20th Sep 2020

Malta picks new leader in EU rule-of-law crisis

  • Robert Abela, 42, was ex-PM Joseph Muscat's legal confidante prior to his elevation (Photo:

Malta's new prime minister has pledged to "strengthen rule of law" amid EU mistrust in the government over the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

"Malta is not going through any tragedy, but it is going through a sensitive time from which it will emerge stronger," Robert Abela, the country's new leader, said on Sunday (12 January).

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"We will continue to strengthen rule of law and good governance," he added, at a Labour Party rally.

"We will continue to work with continuity and stability. We will keep the formula which has given us electoral victories and economic growth, while changing what needs to be changed," he also said.

Abela, a Labour Party MP, replaced Joseph Muscat, who stepped down at the weekend amid the political crisis over the 2017 assassination of Malta's best-known journalist, which implicated members of Muscat's inner circle.

But the new prime minister comes from the same circle, posing questions on his impartiality.

And his line on "continuity" and keeping the same "formula" pose questions on whether the EU can trust him to clean up the micro-republic.

"If EU institutions (rightly) mistrusted Joseph Muscat, they should start from the same point with Robert Abela," Manuel Delia, a member of Maltese activist group Repubblika, told EUobserver.

Abela, a 42-year old former bodybuilder and a property millionaire, was Muscat's legal advisor prior to his sudden elevation.

He has in the past attacked Caruana Galizia's family for seeking an independent public enquiry into her killing.

He has also promised not to change Labour Party staff and showed no interest in constitutional reform, or loosening his government's grip on Maltese law enforcement and judicial institutions - which did almost nothing on the Caruana Galizia case for two years on Muscat's watch, prompting concerns of a cover-up.

Several MEPs have recently called for Malta to face the same EU sanctions procedures as Hungary and Poland over its allegedly egregious abuse of rule of law.

And the European Commission promised to "take measures if necessary" in a European Parliament debate in December.

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

Abela won the post with 58 percent of Labour Party votes on Sunday and is to be sworn in on Monday.

He beat his main rival, Chris Fearne, a 56-year old former surgeon, who represented a less Muscat-friendly faction.

Silence so far on Caruana Galizia

The new prime minister has so far said nothing on the Caruana Galizia investigation, despite its enormity on the Maltese stage, but he has promised to invest in "social justice", spreading the wealth accumulated during Muscat's boom years of offshore banking, online gambling, and EU passport sales.

For Delia, the Republikka activist, Abela's first test will be whether he installs new people to push forward the murder probe.

"Unless Robert Abela replaces the police chief who for years and months has prevented proper investigations into corruption and possible involvement in Daphne's murder by people in Joseph Muscat's circle, it would mistaken to trust him [the prime minister]," Delia said.

But for some in Brussels, Abela will have an even harder time proving his credibility.

The new Maltese leader was a "crony" of Muscat who was "likely to run a dirty idiocracy", one EU source told this website.

The police investigation recently pointed to Keith Schembri, Muscat's chief-of-staff, as the potential mastermind of the assassination and the architect of a massive corruption scheme around a new energy plant.

But Abela was "so close to the networks who supported Muscat, that the news of his victory was broken by Neville Gafa, Schembri's right-hand man and fixer", the EU source pointed out.

And if Muscat himself, whose wife was also named in Caruana Galizia's anti-corruption revelations, still wielded any influence in his old party despite his departure, then he showed little remorse for what had happened in Malta in his time in office.

Muscat said he was "sorry" about the assassination in a farewell speech on Friday.

But he added that he had "paid the highest price for this case to be solved under my watch", using a turn of phrase which undermined his plausibility.

The remark was "surreal" because it was Caruana Galizia who had paid the "highest price", her life, Malta's opposition Nationalist Party said the same day.


Does Malta's Labour Party now belong in S&D?

The Maltese Labour Party is a curious creature. No minister, MEP, MP, president, or former president has yet criticised Joseph Muscat publicly and outright over the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.


Cloud of mistrust over Malta's new government

Malta's new government does not look likely to turn it into a normal, law-abiding EU state any time soon, the son of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has said.

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