Setting the agenda for 2013
Peter Agius is no stranger to the European Union’s institutions. He started his career at the age of 23 as the youngest official of the Council’s Legal Service. He was then appointed adviser to the rotating Presidency of the Council, handling negotiations on legislative dossiers in the internal market, until July 2012 when he was appointed Head of the European Parliament Office in Malta. In an interview with YOLANDE SPITERI, Dr Agius discusses the office’s role in bridging the gap with Brussels, the European Parliament’s priorities for 2013 and another topic close to his heart – the reduction of administrative burdens.
The European Parliament has long been at the forefront of efforts to reduce the EU’s administrative burdens. “By the end of 2012, the European Union will have succeeded in decreasing more than 25% of its administrative burdens, helping businesses to save money whilst allowing them to focus on their priorities,” says Dr Agius.
As recent studies confirm, the common sentiment among Maltese businesses is that the EU’s institutions bring with them an additional degree of bureaucracy. Dr Agius points out, however, that not only is the EU reducing administrative burdens emanating from its own legislation but it is also insisting with member states to reduce their own red tape.
Implementing EU laws, he argues, entails costs to businesses. Some of these costs are linked to obligations to provide information either to public authorities or private parties, some of which have become needlessly time-consuming, excessively complicated or useless.
“Unnecessary and disproportionate administrative costs may hamper economic activity and irritate business and possibly also public authorities,” continues Dr Agius. However by reducing unnecessary reporting requirements, businesses can dedicate more time to their core activities, helping them to reduce their productions costs and allowing more time for additional investment and innovation to take place. In turn this should improve productivity and overall competitiveness. Dr Agius explains that initially a European Commission programme intended to ‘Reduce Administration Burdens’ set a target of reducing these burdens by 25% by the end of 2012, however this target will be surpassed. “We have seen a joint effort by the Parliament, the Commission and the Council to bring about these positive developments in various areas, including VAT procedures, paper-work related to agricultural subsidies, annual accounts/company law, financial services, fisheries, food safety, pharmaceutical legislation, public procurement, employment relations, transport and e-invoicing,” he explains.
As reported by the European Commission, the current overall burden resulting from EU legislation and national implementing measures is estimated at around €124 billion and if all the proposals tabled by the Commission are adopted, the total estimated burden could be reduced by 31% by the end of 2012, helping to bring about a saving of almost €40 billion.
''Moreover, concepts like 'think small first' and considering exemptions from EU legislation for micro-enterprises are increasingly finding themselves high on the political agenda,'' he adds. "These concepts are boosted by a continuous effort by the European Parliament to insist on these elements in its Resolutions and in the negotiation of specific legislative dossiers."
Recent years have seen the plight of SMEs rise in the legislative and political agenda. “99% of the EU’s businesses are SMEs and it is important that their concerns are voiced and their interests addressed for them to be able to see the Single Market as an opportunity for growth beyond their home market,” adds Dr Agius.
For this to happen, SMEs should take an active role in the policy-making process. “They are the small employers of today, however recognising their potential, the EU is now focusing on fostering their growth and transforming them into the large employers of tomorrow.”
To facilitate this, the European Parliament Information Office in Valletta serves as a bridge between Maltese citizens, businesses and the European Parliament, informing them of the policies and politics building up in Brussels and hence enabling them also to influence the agenda, through their MEPs.
“When I took on this role, I was pleasantly surprised by the interest of civil society and Maltese businesses in anything which is EU-related.” Europe is truly a living reality for the Maltese and Dr Agius believes that this is highly important, particularly as the EU is constantly deciding on measures and issues which are eventually embedded within the local framework.
Prior to taking up office at Europe House in Valletta, his tasks in Brussels included negotiations with MEPs, briefing the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy on various issues, training national officials of the forthcoming Presidencies and seeking to transmit these experiences when addressing visitors to the institutions, as well as delivering lectures in Malta.
The difficulties he encountered during his talks to visitors and students made him aware of the challenges of communicating the grand side of Brussels to the citizen. He explains that the European Parliament is elected by the people to offer services to European citizens and the Valletta office is testament to this value. “Our office is situated in a central, easily accessible location and exists to bring all that is going on in Brussels right to the doorstep of Maltese citizens.”
“For example, in September we held an event with people from different walks of life to discuss the issue of asylum – a hot topic for our island," explains Dr Agius. In spite of the different views expressed, Dr Agius reports that the participants were grateful for the Maltese MEPs’ readiness to address concerns and listen to what the Maltese had to say. “It is this kind of outreach that we seek to achieve; we want the Maltese to feel that Europe House is their home and the EU is proactive in addressing their needs,” Dr Agius continues.
“Our intention is also to reach out to people of all ages and from different societal backgrounds, and our activities must reflect this strategy,” asserts Dr Agius. Over the past few months, the office has also stepped up its online presence specifically to address students and younger citizens who may feel alienated from the European institutions. The office now has a reach of over 10,500 on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ParlamentEwropew), which is continuously updated.
Looking ahead to 2013, the European Parliament Information Office will continue to strengthen relations with stakeholders and business organisations, so as to understand their challenges and what they seek to achieve in Europe. “Enhancing the information available to the organisations will ensure a more effective representation and that the interests of Maltese citizens are being reflected in the EP’s policy decisions,” he adds.
On the recent developments at EU level, Dr Agius explains that the European Parliament is set to decide its position on the ongoing negotiations relating to the recognition of qualifications throughout member states. This would mean that a qualification earned by a Maltese professional will be easily transferable anywhere in the EU, hence broadening employment possibilities for our youths. Other ongoing legislative developments relate to SMEs’ tendering opportunities and their ability to tap into venture capital. In 2013, the European Parliament will also focus on businesses’ accounting obligations and will further discussions on digital rights, a timely issue as online activity is constantly on the increase. “The Maltese are very active online shoppers and users, and we therefore expect the Maltese public to take interest in the forthcoming items for discussion on the EU agenda which will seek to enhance a wider and safer use of the internet,” he explains.
Next year, the EP, together with the Council, will also be deciding on the implementation of funding and will determine the priorities to be addressed. “The Parliament recently declared that finances should be directed towards fostering growth, by addressing innovation and seeing to the needs of SMEs. Addressing this will directly enhance growth and job creation.”
Asked to comment about the current economic crisis, Dr Agius sees a light – albeit faint – at the end of the tunnel. “Europe is working extremely hard to get back on track. The challenge facing the Union is not only one of economic growth versus austerity and fiscal discipline; the European Parliament has been insisting that the EU runs an even bigger risk, that of deciding without the support of its citizens.
For this reason the European Parliament has been insisting that decisions taken at EU level need to involve the representatives of the people to ensure that the age-old adage ‘no taxation (or austerity) without representation’ is applied also in the European legislative process.