Thursday

23rd May 2019

MEPs point finger at Malta

  • EU Commission said that there was 'no general concern on Malta's overall compliance' on money laundering (Photo: John Haslam)

The European Commission gave Malta some respite on Tuesday (14 November), amid MEPs' criticism of the country's shady deals and concerns over the rule of law after the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The Maltese government "clearly expressed determination to do whatever is necessary" to implement EU rules and bring to justice the authors of this "atrocious crime," the commission's first vice president, Frans Timmermans, said in a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.


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  • The Parliament's press room in Strasbourg is now named after the murdered journalist (Photo: European Parliament)

He added that the "commitment of the Maltese government was made very clear to all member states in Europe".

While Timmermans said that there is "no general concern on Malta's overall compliance" on money laundering, his colleague Jyrki Katainen told journalists that there is "no systemic threat to the rule of law in Malta".

A month after Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist and blogger, was killed by a bomb planted in her car, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani unveiled a plaque giving her name to the press room in the institution's building in Strasbourg.

The ceremony was the only moment of the day when her memory was not used by politicians to call for respect of EU values while arguing over the situation in Malta.

The latest revelations on Malta's tax practices, following allegations on tax evasion and money laundering, also put pressure on the country.

The discussion pitted MEPs from five political groups against their colleagues from the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, which is the political family of Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat.

Both sides presented a resolution that will be put to a plenary vote on Wednesday.

The first resolution was signed by the centre-right EPP, the conservative ECR, the liberal Alde, the far-left GUE/NGL and the Greens.

It calls for an independent investigation on Caruana Galizia's murder and protection of investigative journalists and whistleblowers.

It also calls on the European Commission to "verify" whether Malta correctly apply rules on money laundering and to monitor a passport-selling scheme put in place by the Maltese government.

More generally, the resolution insists that "developments in Malta in recent years have led to serious concerns about the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including freedom of the media and the independence of the police and the judiciary."

It calls on the Commission to "establish a dialogue with the Maltese government regarding the functioning of the rule of law in Malta," a process that would amount to the rule of law procedure that is is currently applied to Poland.

The text is "very strong" and "makes clear that all is not well in Malta," Maltese EPP MEP Roberta Metsola told EUobserver, adding that the Maltese government "have led us to that situation where there was no other option."

"The rule of law collapsed a long time before the murder," her colleague Franck Engel, who signed the resolution on behalf of the EPP, said during the debate.

He argued that state institutions were "privatised" and "subjugated" to favour interests of people in power in Malta.

'Culture of impunity'

Maite Pagazaurtundua Ruiz, who signed the text for the Alde, insisted that "corruption goes at very heart of the state" in Malta and asked EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to "suspend his friendship" with Muscat.

Sven Giegold, for the Greens, regretted that "a culture of impunity persists between political and financial elites rules in Malta."

He asked the Commission to look at other issues - such as the fact that the head of the financial supervision in the country is also the head of the financial development agency.

But Malta's critics were accused of "political games" by Muscat's allies in the Parliament.

Maria Joao Rodrigues, the S&D group's vice president, said that the EPP was using Caruana Galizia's murder "to suggest that Poland and Hungary are not alone and that Malta should be referred as a similar case."

"These are two different cases," she said, arguing that there is a "fundamental attempt to [weaken] the rule of law in Poland and Hungary", while "this is not the situation in Malta".

"It's quite clear that there is a strategy," said Alfred Sant, a former PM who leads the three-member Maltese delegation in the S&D.

Sant said that the debate and resolution were political "tit for tat" and were based on "unproven allegations taken at face value."

In response to the five-party resolution, the S&D presented its own, much shorter and softer text.



Genuine concern

The S&D resolution "acknowledges efforts undertaken by the Maltese government to carry out independent investigations into the murder" of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

It "registers the genuine concern that this case has aroused among its members, particularly given that it constitutes a direct threat to freedom of expression."

It "invites the Maltese government to be transparent with all relevant EU institutions" about the murder, as well as about corruption allegations.

"The resolution is not as good as it could have been," a member of the S&D group noted. "It closes the debate and it is counter-productive because it's seen as provocative."

But the S&D argument received some support from commissioner Timmermans, himself a social-democrat politician.

Timmermans said he hoped that "we do not turn this into a party political fight."

"That is not what Daphne deserves," he said, asking MEPs to act with "integrity and perseverance".

He told MEPs that the Commission "will pursue all these questions and give answers when we can."

"What is not on is to start with a conclusion and then look for facts to support that conclusion. That's not how we do this," he insisted.

'Show that rules are healthy'

Timmermans at the same time asked Malta to "show that its rules and regulations are healthy and robust."

He stressed that the investigation on Caruana Galizia's murder "should be allowed to run its full course, whatever the consequences".

He also said that Malta should participate in the new EU prosecutor office, in order to "send a strong positive signal".

He warned that infringements proceedings against member states, including Malta, that have not adopted the latest anti-money laundering directive, was "imminent".

MEPs from the civil liberties committee and the committee of inquiry into money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion - also called the Pana committee because it was set up after the Panama Papers revelations - is due to go to Malta soon.

"I expect that after mission there will be further calls for further action," Malta's Metsola said. "I would expect that the government will take action. If we come back [to the issue] it means that the government hasn't, so we'll have to see."

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