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24th Jan 2020

Malta murder crisis takes EU centre stage

  • 'We stand by the family' of the murdered journalist, EU values commissioner Vera Jourova told MEPs (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The rule-of-law crisis in Malta made the EU centre stage in Strasbourg on Monday (17 December) after two years of inertia on the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Calls for Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat to resign rang out from most sides in a plenary European Parliament (EP) debate.

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"We're faced with a criminal network that has seized control and chipped away at the pillars of our republic," Maltese opposition MEP Roberta Metsola said.

Every day Muscat stayed in power was "a slap in the face for Maltese people," Spanish centre-right MEP Esteban González Pons added.

"We're dealing with hard-nosed criminals who are ready to kill. They're not going to be terribly impressed with a bureaucratic [EU] response," Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In 't Veld, who recently visited Malta, also said.

The debate took place amid fresh signs that Muscat's chief-of-staff and lifelong friend Keith Schembri was involved in the murder, when police raided Schembri's home and he skipped a court appearance in Valletta the same day.

Revelations of high-level guilt snowballed recently after two years in which little had happened both in Malta and at EU-level on the case.

And the new European Commission pledged to help Caruana Galizia's relatives to find out who ordered the crime.

"The family demand truth and justice and we stand with them," the Czech commissioner for EU values, Vera Jourova, said in Strasbourg.

Several MEPs urged the commission to launch a rule-of-law monitoring procedure in Malta along the lines of ongoing ones in Hungary and Poland.

But Jourova and Belgian EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders, who sat beside her, did not take up the call at this stage.

Their soft touch came despite In 't Veld, the Dutch MEP's warning on the mentality of "hard-nosed criminals".

But Jourova said: "I assure you, the commission will not hesitate to take [additional] measures if necessary."

Reynders had also sent a strongly-worded letter to the Maltese justice minister, he told MEPs, in which he had warned that Malta had "systemic" rule-of-law "issues".

For their part, Muscat's MEPs urged the EU not to get more deeply involved.

It might be "counterproductive" to police work if EU institutions took action, Maltese centre-left MEP Miriam Dalli, said.

Maltese law enforcement was "functioning well" and the EP pressure was "unjust" another Maltese socialist, Alex Aguis Saliba, also said.

But even Muscat's MEPs now spoke of the killing in more weighty terms than ever.

The 2017 murder was an "act of terror" and an "unprecedented situation that shocked the country", Dalli said, in contrast to Muscat's previous efforts to play down the crime.

Losing the plot

Metsola, the Maltese opposition MEP, took Muscat to task for his PR tactics.

"For years, our prime minister [Muscat] and his office have had a targeted PR campaign of disinformation against anybody who dared stand up to them," she said in Strasbourg.

But Tuesday's debate showed to what extent Muscat was losing control of the EU narrative.

Even some of his own friends in the centre-left Socialist & Democrats group, such as German centre-left MEP Birgit Sippel, put him on the hook.

Malta had become a "symbol of corruption" over the murder, Sippel said.

And that was mild compared to what other EU deputies threw around before the EP votes its resolution on the crisis on Wednesday.

Muscat's behaviour was "deeply shameful", he was a "moral ruin", and had "stained hands", various MEPs from around Europe said.

The EU was dealing with "mafiosos" in Valletta and must act to contain the "disease", others said.

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