology. Moreover, we have not been completely immune to the events in our immediate neighbourhood, since many of the countries hit by the crisis are among our major trading partners. The strategy has worked and Malta is now known as a highly regulated and efficient financial services provider, a growing hub for life-science related industries and a centre for online services and technology solutions. At the same time, while tourism has a relatively smaller share of the economy as a whole, the sector has continued to grow.
TSS: Since becoming an EU member, Malta has reported increasing problems with immigration from North Africa and requested more help in dealing with it. What are the immigration-related challenges Malta faces today and what are, in your opinion, the European solutions to these issues?
CS: A key point to be made is that illegal immigration is first and foremost a human tragedy. This is a problem with a very human face and so it cannot only be tackled by administrative and legislative means. Malta has experienced heavy influxes of illegal immigration from North Africa since 2002. I wish to clarify that the vast majority originate from other parts of Africa, with the northern rim being the main launching point towards Europe. The figures for February 2013 show that there are currently approximately 1,300 illegal immigrants awaiting repatriation, mainly failed asylum seekers, and almost 1,800 beneficiaries of international protection in Malta. A further 1,200 asylum-seekers are awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. Many of those who apply for international protection are eligible because they originate from conflict areas, particularly in the Horn of Africa.
Most of those who reach Malta illegally, submit an application for asylum. According to UNHCR statistics for 2011, Malta received the relatively largest number of asylum applications among the 44 industrialised countries covered by the report, with 4.4 applications per 1,000 inhabitants.
According to the same report, Malta also received the relatively largest number of asylum applications for the period of 2007-2011, with 20.1 applications per 1,000 inhabitants. Malta’s situation is truly an exceptional one, when its geographic and demographic factors are considered: Malta’s population density stands at almost 1,300 persons per square kilometre, by far the highest in the EU, compared to Slovakia’s 111 persons per square kilometre, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. These factors have a direct impact on the absorption capacity of the country.
Malta considers that intra-EU relocation of beneficiaries of international protection from Malta is the most effective form of solidarity. Financial and technical assistance are always welcome, but these are short-term solutions. Since 2005, some 600 beneficiaries of protection have been relocated by EU member states, on a bilateral basis, but a greater show of solidarity would be appreciated. It is pertinent to note that Malta has an ongoing resettlement scheme with the United States, which has resulted, so far, in over 1,100 beneficiaries since 2007.
TSS: Malta has the highest energy dependence rate in the European Union as it has to import practically all the energy it consumes. Yet, between 2008 and 2011, Malta also reported the highest increase in energy consumption in the entire EU. What are the current energy policies of Malta and the challenges it faces in order to achieve the 2020 European target of having produced at least 10 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources of energy (RES)?
CS: Malta faces substantial challenges in order to achieve its declared RES targets because space is available at a premium, not only from a cost perspective but also, especially for non-urban areas, in terms of its landscape and environmental value. Moreover, the limited space available may be subject to various site-specific constraints. By way of example, the main project to achieve Malta’s 2020 targets is a 95MW offshore wind farm that would contribute towards meeting 3.5 percent of RES. There is only one site with the necessary sea-depth to allow for such a project and no appropriate land-based sites. The development site covers an area of about 11 square kilometres.
Were it to be situated on land it would occupy 3.5 percent of the whole territory of Malta! The identified site itself may not be feasible from an environmental perspective as the Environmental Impact Assessment has indicated that the proposed development might have a negative environmental impact on protected avifauna species. Large scale solar power generation would present similar challenges. I appreciate that this is ironic given that we are blessed with so much sunshine.
Malta also faces economy-of-scale challenges to achieve its targets, which do not always make it feasible for private investors to target RES in Malta unless the government allocates prohibitive feed-in tariffs.
Malta also faces challenges due to the fact that it is a peripheral island, meaning that potential investors face high mobilisation costs.
Besides, most R&D has to date focused on geo-climatological realities, which are different from those found in Malta and the Mediterranean and therefore, more often than not, significant investment in research is required to assess feasibility, improve the technology’s suitability to local circumstances as well as ensure minimal, if any, environmental impact. This is the reason Malta always insists at the EU level that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach: regulations about funding should cater to relatively small projects (by EU standards, but large for Malta), for the possibility to fund offshore solar and wind installations, as well as for a high-co-financing rate for such projects in order to make them feasible.
This does not mean that we plan to renege on our obligations, but it does mean that we need to be creative and also that our partners need to be understanding of our very specific circumstances. One of the main strategies is that of giving incentives to private individuals and businesses to invest themselves in alternative sources, with photo-voltaic being the obvious choice. EU funding is being targeted at schemes of this nature.
TSS: In November, a consulate of Malta opened in Slovakia. What was the motivation behind opening the consulate?
CS: Malta is a small country, which means that our resources are limited and we therefore cannot be directly represented in every country. Since I am a resident in the relative proximity of Vienna, I can travel to Slovakia on a regular basis and I have even spent some short holidays in your beautiful country. Nevertheless, it is preferable to have a physical and permanent presence and our network of honorary consuls is an indispensable tool in achieving this goal.
We have been fortunate in identifying in Mr Martin Hantabal a professional, energetic and capable representative, to work with us and on our behalf. He knows Malta well and together we have plans to bring this knowledge to as many people as possible in Slovakia. I believe that there is tremendous potential for cooperation.
Moreover, in the period of 2016-17 the two of us [i.e. Malta and Slovakia], together with the Netherlands, will share the Trio of Presidencies of the European Union. This too is a reason for our decision to secure an enhanced presence in Bratislava.
TSS: In what areas of Slovakia’s economy do you see room for cooperation between the two countries? Has the potential for economic cooperation between the countries been fully explored?
CS: We have not even scratched the surface of what can be achieved. We must be realistic in appreciating that we are both small countries and that our priorities may lie elsewhere, but this does not mean that we should not examine areas of cooperation that can be beneficial to us both. I think that Slovak entrepreneurs should be looking at Malta primarily as a financial services centre. Our proximity and long experience in Northern Africa makes Malta an ideal location from where to do business with the newly emerging democracies of that region.
Many Maltese businesses are looking for new markets and partners. It is part of my job to introduce my compatriots to the opportunities offered by your country.
Education and technology are, in my view, two sectors where both our countries can benefit from the know-how and experience of either side. In the technology sector, while Malta has experienced considerable development, I believe that there are a number of areas where our students and workers may be able to benefit from Slovak prowess.
There are certain industries where we are both active, not in competition, but in a complementary way: one of these is the automobile sector, which is so important for Slovakia. In Malta we have a number of enterprises involved in the manufacture of electronic components that are contracted out by the automotive industry. There may be potential to bring these related activities closer together.
TSS: Malta is a popular tourist destination, also known in Slovakia for its language courses. In recent years Malta has also become a medical tourism destination. What has prompted the increase in medical tourism and what are the challenges Maltese tourism faces today?
CS: Malta has carved quite a niche for itself in the teaching of English as a foreign language. Many think of this as a holiday with a few hours of lessons for groups of partying young people. There may be an element of that, but it is only a small part of the real picture. First of all, the language schools are fully accredited and internationally recognised institutions of learning.
Secondly, young people are not the only beneficiaries: targeted courses are organised for older people, in business or management English, for instance. This activity could not have grown so much had it not been aimed at a high quality product, but of course, the climate helps!
The health-care sector is another area where a great deal of investment has been made in recent years. A new, state-of-the-art general public hospital opened in 2007, aimed at providing primary and specialised health care for the entire population.
There are also a number of private clinics and hospitals providing a wide range of services. Malta consistently scores among the highest placed countries in terms of health-care services both in EU and WHO rankings. Given Malta’s renown as a tourist destination, the marrying of the two was inevitable and many take advantage of the services offered, combined with the possibilities for convalescence and recovery in a balmy, Mediterranean setting.
18. Mar 2013 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová