Gozo has a history of regional identity and devolution of powers. To mention the key historical periods, from the independence from the Maltese islands during the French’s tenure, also, Gozo had the local councils 20 years prior to Malta, the Gozo Diocese and other episodes.
However it is a well renowned fact that Gozo has failed at creating a new regional policy. The latest White Paper on Gozo regionality was proposed by ex-Prim minister Alfred Sant in 1997. 20 years later, the same white paper on the devolution of Gozitan powers is yet to be initiated. 20 years has passed and Gozo’s regional policy has been left dusted on the shelves.
Before the EU Accession, in 2004, Malta’s negotiating team with the EU presented the Gozo declaration which allowed for no special treatment for Gozo. There were no obligations imposed on the EU to safeguard Gozo’s regional needs. Fast forward till today, the only obligation that was created was that Malta will be receiving and administrating all the EU funds, in which 10% were to be redirected to Gozo.
Let’s start the discussion on what happened to the first regional council that was created in Gozo in the 1960s. Each village had five representatives, in which, one of them represents the village in the larger regional council. This council was stopped because of political backlashes between the two main political parties. So the first lesson to be taught is simple, should we allow devolution of powers to be tied only between the two political parties? Should the new structure of a regional council have only politicians sit on it? Can we create space for independent voices that represent civil society, rather create another platform for the two parties to have conflicts on?
Another lesson to be taught is that the regional council was stopped because the voter turnout was very poor, so the current government argued that this was too poor to continue. So the lesson here is that the new structure of the devolution of powers needs to be written in constitution, so that both parties would have to agree on the structure, and won’t destroy it if something goes off. It is easy for politicians to scrap ideas that might not fit the culture, rather than emend them to create a new culture.
What would it mean for Gozo to have constitutional recognition? It would mean European and national recognition. Currently the Gozitan identity is in crises. For devolution of powers to occur in a society, it can happen either, from a bottom–up approach or from a top–down approach. There is not enough civil society in Gozo that can create a bottom–up approach. The only way is a top–down approach. Constitutional recognition is the ultimate answer to the regional question. Only if Gozo is a regional island of Malta, with a detailed structure and separation of powers between the regional council, the ministry of Gozo and other civil society committees, can then revive the Gozitan identity.
Constitutional setting will also open the door to more European funds for Gozo. Currently Gozo lacks any administrative capacity to attract foreign investments and EU investments. There is an office in Brussels that has Gozitan representatives, but lacks power to work. However there should be more pushing for Gozo’s economic development. With Constitutional recognition, the EU would be forced to recognize Gozo as a special regional island, something that should have happened in the negotiations prior to Malta accession in the EU. Once Gozo gets recognized, and the EU also gives us a special status. Then the EU opportunity for Gozo has to come part and parcel with the devolution package, in which the EU funds will be directly managed by the Regional Council. The regional council should have a larger EU department, in which special focus in apply and utilizing EU funds would be prioritized.
Besides the EU package, the separation of powers between the new regional council and the ministry of Gozo is crucial. What would be the role of the Gozo minister be? What would be the role of the Gozitan MPs and the Gozitan Mayors? Who will be the administrative branch, and who will be the executive branch? When the Gozo Ministry would be in conflict with the regional council or vice versa, who’s decision will take precedence? These are all questions that should be debated prior, and will be developed as both organisations start interacting with each other. There needs to be a legal basis to deal with conflicts. The structure cannot be created, without catering for faults or clashes, otherwise decision-making will become more inefficient, when the devolution process’ initial aim is to become more efficient.
Fixing the top – down structure is not enough. Fixing the foundation of Gozo’s society is crucial. The first target should be sustaining local councils. Mayors should have a greater wage, and should be elected on a full-time basis job. Thus it means, that if you’re elected as Mayor, being a mayor will be your full-time job. Mayors should be paid 20,000+ euros to focus on just the needs of the village. Other local councillors should be paid on a part-time basis, of 2,000 to 5,000 euros a year, in order to ensure full participation of all elected representatives, becoming a core team that will strive to work for the village. Currently local councillors have so much potential that is lost, adding these wages and job restrictions will ensure greater output.
Fixing the Gozo NGO Association and creating other agencies is crucial. Gozitan NGOs are the life line of Gozo, many cultural activities are created by these NGOs. And these NGOs represent a wide range of interests and activities in Gozo. Creating administrative capacities to sustain these NGOs is crucial. Giving them an administrative backbone when it comes to local, national and EU funds, is crucial. Having strong NGOs will translate into a ripple effect for Gozo Civil Society. Creating new agencies is also crucial, such as on sports, culture, environment, fishing population, agribusiness, etc. These need funding, in order to be expert based, and in order to stimulate programs and initiatives in line with public and private partnerships.
To conclude, the potential of the devolution of Gozitan powers is unlimited. Both the bottom layer and the top layer need a solid foundation. However only from a top-down approach can Gozo’s devolution of powers work. Only through a constitutional recognition and solid well-though structures, can this create a civic sense indentity culture in Gozo. Add local and EU investments the potential of Gozo can be expanded into an island of excellence. The ingredients are already there, hopefully a new chapter for Gozo gets created.
What I, as Social Policy Officer hand in hand with my colleagues at GUG have done?
Last November GUG organized a debate on the White Paper of Gozo Devolution powers. In which ex-emeritus speaker and Gozo Minister Anton Tabone and honorary MP Chris Said gave a few thoughts on the subject, agreeing and pushing the old idea of the Regional Council. Anton Tabone’s father, was the first president of the Gozo Regional Council in the 1960s.
Then during Gozo Week in March, GUG organised a debate in which four MPs were invited to discuss several Gozitan issues. Honorary MP Justyne Caruana, Franco Mercieca, and Marthese Portelli, and lawyer Kevin Cutajar, all accepted our invitation to discuss Gozitan issues.
As GUG’s Social Policy Officer, I encourage Gozitan Students to be more proactive on Gozitan issues. It is only you as an individual that can voice your claim. Our society makes us very passive and unresponsive, but GUG is an organisation, a platform to voice claims and issues, GUG speaks on behalf of what the students worries about. So I encourage all students to be more active in our civil society.