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Ursula von der Leyen becomes first EU chief to visit Gozo

Ursula von der Leyen has become the first European Commission president to visit Gozo, where she started the day ahead of the MED9 summit talks expected to be dominated by the issue of migration.

She was joined by Prime Minster Robert Abela in a visit to Nadur Primary school, where she was given a tour of the renovation works that are part of an EU-funded, €6 million project.

It followed a short bilateral meeting around one of the Gozo Channel ferry's cafeteria tables.

Von der Leyen took the Gozo Channel ferry to Gozo on Friday morning. Photo: DOI: Alan SalibaVon der Leyen took the Gozo Channel ferry to Gozo on Friday morning. Photo: DOI: Alan Saliba

In her address to the media after the tour, she thanked teachers, staff and students for the warm welcome, and said she could feel the students were happy and peaceful in a "heartwarming" and "very good atmosphere".

"The school is indeed brand new," she said, adding that although the historic building has been preserved, it has been completely renovated, it is energy efficient, has spacious classrooms, and the air conditioners are powered by the school's own solar panel.

The German diplomat had big words of praise for Malta's plans to allocate 70 per cent of the EU's €330 million Next Generation funds to climate-friendly projects.

"This is way more than the European average. That’s excellent and I really want to thank you for that," she said.

"You are among the first countries to increase the share of renewables in your energy mix."

Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, Education Minister Clifton Grima and EU funds Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bonett were also present for the event.

Photo: Matthew MirabelliPhoto: Matthew Mirabelli

Some critics had accused Abela of taking von der Leyen to a half-finished school as a PR stunt, and independent candidate Arnold Cassola even sent her an email on Thursday afternoon urging her to not let Abela "use" her to trick the Maltese people.

He told her Abela was taking her to visit a "fakely refurbished" school and sent her pictures showing ongoing works inside the premises.

The PN's education spokesperson Justin Schembri said Abela was fooling von der Leyen by taking her to a school that is not yet finished.

Arnold Cassola sent Von der Leyen pictures showing ongoing works inside the premises. Photos: Arnold CassolaArnold Cassola sent Von der Leyen pictures showing ongoing works inside the premises. Photos: Arnold Cassola

'You told me about the power cuts'

During her address, von der Leyen referred to July's power cuts, urging Malta to continue investing in renewable energy sources.

"Renewable energy is homegrown - you have a lot of sun and wind, use it - because it gives you independence and strengthens the electricity grid and this is so important, especially for power cuts. You [Abela] told me about the power cuts and we want to make sure this does not happen again," she said.

"I know it’s a challenge but Europe is at your side all along the road."

Ursula von der Leyen meets pupils of Nadur primary school. Photo: Matthew MirabelliUrsula von der Leyen meets pupils of Nadur primary school. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

'New classes, facilities' - Abela

In his address, Abela boasted about the "new" school but was very cautious not to say that the event was the school's inauguration, but a visit to an environmentally friendly, EU-funded school.

"Today we visit pupils and educators that have commenced this scholastic year in new classes, with new facilities," he said.

"We are delivering a new school on which the previous one was situated because we believe that our land use policy is an integral part of our sustainability policy."

The project will have a new dance studio, a music room, a literacy room and an art studio, all built sustainably using the latest energy efficient technology to deliver a carbon neutral building, he said.

Abela said Gozo will never be left behind and will never play second fiddle, and that is why government has increased the island's share of EU funds by a quarter.

"That’s why we’ve committed to making Gozo the first carbon neutral zone in our islands."

The crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East

After the Nadur visit, Von der Leyen and Abela left for Malta to join the heads of government of the southern EU states for the MED9 summit, with the hope of finding a common position on how to deal with the divisive issue of migration amid a rise in the number of people crossing the Mediterranean for Europe’s shores.

The MED9 summit will also discuss issues of human trafficking and organised crime on a European level.

In Nadur, Von der Leyen said that with its cultural heritage, Gozo was a great way to start the discussions because throughout history Malta played a strategic role in the Mediterranean region.

"There is no better place to have these discussions than here, at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East," she said.