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22nd Jan 2020

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Cloud of mistrust over Malta's new government

  • Matthew Caruana Galizia at the European Parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

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.

The new Maltese prime minister, Robert Abela, named the 17 ministers who will make up his cabinet on Wednesday (15 January).

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  • Former prime minister Joseph Muscat still has 'fanatical support' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

He did it in the glare of European Commission and European Parliament scrutiny, after recent revelations that top officials were involved in corruption schemes and likely in the 2017 murder of Caruana Galizia, who had investigated them.

And Abela did it among popular anger in Malta that some of the main suspects have still not faced justice.

The new government included Chris Fearne, known as a fearsome reformist, as deputy prime minister.

They also included Evarist Bartolo as foreign minister, who admitted that Malta needed profound change.

"We need to rebuild our reputation after what has happened," Bartolo said on Wednesday.

"It cannot be reconstructed by me just speaking well abroad. It happens when our institutions are working well ... when we show that Malta is seriously against criminality and corruption," he added, according to the Malta Today newspaper.

Abela defenestrated Konrad Mizzi, a former tourism minister named in the corruption revelations, in a move welcomed by the opposition and civil society.

And he took away the home affairs portfolio, which governs the police, from Michael Farrugia, amid accusations that Farrugia had helped shield top suspects.

"Prime minister Abela has been very clear on the reforms needed in various areas relating to good governance and will be implementing them over the coming months," a Maltese government spokesperson told EUobserver.

Shark in charge?

But the nature of Abela himself and some of his other appointments in key portfolios did not augur well for the kind of reforms the island needed, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Daphne's son, also told EUobserver in an interview.

"He [Abela] spent his entire life as a defence lawyer. He has a very legalistic concept of government and no real understanding of the greater principles of democracy, rule of law, and the fight against corruption," Caruana Galizia said.

"He's a shark. He's cunning. But these are not the qualities we need in the leader of a country in this situation," he added.

"He's not the kind of man who will come down like a ton of bricks on organised crime," the bereaved son said.

The victim's son took Abela to task for having once claimed the assassinated woman's family was more interested in harming Malta's reputation than in seeking justice.

"What do you say to that?! ... It was very hurtful. I wanted to punch him in the face when he said that," Caruana Galizia said.

But the old slur aside, Abela's "first test" as a reformist would be whether Mizzi and Keith Schembri, another former top official named in corruption revelations, would swiftly face trial, Caruana Galizia noted.

"The whole country is boiling with anger that Keith Schembri is out and about and everyone in the police is just shrugging their shoulders", Caruana Galizia said.

And for all of Abela's promises, two of his other appointments have prompted concern.

The new man in charge of the home affairs portfolio, Byron Camilleri, is a former chief whip of the ruling Labour Party.

For Caruana Galizia, he was an "unknown".

But for Manuel Delia, a Maltese anti-corruption activist, that meant Camilleri was responsible for having tried to keep Malta's previous leader, Joseph Muscat, in power for as long as possible despite revelations of Muscat's links to Malta's scandals.

"Camilleri owes his political existence entirely to Muscat ... is that really something to make anyone optimistic?", Delia said.

Power and throne

Meanwhile, Abela's new man in charge of the justice portfolio, overseeing the judiciary, Edward Zammit Lewis, is even closer to Muscat.

Zammit Lewis is a family friend who used to go on holidays with the former PM.

He was a vocal supporter of Malta's Electrogas project - a scheme to import gas from Azerbaijan, which, the late Daphne Caruana Galizia revealed, involved kickbacks for Schembri and Mizzi.

And he helped create Malta's EU passport sales scheme, which also involved kickbacks.

The Maltese government spokesman defended Zammit Lewis' credentials, saying he had served in all his previous posts "in an unblemished and diligent manner".

But for Matthew Caruana Galizia, "he [Zammit Lewis] is highly manipulable. Not very bright. Not very hard-working. The kind of solid crony you need".

For their part, EU commissioners will soon be taking up contact with Camilleri and Zammit Lewis to ask what they are doing to clean things up.

But for some in Brussels, it looks like Abela's appointments meant little would change.

"Abela might as well have appointed Muscat as justice minister. I see the appointment as a guarantee for Muscat [that he will not be prosecuted]," an EU source said.

Caruana Galizia also said it remained clear "Muscat is still the power behind the throne", with "huge networks of influence" and "fanatical support" in Abela's party.

But the slain journalist's son noted that did not mean Muscat could maintain the status quo for ever.

"We have seen before that a person could be sitting in the prime minister's office one day and then feeding pigeons in the park for the rest of their lives," Caruana Galizia said.

"It has happened before to prime ministers who were as corrupt as him [Muscat]," he added.

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