Friday was an exciting day for the Maltese government as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touched down for the Med9 conference and a brief whistlestop tour of Gozo.
After being greeted and with her feet barely touching the ground, it was time to head off to Gozo. There were none of the traffic woes everyone else in Malta suffers as von der Leyen headed north, becoming the first EU chief to visit Malta’s sister island.
Boarding the beleaguered Gozo Ferry, the president sat in the cafeteria and shared coffee and biscuits with Prime Minister Robert Abela and Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri.
A photo published on the DOI, thankfully, omits the usual chaotic scene that can greet passengers – discarded crisp packets, morsels of half-finished food, and a pack of screaming children with their equally loud parents in tow.
Looking like predatory used car salesmen about to close the deal of a century, the government sat opposite a somewhat awkward-looking von der Leyen and her team in what was billed as a “short bilateral meeting”.
While the exact details were not made public, one has to wonder if they discussed the flagrant breach of EU rules that is the Gozo Channel monopoly.
The Commission previously found that the monopoly breaches EU rules and the heavily subsidised service should be open to service providers from all interested parties in the bloc, not just extending the same contract for one company.
Shop talk aside, judging from the facial expression of one of her aides, the coffee hasn’t improved much since I last took the same trip.
Or perhaps she was wondering why on earth the President of the European Commission, the executive body representing some 400 million people, was sitting in a shabby cafeteria on a boat that has long seen better days to conduct important discussions.
Once on dry land, the Commission chief had the honour of visiting a building site masquerading as a school – what an absolute treat. Who needs the hallowed halls of Berlaymont when you can visit a corridor full of debris in Nadur?
Nadur Primary School was chosen as a destination to visit because the EU is funding its refurbishment. But considering it is long-delayed, unfinished, and barely usable, you have to wonder who thought this was a good idea.
But of course, the government would not let something as minor as rubble get in the way of the perfect photo opportunity, so all the stops were pulled out to get it picture-perfect for the big day.
Roads were tarmacked, bits were sealed off, loud workers silenced and sent on an extended coffee break.
‘It’s fine. We will just show her the good bits and some smiling kids. She will never know’ was the probable plan of action.
Unfortunately, the cat was let out of the bag the day before when independent MEP candidate Arnold Cassola published photos of the real state of the school. He also sent them to the lady herself, warning her not to fall foul of government propaganda.
“The school is indeed brand new,” she said during her visit. I would like to think there was a subtle undertone of cynicism and stating the bloody obvious there.
With not a hard hat in sight, Abela and von der Leyen posed for pictures with grinning teachers, big pieces of flashy technology, and some posters, probably drawn by the kids on last-minute orders from the prime minister, to patch over some of the unfinished construction work.
Meanwhile, the reality is that these poor children have been shunted from classroom to classroom for months while the long-delayed words continue but were wheeled out to smile at Abela and their guests.
Not only that, but teachers work without access to a private toilet, no lift, and there is a lack of basic furniture such as cupboards in some classrooms — and, of course, scaffolding, dirt, and drilling going on all hours of the school day.
Yet the public broadcaster waxed lyrical that von der Leyen was “visibly impressed with the school’s recent transformation”. Whether she was visibly impressed or had a bit of dust from the construction work stuck in her eye remains unclear.
“The historic building was meticulously preserved while undergoing extensive renovations, resulting in a highly energy-efficient facility with spacious classrooms, improved air quality, and solar-powered air conditioning,” TVM continued, making it sound like the project is done and dusted. Excuse the pun.
But if you read between the lines and have seen the photos of the bits of the school the Commission president didn’t see, you will know that “solar-powered air conditioning” means no windows, energy efficiency means no electrics in much of it, and spacious classrooms refers to unfinished rooms with no doors and terraces complete with scaffolding.
After being treated to cannoli and other pastries that no Maltese or tourist gets to enjoy on a ferry to Gozo and given a grand tour of an active construction site, the lucky president returned to Malta to get down to the serious business, likely breathing a sigh of relief as she joined other EU leaders for the summit.
At the conclusion of the leaders’ meeting, Abela waffled on about declarations, solidarity and coordination: “As nine nations, in many ways, we couldn’t be more different. Different languages, different stories, different heritage. But we are all united by the shimmering beauty of the Mediterranean Sea. And I’m sure you’ll forgive me for regarding Malta as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’.
The look on the face of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni sums up the reaction. As leader of one of the world’s most famously beautiful and culturally rich countries, she looked like she wanted to take him to task with a slab of prosciutto.
On the other hand, maybe she was just sore she didn’t get to go on the Gozo ferry, too.