Underground JEF resources and contacts, together with a friendly email - Maltese style - secured me an interview with Arnold Cassola, during his lightning visit to Malta days after the results of the much contested elections in Italy were announced. Armed with a borrowed recorder, my most charming smile, and a number of questions printed on a paper (just in case of course), I met with Mr Cassola in a quaint little cafeteria in my hometown, and a very interesting half an hour ensued ...
1. A Prominent Maltese politician, co-founder of Alternattiva Demokratika (the Maltese Green Party) but also the Secretary General of the European Green Party and newly elected Member of the Italian Camera dei Deputati; one can truly say that Arnold Cassola has certainly go beyond the national borders we’re so accustomed to in terms of his political career - would you agree?
I agree but actually I have been gone beyond the borders of Malta a long time ago. As I introduced myself in the campaign I used to say that I have ‘sangue Italiano, molto cuore Maltese e spirito Europeo’ (Italian blood, “a lot of” Maltese heart and a European spirit). I think it is maybe a bit difficult to get out of the mould of the 2nd World War, we still see each other as nations - we are nations - but let us remember that for example even Malta itself after 2004 is Europe. The foreign policy of Malta is the EU foreign policy, the same foreign policy as Germany, Italy or France, so this is nothing new for me because it is part of my ideals, that’s why I like a lot the European thinking in politics and this I think is also going to be one of the ways forward for the future.
If you look at the Jo Leinen report in the European Parliament, which has just passed, I think there is already a mention again of a European list for elections, which means that on the same list you would have twenty-five different people from twenty-five different countries to wage a European-wide campaign. So I have had the luck to be one of the few people to really do a European-wide campaign, event though albeit amongst Italian nationals in all the continent of Europe apart from Italy (including Asian Russia and Asian Turkey). So I consider myself to be lucky and of course in this I worked throughout with the European Green party and with the National Green party so this is a really pan-European Green effort which managed to make it [to win the elections].
2. In fact, JEF is one of the main supporters of having European Parties contesting European elections and giving European solutions to European Challenges. Do you think we should continue to pursue this aim?
I think that integration is no doubt bringing about the discussion of common issues, as for example the Resolution on Malta dealing with migration; the fact that the European Parliament recognised that the migration issue is not a national issue which should only be taken up by Malta, Spain or Italy and the frontier countries but that it is actually a European issue is showing us the European dimension - European Foreign Affairs. Naturally we still have differences but I think we are moving towards integration, though it is much more difficult now that the Constitution has not been approved. But we will go in that direction - that is what I believe and I think that is also what is keeping peace in Europe.
Proof of this is Italy at the moment. There is an atmosphere of hatred among the different parties - an atmosphere of “huma and aħna” (them and us). The result is more votes for Berlusconi in the Senate (100,000) but less seats because of his gerrymandering which worked against him, and now Berlusconi not accepting the results until today (17th April). Had there been no European Union, what would happen? The EU gives stability, guarantees democracy, and it has been proven in history throughout the 50 years of its existence.
3. Could you tell us what led to your decision to candidate yourself for the Italian General elections of April 2006?
Nothing much really! I am Italian by birth. My father was Italian, and I was born Italian in a British state, because Malta did not exist until 1964, and all the people born in Malta had a British passport, and were British subjects. You are young people and you don’t realise that. It was only after 1964 (Independence) that Malta existed as a legal entity in the world. So I was born Italian like my father and grandfather in a British Sate, and afterwards became interested in politics and I thought this would be a very good experience to campaign in a big country like Italy for any future elections. The way big parties form coalitions - like for example our two big allies are “DS” and “Margherita” - is a novelty for me but the way people treat small parties is really nothing different from Malta so even that teaches you how to also come up with solution to try beat the big ones, and we [Verdi] did manage to take a third seat from the big ones who still today cannot understand how we managed to get the third seat.
4. Whilst being the second most voted candidate among the Italians living in Europe, you have narrowly failed to get elected as a Maltese Member of the European Parliament in 2004, how would you account for this?
Well, I thought that it would be extremely difficult to get elected by the Italians in Europe for a basic simple reason - the system. You actually have to write the name “Cassola” on the ballot - it’s not that you have a list like Malta, and you put a cross next to it just because you like a name, so we thought how can we get the name Cassola known all over Europe? But when I look at it today I think it is easier to get elected in the whole continent of Europe than in Malta because of the mentality, the Italians in the whole of Europe, when they read a CV of somebody they never heard of, and they like his CV, they will vote for him, without knowing him, they did it and proof is there. It is easier to do that then for a Maltese to say that they will not vote for a Green because they’re “Red or Blue” (Labour or Nationalist supporters), even though a lot of people know me.
Personally I even would consider 23,000 votes in Malta to be of a heavier weight that the 19000 votes in Europe because for a Maltese to swap from “red or blue” to green is an enormous psychological effort and it takes enormous courage and those who did it were really courageous, they broke the mould of half a centry, but they have started a new era. Also, without those 23,000 first count votes I would have never been a candidate in Italy, because that gave me credibility. Amongst all Greens in Europe everybody was shocked how one could get that percent and not get elected, so those votes that the Maltese gave me and Alternattiva made me credible in Europe, so I’m grateful to those Maltese, because this is also their win too.
5. Many politicians focus on national issues, even in the European Parliament elections, to secure more votes. You have chosen to give priority to European issues instead and have succeeded anyway. How do you account for this?
Let’s be honest...normally in European elections most of the debates are on national issues. And I think that it is also in the Italian elections, even though I was in Sweden or in Spain or in England, amongst most of the people, the major issues were mostly local issues, employment, hospitals etc. So I think that a European-wide election only and exclusively based on European issues will at the moment not bring you the results nor the votes. I think it has to be mixed whereby on the background of an idealogy you have to embed as in a jigsaw, the local elements because after all, people want to know if their children can go to schools, or get proper hospitals, have work or not. If you speak about the constitution of Europe, or about the visions of the future of Europe, if people have to emigrate as happened to all these people [Italians] they would be, and in fact were, more worried about the brutta figura (bad image) Italy was getting abroad because of Berlusconi’s stupidities. That in fact turned out to be a European-wide propaganda for Prodi and his team.
In fact Prodi got 49% of the votes in Italy but in Europe he got 60%. The Italians abroad felt more and more aggrieved by the brutta figura every time Berlusconi insulted the Finnish President, the Dutch people, the German MEP and Calderoli insulted Muslims with his T shirts so that was a major factor. Italy lost a lot of prestige - in Europe, Italy was not respected anymore and Berlusconi had made Italy lose its European vocation. So even that, going to the polls with Prodi, apart from the experience, the thrill, the honour, being one of the twelve and being Maltese, it was also working for a Prime Minister with a European vocation, with a European dimension in a European frame of mind viz-a-viz Berlusconi who was trying to belittle Europe - by saying that Europe is only bad, Europe is only the EURO etc...
6. After your success in Italy, what’s next on your agenda?
Next in the agenda is learning how to be a Parliamentarian! I’ve never been a parliamentarian in my life - it means switching from being the Secretary General of a European Party to being an Italian Parliamentarian which is not only being at the service of the people in Italy but also bringing forward the aspirations of the Italians living abroad, dealing with consulates, transports, trains, VISAs and all such issues which each country might have.
The next concrete exciting thing is the voting for the President of the Republic which will be done in Italy next month. So it will be a new life, moving home...and of course enriching - I hope - my political experience to put at the disposal of Alternattiva Demokratika in Malta.
So eventually back in Malta then ...
Well, continuing as I was before! I’ve been six and a half years now in Brussels, but in these six and a half years I have done politics in Malta with Alternattiva Demokratika. I am at the disposal of AD in whatever way AD deems useful, the only difference being now that instead of being in Brussels three hours away [by plane], I’m only one hour away so maybe I can even be slightly more involved now that what I was before.
7. The name of the party you co-founded Alternattiva Demokratika, is quite self explanatory. Do you believe that we need a Democratic Alternative even within the European Union?
I think the European Parliament is quite democratic - it is an expression of the people’s will and you have a wide range of Political Parties and Political Groupings. What is needed however is a more democratic structure in the Council, even the Commission but even more in the Council. At the end it is still these National Governments which are not elected by the European people as European leaders who decide en bloc everything. As I said before one can see how this resolution amending the Dublin convention, which Alternattiva brought up initially one year ago, recognising the need for derogations for Malta, passed with 90% of the votes in the European Parliament, and it was great to see the parliament in favour of this, but the big States, Spain, Germany France will block it, even one of them can block it, and this is an injustice. There has to be a balance of power and not a veto power which blocks Parliament which is the political expressed democratically elected will of the people.
8. Mr Cassola, on the topic of the European Constitution... there are different viewpoints concerning the usefulness and effectiveness of the current reflection period... what is your opinion, are we reflecting enough?
I think we are still waiting. I mean we are dormant. The reflection period was supposed to be what...six months? It’s been more than a year now. There has been a proposal by Duff and Voggenhuber, it’s a Green report and shared by a quite a number of PP [People’s Party Grouping] people which says let us revise the Constitution, let’s come up with a new text, let’s make it more people friendly, easier to understand, and let’s have a vote, a European wide referendum in all the countries on the same day with a double majority - a majority of the States and a majority of the people. That will be the ideal but I have my doubts whether this will happen, whether the States will want that, will Austria do something about it now in this presidency?I don’t know...
Something has begun, but the UK totally rocked it, the British Presidency did nothing - so that was the hibernation period and not the reflection period. Now we are out of hibernation, the people have started talking, politicians also, but how to get the message about the Charter of Fundamental Rights, so essential for each European citizen?
Do you see a way out from this impasse?
The process has to restart. Let’s start the process first and then how to move and when is another issue but at least let’s start it. There is not institution that has started it. So we need a Presidency to take up the challenge before it. The Finnish Presidency will perhaps be more energetic than the Austrian one, more than the British definitely, though it doesn’t take too much. We just have to see ...
More than two months have passed since that interview, and Mr Cassola is now performing his role as an Italian Parliamentarian in Rome, and contributed to the election of Mr Napolitano as Presidente della Repubblica. It is easy to see that the ideals espoused by this politician are very much akin to those followed by many JEFers, and I can thus only hope that this meeting with Arnold Cassola will only be the first of many such encounters between JEF and politicians with a vision. And in conclusion, to Mr Cassola, I can only say, using my best Italian as is appropriate in the circumstances ... in bocca al lupo!!