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Brussels sounds note of caution in midst of MEPs’ criticism in Malta rule of law debate

Austrian far-right MEP likens Malta to drug cartel TV series ‘Narcos’ in rule of law debate that also focuses on taxation and passport sale

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
14 November 2017, 6:31pm
European vice-president Frans Timmermans
European vice-president Frans Timmermans
Brussels sent out a cautious note to Members of the European Parliament debating a motion on the rule of law of Malta, asking that the country be allowed to carry out a thorough investigation into the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The comments from vice president Franz Timmermans bookmarked Tuesday’s debate on a non-binding resolution that calls for an international and independent investigation inot the journalist’s murder.

“The Maltese government has indicated that the investigation and prosecution should be allowed to run their full course, regardless of the consequences. And I want to add that at every occasion I have to talk to members of the Maltese government, I make this point, and it is acknowledged by them that they will do so, and that they will commit to that,” Timmermans said.

READ THE MEPS’ COMMENTS AS THEY HAPPENED IN THE DEBATE

But when it came to accusations on money laundering in Malta, Timmermans said that the Commission had conducted its own fact-finding exercise. “The facts as they resulted from our analysis – and let me stress this – raise no general concerns on Malta's overall compliance. However, improvement could be made on various levels.”

Brussels has now asked Malta for follow-up investigations to recommendations after the Maltese Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit (FIAU) report, with Timmermans calling for Malta to swiftly join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. “This would send a strong positive signal of Malta’s commitment to work actively together in the area of freedom, security and justice.”

Tuesday’s debate delivered a bruising for Malta, as MEPs rallying behind a joint resolution endorsed by all political groupings except for the socialists, railed against the conditions – notably the lack of police investigation into Panamagate – that laid the fertile ground for the murder of Caruana Galizia.

Wednesday’s vote is a foregone conclusion as most MEPs are expected to back the resolution.

Timmermans shook his head as he fended off accusations from Nationalist MEP David Casa who accused him of “doing nothing” about what he called the “collapse of rule of law in Malta.”

Casa specifically pointed to the fact that Pilatus Bank in Malta had processed money transfers from Azeri oligarchs, the appointment of Commissioner of Police Lawrence Cutajar, the lack of investigation of FIAU reports, and a culture of impunity as being responsible for the deterioration of rule of law in Malta.

“Daphne was a brave, fearless, unstoppable force. She brushed off threats, demonization and abuse. Far too often she was the last person standing. Alone. Against corruption and abuse of power,” Casa said.

Roboerta Metsola on her part said the Maltese had sacrificed too much for her “not to speak out as our authorities pillage our children’s legacy and destroy our reputation. This house – you – have become the last bastion of hope for the people I represent. That is what the EU means to us – hope. Hope and a guarantee that the rule of law will always be protected.”

“Daphne Caruana Galizia was executed. Assassinated. Her killing exposed the urgency of the situation in Malta where the ruling Party has used its majority to run roughshod over the rule of law.

“Malta is a great country but we have to have the courage to say: that it is unacceptable that journalists are killed with impunity.  That it is outrageous that the press is under threat. That it is disgraceful that the Police refuse to investigate corruption.”

Various MEPs, mainly socialists, pointed out contradictions in the way the European Parliament had dealt with clear breaches of fundamental rights in Hungary and Poland, and the way Malta was being dealt with.

But even here, Malta could not evade the long-standing criticism that its low effective taxation for foreign companies opened the gates to gross tax avoidance that was affecting other EU member states.

One Austrian MEP in particular, from the far-right Freedom Party, claimed Malta’s car bombs and the murder of a journalist made the country look like “an episode straight out of Netflix’s Narcos” – the TV series on Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel.

Labour MEPs put up, as expected, a defence of the Maltese government.

Alfred Sant said Malta was being “assailed for perceived deficiencies in the rule of law on the basis of jumbled facts and semi-facts, unproven allegations taken at face value, innuendoes and issues irrelevant to the rule of law.”

He said that while the Maltese government had invited constant scrutiny from the Commission, the country was being targeted by prejudicies drawn from partisna interests. “Is this being done because in the wash of interests and allegiances that define this House, it is easiest to overlook, from all EU member states, Malta’s realities and to cast doubts on the motives of the Maltese government?”

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli called the EPP’s claim that the rule of law in Malta had collapsed as a “partisan-political exaggeration”.

“I ask. In a state where the rule of law collapses, would new laws such as the Party Financing Law be enacted? Or the removal of prescription from cases of corruption by politicians? Or the Whistleblower’s Protection Act? In a state where the freedom of expression is threatened, would an act emending the Press Act be presented to abolish criminal libel and prohibit the issuing of precautionary warrants in civil libels?”

Dalli also said that the Financial Security Index issued by the Tax Justice Network considered Malta to be a more transparent state than Germany, United Kingdom and Luxembourg which are all prominent players in the offshore financial services.

“Unfortunately, the haste of some members of this Parliament to condemn Malta without even trying to objectively analyse the reality continues to confirm the idea of double standards adopted in relation to different member states.”

Marlene MIzzi also said the EP was being used to throw the spanner in the wheels of a democratic government for partisan reasons. “Maltese institutions are not perfect. No country is free of criminality or abuses or scandals. This does not mean we should not fight criminality and abuse. But this is being blown out of proportion to satisfy a partisan agenda. To use Malta as a scapegoat should not be the agenda of this institution. The intention of this resolution is to damage the government and bring Malta to its knees.”

Government reaction

In a statement, the Maltese government said it joined in expressing “disdain” at the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and welcomed statements by the Presidency of European Council  Matti Maasikas commending the government for its immediate action on the investigation.

“First Vice-President Frans Timmermans stated that there are no general concerns of non-compliance by Malta and simultaneously asked the MEPs not to jump to conclusions and then look for facts to support them,” the statement read.

“The Maltese government welcomes any sort of oversight into the investigations, with full respect of the country’s sovereignty and laws.

“Similarly, Malta welcomes any delegation from the European Parliament aimed at getting a better and informed insight of issues relating to rule of law in the country. However, it would have been more desirable that today’s debate took place after such a visit for members to assess the situation on their own.”

It said that “gratuitous” political attacks were unwarranted and that the text of the motion – to be voted upon on Wednesday – contained factual inaccuracies and partisan political bias, “thereby raising concerns whether the same political groups have independently verified information or whether they relied on incorrect information that was fed to them.”

Malta also took issue with MEPs’ views on its tax system and the sale of passports.

“A European Parliament delegation itself concluded that Malta’s tax system is fully compliant with EU and OECD rules. Malta’s citizenship programme is the direct result of dialogue with the institutions, and proudly sits along those from other Member States.”

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.