As Malta’s new Prime Minister, what have you set as the most important objectives and priorities for your term in office?
Recent years have seen Malta live unprecedented success. We have doubled the size of our economy in the space of eight years. We have halved the number of persons in a situation of severe material deprivation. Last year, we even managed to register a female employment rate above the EU average for the first time in our history. This progress now enables our society to make the next leap forward.
The emphasis of my administration will be a drive to make the quality of life in Malta among the best worldwide. This concept will permeate all our policies in all spheres. In the economy, our approach will be pro-market where all stakeholders take an active role in shaping our future evolution. In the social area, I want to ensure the delivery of measures which take the standard of living to new heights, especially for those most in need, so that all citizens benefit equally from Malta’s positive achievements.
I want this administration to be remembered as the one that rebuilt the physical, educational, cultural, institutional and environmental infrastructure of our country and that laid the foundations for a socially inclusive, environmentally conscious, economically dynamic and culturally vibrant nation at the centre of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Malta has been the focus of much international attention over the past two years. What steps is your office taking to restore confidence and regain trust in Malta’s international business centre?
Since I decided to run for office, my priority has been to effect the necessary changes that will enable the continuity of our success. Growing at such a rapid pace means that we need to pause and listen to issues and concerns. We need to invest and renew.
A lot has already been done to strengthen the values of governance because, as a country which cherishes democracy and the rule of law, Malta believes that economic success intrinsically compliments transparency. We have started, and will continue, to implement the principles of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission. But I am determined to do more to boost the resources of our institutions. I think my message is being heard.
In just one month, we received five successive positive certificates, from three credit rating agencies, the European Commission and the IMF. Economic sentiment as measured by the European Commission’s monthly exercise surged by 10% in just one month, the largest increase in more than a decade. With a reinvigorated Cabinet of Ministers, the youngest in our nation’s history, Malta is now taking action to reassure the international community of our commitment to quality economic progress.
Robert Abela's Cabinet is the largest but youngest in Malta's history.
Malta has been one of the best performing economies in the EU, with the island’s pro-business approach being credited with attracting significant investment. You announced that your Government will be pro-market, not pro-business. How should the global business community interpret this change in strategy?
Using the term “pro-market” is surely not being averse to business or, more broadly, to economic success. Like all pragmatic progressives, I see business as a great enabler towards society’s progress. I myself used to be a self-employed professional, and thus I am fully convinced of the great contribution that business people can give. However, I also come from a family that has worked closely with the trade union movement, another major stakeholder in our society. So, I can understand that we are now at a juncture where we need to use the fruits of the success we made in past years to build the basis for our next successes. At this stage, we will be strengthening our society’s infrastructure, making a great leap forward in terms of the quality of our human resources and turning us into a true knowledge-based society.
Such a holistic transformation will require all different parts of our society, business included, to join forces. I do not envisage this process as solely a national process. In fact, I believe that foreign investors will have a big role to play in the next phase of our economic development. One of my priorities is to improve Malta’s relative position in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Rest assured that Malta remains open for business.
"Using the term “pro-market” is surely not being averse to business or, more broadly, to economic success. Like all pragmatic progressives, I see business as a great enabler towards society’s progress," says Robert Abela.
How do you expect the Maltese economy to perform in 2020 and what do you think will be the driving forces of economic growth?
Rather than making predictions myself, I will refer to the recent pronouncements of the economic experts of the European Commission. In their recent Winter 2020 economic projections, while describing the European economy as fragile and prone to possible upsets, they forecast that Malta will be the fastest growing economy in both 2020 and 2021. Their forecasts are similar to those made by credit rating agencies and by the IMF.
These institutions all expect our economy to grow at three times the rate of other EU economies. Their economists say, that given the weak international conditions, the main source of growth will be domestic demand. One of the main components of domestic demand is investment. Our firms are investing in new technology and expand their production lines. Government is using the considerable fiscal space we have built to carry out the largest and most diverse programme of public investment in our nation’s history.
This is exactly the sort of domestic demand boost that our economy needs. The productive capacity that we will build in the next few years will be the basis for the rapid export growth that we can look forward to when global conditions stabilise.
Robert Abela wants to see Malta’s education sector rise to the challenge of preparing students for the future of work and transform the island into a true knowledge-based economy.
What sectors of the economy do you feel offer foreign investors the greatest opportunity and why?
Malta presents a great opportunity for infrastructure-related and new technology firms. Given the drive for investment and upgrading that we will be going through, we are already seeing many foreign firms entering such markets. On a more long-term basis, investors from knowledge-based sectors have very good prospects with us.
In the last few years, we have doubled our spending on education, and I am committed to continuing this trend. As a result, our supply of trained professionals is growing at an unprecedented rate. With the departure of the UK from the EU, we are one of the few jurisdictions that offer an English-speaking well-trained workforce operating in an Anglo-Saxon business and legal framework and with excellent contacts to the North African and Middle Eastern markets.
I believe that, while we offer great opportunities for investors in traditional sectors such as manufacturing, financial services and tourism, our legislative nimbleness and competitive workforce also make us very attractive for investors in new sectors, such as fintech, AI, esports and video-game development.
As a new Malta is emerging, what can you tell us about the country’s capital investment and infrastructure development plans for the coming years?
A new Malta is indeed emerging. We are experiencing positive turnarounds in various sectors. Not only have we managed to converge to the female employment rate in the EU, but also compared to 2012, we have doubled the number of women in managerial, professional and technical jobs. At the same time, we have moved from an ageing workforce to one with a much younger demographic composition but where more than a fifth of workers were not born in Malta.
The doubling in the size of our economy and the increase in its workforce means that our infrastructure needs to be strengthened considerably. As I have already said, the next stage of our progress requires a transformation of society so that it can embrace the needs of the new economy we are building. So, investment and infrastructure development will be at the centre of the foreseeable future.
That said, I want to make it clear that I am fully committed that this process will not create unnecessary discomfort to residents, and I will strive to ensure that it results in us having a much better living environment than at present. I consider our natural environment as a necessary and crucial part of our economic infrastructure. If anything, investment in our nation’s green resources will outstrip that made in other areas.
Robert Abela says he is committed to taking the standard of living to new heights, especially for those most in need, so that all citizens benefit equally from Malta’s positive achievements.
Looking to the future, how would you like Malta to develop over the next 5 to 10 years?
Economic growth for us is not an end in itself but is simply a means of achieving our goals. I want Malta to develop into a just, open, innovative and inclusive society. A society that is able to achieve strong advancements in a sustainable way. A society focused on improving the quality of life and where effort and merit are rewarded.
This year the political party I am the leader of celebrates its 100th anniversary. We are a party that has fought for the social progress of those in more economically vulnerable situations, for the expansion of rights and liberties to all groups in our society, for the education of the many and not just the few, for the ability of our small nation to interact with dignity with much larger nations and not let itself be dominated.
I am honoured that we are able to celebrate this anniversary at a time where our success has made us possibly the most effective political force in our nation’s history. My commitment is that I will continue to make my administration a strong force for good so that 10 years from now people will still benefit from all the things they value today while enjoying even more prosperity and social welfare.
On a more personal note, what inspired you to run for the post of Prime Minister?
I come from a family where public service always permeated our daily life. My father, even before his service as President of the Republic and earlier still his senior involvement in the Labour Party, was fully engaged in public service, working closely with our nation’s largest trade union. My wife comes from a similar background, and she, in fact, occupied a very senior position within the Labour Party before I was elected its Leader.
I have been brought up to value the importance of not focusing on one’s needs and instead to get strength from helping others. In my professional career, I sought to serve the interests of those most in need. When, last year, I saw the great achievements of my party in government being put at risk, I felt it was my duty to intervene. The many thousands whom we have helped to get out of dependence on social services and instead get their first job; the many thousands whom we helped to enter the middle class for the first time; the many thousands to whom we gave dignity after our society denied them essential civil rights for generations.
These many thousands, a silent majority that under previous administrations had been ignored but which at last had found its voice with us, have much more to achieve. In the coming years I will be able to serve them and the rest of Maltese society to the best of my abilities.