Thursday

26th Nov 2020

Opinion

How EU can ensure Caruana Galizia's legacy survives

An image that will stick in the minds of all those who fight corruption is that of a burnt out car in a dry field belonging to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was murdered on Monday in a despicable, barbaric attack.

Caruana Galizia was one of Malta's most outspoken journalists. She spent years exposing corruption on the Mediterranean island for the Malta Independent.

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She led the Maltese-side of the Panama Papers investigation, exposing the offshore accounts of several high profile political figures. Most recently she revealed alleged links between the Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat and two of his closest aides to the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan.

Corruption was at the heart of her work, corruption and the willingness of officials to turn a blind eye. Her son Matthew wrote yesterday that "A culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish."

The absence of any police investigation into the Panama Papers allegations would seem to confirm that sentiment, and the five police commissioners appointed in the last four years by Muscat points to some of the reasons why.

The reflex in Brussels is always to ask the EU institutions to condemn, to act, to set up a committee of inquiry - to do something for heaven's sake. We should recognise that the EU was not set up to deal with individual barbaric acts like this, and that what is most needed now is a quick and independent investigation that will find and punish those responsible. The fact that the Maltese government has called on the help of the FBI is a step in the right direction, although how involved they will be remains to be seen.

What if Daphne was right?

Nevertheless, this tragic event should give those holding the reins of power in the EU some pause for thought.

What if Daphne was right? Let's assume there was a corruption scandal that went to the top echelons of government, where the police were too supine or intimidated to act and where the electorate too polarised to 'throw the rascals out'. What chance in these circumstances that justice will be served?

In most countries that would be the end of the matter. In the EU it is different.

The EU is a community of states but it is also a community of law. That means there is always somewhere else to turn if the institutions of the nation state are deeply dysfunctional. Or at least that is how it should be.

Facing multiple crises in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, you might expect the European Commission to bolster its rule-of-law arsenal. Instead, it has been engaging in unilateral disarmament.

This year it scrapped an anti-corruption monitoring report, a report that had pointed out the complete lack of transparency in political financing in Malta when first published in 2014, as well as how corruption cases were prone to 'executive discretion.'

If Maltese officials felt any heat as a result of this report, they need not have worried as the Commission has declared that all future anti-corruption monitoring will be carried out as part of the 'European Semester' process.

Number of mentions of corruption in Malta in the 2016 European Semester? Zero.

The anti-corruption report also mentioned corruption and conflicts of interest in the government procurement process, a worrying development for a country that receives a relatively large per capita share of EU funds.

Malta, Hungary and Poland

Having such funds under the jurisdiction of the newly-established European Public Prosecutor would be an additional safeguard, but because member states need to sign up voluntarily, Malta has yet to commit itself (as have Poland and Hungary).

European citizens are affected in more direct ways.

In 2014, Malta launched a controversial 'Golden Visa' scheme that provides investors with visa-free access to the Schengen zone in return for a €1m investment.

Investors from Russia and the Middle East have been most keen on the scheme, which is now being marketed to Chinese investors.

The risk of abuse became evident last year when a Maltese health official was accused of shaking down applicants for a similar scheme in return for kickbacks. Worryingly, the response of the attorney general's office to these allegations was to threaten to bring charges against the whistleblower who revealed the scam.

When high-level corruption exists and national institutions exhibit dysfunction, the EU must have tools to deal with this beyond the usual words of condemnation.

Note this is not about the scale of the corruption. Even in a country as endemically corrupt as Brazil, pockets of independence and integrity exist in the police and judiciary that can bring even the most senior politicians to justice, as we have seen in the recent 'Lava Jato' case.

In small countries, on the other hand, it is even more likely that investigation and prosecution of high-level corruption will be hampered by political interference, even if the overall levels of corruption are not pervasive. (Malta is in the top third of countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index after all, even though it fell to a record low 47th position last year).

There is nothing now that the European Commission can do to bring Daphne back or to ensure that her murderers are brought to justice.

But speaking up fearlessly about corruption in Malta and other member states would be the best tribute that they could pay to her and her life's work.

Carl Dolan is the director of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption NGO

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

A prize for those who risk everything

On Tuesday in Strasbourg, the inaugural prize for journalists and whistleblowers in honour of Daphne Caruana Galizia will be awarded. Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bomb attack in 2017, after exposing corruption in Malta.

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

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