Interview by Giselle Scicluna
Lorna Vassallo is a Legal Procurator specialized in Maltese Law, Economics and International Relations (B.A., L.P.) as well as European Law (Masters). She also read M.A. in Translation and Interpreting for the EU Institutions. She also worked as teacher in government schools and as a part-time German, French and History lecturer and examiner at the Institute of Tourism Studies being a tourist guide in 5 languages especially guiding in French and German. Apart from these 5 languages she obtained certification in Arabic, Russian and Spanish. Nonetheless, these last few years she worked with different government entities, including the Lands Department and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs where she still works to date. At the latter Ministry she was primarily responsible for the North African and Sub-Saharan African Region (52 countries).
Ms Vassallo has been a columnist in the Maltese daily ‘L-Orizzont’ and ‘Il-Kullħadd’ since 1999. Between 2004 to 2006 she wrote regularly in ‘The Times of Malta’. Her first publication ‘Il-Ktejjeb tal-Ħrejjef” was published in 2006. In 2012 she launched ‘Maltese through English’. This book remains remains the longest Maltese language grammar book to date. Today this series consists of 5 books and a CD. The revised edition of Book 1 was published in 2016.
Lorna Vassallo produced various theatrical performances with Malta Labour Party – ‘It-Tfal ta’ Nikol Grixti’ by ex-PM Dr Alfred Sant in 2004, ‘The Jeweller’s Shop’ of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the French play ‘The Television Programme’ (Michel Vinaver) in 2006, which she translated herself. Another French comedy ‘The knowledgeable wives’ (Molière), was also translated by Lorna in 2007, which unfortunately was never staged. In the past, Lorna Vassallo also worked with the national children’s channel ‘Education 22’, and with TVM Newsroom dealing with current affairs, legal, political, cultural and educational issues. Her hobbies are historical re-enactments, singing and theatre. She is a very ardent traveller and her travels spanned the five continents including Latin America, North Africa, South Africa, Asia and Australia.
Lorna Vassallo ran for the general elections of 2003, 2008 and 2013 on the 12th district (Mellieħa, Naxxar, St. Paul’s Bay). During the first two elections she stood a good chance of earning a parliamentary seat through by-election. It is for this reason that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat invited her to become a candidate for the European Parliament Elections 2019.
You are a 2nd generation politician in your family and therefore have been involved in politics for quite some time. When did you realise that you wanted to be part of the local political scene?
I always knew I would be in politics and I would study law (although I thought I’d like to be a policewoman). In 1979 I remember my father drawing me to his side to watch Freedom Day celebrations on TV and explaining what that meant for the country. I don’t remember if it was live or a recording, I was a toddler at that time. My father used to read the papers every day in spite of having been illiterate until his mid-20’s. I used to watch the news with him every day as a child.
You were also a participant in the LEAD initiative which encourages more women to enter the political arena. Do you believe that such an initiative would redress the imbalance and change the general mindset regarding women in politics? How do you anticipate this?
I did take part in the LEAD initiative and although I was already very experienced, I still learned a lot. The last time I ran for elections was 2013, when social media didn’t play such an important role yet. Today it’s different. In order to run for politics, you have to know about social media, advertising, how to handle Facebook, Instagram, a website. For people who aren’t as technical as I, it’s an added challenge. LEAD was fruitful. It gave a lot of women a taste of politics. However, it takes much more than that to become a politician.
LEAD alone cannot address the imbalance. As a young woman in 2003, I, too, started off thinking this was a level playing field. However, nowadays I am in favour of positive discrimination more than anyone else. Women are always beginners in politics. They don’t just have to compete with men. But with rich incumbent men. The men on the list have all the experience, all the money, all the contacts, all the good helpers on the district, all the committee members on their side. Their political campaign would have started decades prior to yours. They’ve already done it all. They know all the tricks. And most of them have the ‘alphabetical’ advantage when it comes to donkey voting too.
They have secretaries, free post, a driver waiting at their door and their team is already set up. And if that were not enough, they have very dedicated housewives assisting them all the time, taking care of their children and accompanying them wherever they go. If beginner female politicians were to run against beginner male politicians, things would be different. But since new candidates run on the same ballot paper as incumbents, things won’t change. In reality only 20% of seats are available for new candidates at any given election. And out of those seats at least half will be taken by new men.
Then, there is non-political incumbency. Some men who run for politics for the first time would have been given chairmanship or other leading, well-paid roles before running for politics. Through this, they would have gained a good reputation, would have been given exposure on the media and would have more financial resources at hand. Nowadays, it is statistically known that women are given less opportunities to occupy decision-making posts than men. Both in the public and in the private sector. Yet again, this makes a female politician’s life harder.
Regarding the general mindset, I think the common man in the street is quite appreciative of women in politics. Both male and female voters know that women can make good politicians. However, the electorate is too grateful to incumbent politicians for helping them in the past, to simply switch to voting to a beginner female politician. On the other hand, most of the electorate wouldn’t even know much about female politicians. Speaking for myself, I have written on L-Orizzont as a columnist for almost for 19 years and I used to write in The Times of Malta as well. However, although a number of male columnists like myself are regularly invited to discussion shows on national TV, I was never invited on TV as a columnist except by Xarabank. I was invited as a politician (at election time only), as a presenter, and other various roles but never as a columnist.
I think people in power and the media have to recognise female politicians well before the electorate. Voters cannot vote for people they don’t know. But if the media keeps female politicians in the closet, there is no way forward. In my personal opinion, in order to change things, the target to reach has to be with regard to elected female politicians (not just female candidates) and a sabbatical for women in politics i.e. paid leave at work. I even went as far as proposing a bicameral system to start everything from scratch. A house for incumbent politicians who after a few legislatures occupy a seat without running again, and a house of elected brand-new politicians, wherein both males or females can run for seats. This, to have non-incumbent males running on the same ballot paper as non-incumbent females. Although this is financially expensive, it is definitely effective towards achieving gender equality.
You have previously contested the local general elections on the PL ticket… What prompted you to submit your candidature for the EP elections this time around?
It was PM Muscat who requested me to do so at first. That’s a fact. And he did this with regard to my qualifications. I have read a Masters in European Law and I have studied Law and International Relations as my first University course. Moreover, I have written incessantly about politics for 19 long years in the papers. And having managed three political campaigns on a district level, he thought I was the ideal candidate.
What do you believe gives you the edge on other EP election candidates?
Surely, two things. My knowledge of languages and my knowledge of the African continent.
Speaking and understanding languages is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the amount of respect that can be earned by addressing a German in German and a French in French is immeasurable. These nations (the largest two economies in the EU) are highly appreciative of people who try to make that extra effort to understand their culture and way of thinking. Speaking foreign languages is ideal for corridor diplomacy.
On the other hand, speaking foreign languages not only puts you on a par with other nations instantly, but also puts them on their guard. It would directly and indirectly, whether diplomatically and nicely or not, give the message that, the Maltese mean business, and nothing escapes the Maltese. I have often found myself in situations where Germans are startled and perplexed at my good knowledge of German. This is another way of making the Maltese presence felt at the EU level and I would absolutely feel proud to make my nation’s presence felt where it is mostly needed.
That said, being a very ardent Francophile, French is the most spoken language in the African continent as well. 31 countries speak French in Africa compared to 11 which speak English. With the immigration issue bound to top the lists in future European Fora and considering that more attention will be given to this continent in the coming years, having a French-speaking MEP would be yet another feather in the Maltese cap. Language is definitely a barrier for most, but a bridge for others.
That said, don’t be misled. I won’t be speaking foreign languages in the EU Parliament if I am elected. I will definitely be speaking in Maltese, as I think my language is one of the most beautiful in the world. So much so, I’ve written books on the Maltese language in order to show my love for my mother tongue. I am a very happy Maltese citizen – the more I meet foreigners and the more I visit of countries, the more I admire Malta, the Maltese language and the Maltese.
Another aspect that should give me the edge on other EP election candidates, in my case, is the fact that, I work at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, with the Political Directorate, Africa Desk. This has not only acquainted me with Conferences, preparation for High level meetings such as those of the PM, President of the Republic as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but also made the African continent my daily routine. Although I don’t only deal with Africa, we need future politicians who know as much about Africa as about Europe to solve immigration issues. Both Juncker and Tajani have vehemently spoken of Africa as ‘the future’. Having a Maltese politician conversant with African politics would be very beneficial at the negotiating table and truth be told, African politics needs some time to get acquainted to.
On the other hand, being quite a traveller myself and very open to different cultures, having been active in charitable organisations especially dealing with Africa and having gone deeply in the history and politics of every African nation, would actually make one of my dreams come true. Since I was a child, I dreamt of doing something to ease the hunger in Africa. By being a Member of the European Parliament, this childhood dream would have definitely come true.
In your view, which issues do you believe should be given top priority in the EU parliament today?
Amongst others, immigration, creation of employment, housing, poverty and homelessness, terrorism, climate change and the environment, regional development, and gender equality. I do think at times the priorities of the EU should be re-assessed. Whilst a lot of time and energy are being spent on the ‘Common Corporate Tax Base’ (CCTB) and the “Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base” (CCCTB) – which Malta is against, not enough is being done to solve the burden-distribution problem when it comes to immigration in the Mediterranean as well as from Eastern Europe. The same can be said for job creation and reduction of the European population below the poverty line.
Do you believe young people are aware of the pros and cons of being part of the European Union as it stands today?
By young people I assume you are referring to those, except for Croatians perhaps, that have been born when their country was already a Member State. These know no other way. And, truth be told, have no other option, no choice. One can only speak of pros and cons if one has a choice. That said, if one had to evaluate one might get different answers on a country by country basis. From a youth’s perspective, the greatest advantage of being in the EU is mobility, the fact that one can roam in a larger continent and follow his dreams outside his home country.
However, we all know that xenophobia and extreme right-wing politics are on the rise all over Europe. Young people might also blame foreign workers (including other EU citizens) for taking their jobs. They can be the most hardly-hit by unemployment, shortage of accommodation, rent spikes and tuition fees amongst others. We remember clear demonstrations of rebellion due to discomfort of youth in both England and France, not to mention the recent Gilet Jaunes movement.
In which areas do you believe that the EU should be doing more for the wellbeing of its citizens?
From a European perspective, rather than a Maltese one, the EU should sincerely start to tackle basic issues such as the severe housing deprivation rate, that is, when housing lacks characteristics such as daylight, a bath/shower or a toilet, or a proper roof and dwellings are overcrowded. These are issues we never hear of locally simply because we do not have them. And what about employment? Such basic issues, can hinder the enjoyment of human rights, for what does the right to life matter if a person is living rough on the street? What kind of human rights does a long-term unemployed person have? Free health services are another issue. The Maltese might not speak much about these issues as most of us take them for granted. But the same does not apply to EU citizens.
Do you believe that the benefits of being part of such a powerful bloc as the EU is tangibly filtering down to the man in the street?
Yes and no. Yet again, judging by the protests which have taken place in France recently, the increased desire for independence in Catalunia, Spain as well as the rise of the extreme left in most countries (which included winning seats in Parliament) it is quite obvious that not everyone is partaking of the benefits of the EU. Most xenophobia is only fuelled by difficulties faced by the man in the street. If he is happy and gainfully employed, he would bother less about xenophobia. I think that, yes, the EU should make a bigger effort in the future to show that it’s there for the interests of the average person. Politics in foreign countries, is not like politics in Malta. For a start, if voters felt as close to their politicians as they feel here, the turn-out for any given election would be much bigger.
Brexit is threatening to have a domino effect on the rest of Europe. In your view how can this be realistically tackled?
Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union (the withdrawal Article) has proved too painful for the UK. And the UK is the fifth strongest economy in the world. The UK can afford such economic shocks. How many other countries in the EU can? With hindsight, few states would dare to tread the same path in the future. Brexit won’t have the domino effect it was feared it could have at the beginning.
What do you believe are the future benefits for Malta as part of the EU?
In order to make the best of EU membership you need three key players. A high-performing people (in economic terms, a good workforce), a high-performing local government and a well-functioning EU. The first two elements are definitely there at the moment, the third one is a bit weak – especially politically (taking immigration and stability of governments in consideration). Obviously, an improved local economy might end up in Malta benefitting much less from EU funding. However, this would also mean that our economy has grown enough to finance all the country’s needs. The ideal situation where our country, our services, our infrastructure just need maintenance and topping-up not building from scratch. And who doesn’t want to get there? Wasn’t that the real goal from the very start? As a candidate whose logo is ‘Lejn Malta AAA’ (‘Towards Malta AAA’) I cannot but argue in favour of a Malta that stands out for its economic efficiency and wealth. As I say at the end of my official campaign video, I look forward to Malta becoming ‘the best in the EU, the best in Europe, the best in the Mediterranean and the best in the world.’ A Malta that, after only 10 years of Membership can not only stand on its own feet but lead by example. The beauty of it is, I think we’re already almost there.
What is your personal vision for Malta within the EU?
A small but great state. A leader. A leader in the metaphoric way as well as in reality. I see my leader as the leader of the EU. A man to bow to. A man to notice. For members of the European Parliament not to disregard. Malta and the Maltese, key players and trailblazers.
With less than four months to go to election day, what is your message to the electorate?
To vote and vote for all candidates. This will be the first election were all localities in Malta will also be voting for their local councils. A higher turn-out than usual can be a reality. It won’t change the number of seats the country has in the European Parliament, but it can lead to better candidates being elected. The quality of our candidates is also crucial to our effectiveness in EU institutions. Their knowledge, their willingness to work, their expertise, their experience and how much they reflect and voice the needs of their people at a European level all count. I fully believe in the intelligence and canniness of the Maltese. I know that they are able to choose the best people to represent them. So, if they’re going vote, they’ll vote well.