Standing our ground

We must take stock of the situation and realise that we cannot sit by and simply take things at face value

On Saturday, the European Commission took Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands to the Court of Justice of the European Union, with a request for financial sanctions, for failing to fully implement the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive into their national law.

This directive is all about the emphasis on the ultimate beneficial ownership and due diligence – on what and who is a politically exposed person, and, of course, the gambling and online gaming industry.

The Commission concluded that AMLD4 had not been fully transposed into national law. The incomplete transposition concerns fundamental aspects of the anti-money laundering framework, such as betting and gambling legislation (Austria), mechanisms under which the Financial Intelligence Units exchange documents and information (Belgium), and the information to be provided on the beneficial ownership of corporate and other legal entities (Netherlands).

Malta has since transposed the 5th directive which offers even more stringent rules.

Now I detest social meetings with ambassadors, usually for the very simple reason that though I believe that as a country we have numerous shortcomings and grave political problems, I find it very difficult to be ‘lectured’ by diplomats who have a plethora of problems in their own country which are either worse to similar.

It is like being told about the issue of press freedom in Malta from the US ambassador, when in his own country he has a President who treats journalists as if they were horse dung.

We have serious issues in Malta, but let us not forget about the high-handedness of some countries on Malta – special reference could go to the Netherlands, whose leadership and emissaries are gravely hypocritical, considering that they too are accused of having aggressive tax planning regimes (and therefore all the more serious given their AMLD4 shortcomings), as well as a thriving drug smuggling and illegal sex industry. Of course, Malta has its own organised crime problem, and indeed corruption… but being lectured to by such countries is downright deceitful.

It is an ancient habit to see countries like these pontificate to smaller nations such as Malta about rule of law (justifiably, one might admit) and press freedoms when their countries are hardly exemplary. The Netherlands has its own human rights emissary, which I guess makes it quite easy to moralistically cover up its aggressive tax practices and other seedier parts of the economy.

And though we rightly complain of press freedoms all the time in this country, we tend to forget the cruel regime of defamation laws that the free press in Europe constantly combats.

Many newspaper editors abroad are constantly bombarded by powerful legal firms representing private industry and politicians with gagging threats if stories about their clients, however tame, are published. Unlike Malta, where court fees are expensive but not exorbitant, court litigation abroad can be beyond the means of the independent press.

All this brings us to the Moneyval debate, and whether Malta will pass the test and not suffer the fate of greylisting. The big question is whether Malta will have done enough by judgement day.

I guess there are those in Malta who hope that Malta is greylisted and there are many more who hope that this will not materialise because it would lead to the eradication of our financial services and gaming industry – which would fundamentally hit us in the nerve centre of our economy.

I have no doubt that many countries want to see Malta lose its competitive edge so that they can move in. I am not wrong about this: all countries are only interested in their own economies (naturally), and emissaries abroad are primarily tasked to represent their home countries’ companies’ interests.

I recall that when the Maltese airport was being privatised, a US company that was bidding for the airport was not only represented by a number of paid lobbyists and marketing agencies, but also actively by the US embassy.

The same happened when Air Malta had to choose between the US-built Boeing and the European-built Airbus – there again, the US embassy took an active role playing the part of a prime lobbyist.

The same is happening today in the Steward hospital controversy, where the last meeting held in Malta saw the US chargé d’affaires Mark Schapiro actively support Steward boss Ralph Le Torre in a bullish attempt to squeeze more out of the Maltese government. Some might call it bullying. Whatever it is, a dose of realism is needed amongst many Maltese to realise that bigger countries will squeeze the pips out of the Maltese, if it is in their interest to do so – irrespective of  whether or not it’s the right or wrong thing to do.

Malta’s Moneyval challenge is very much dependant on how certain countries can be convinced that Malta deserves their support. Even the United States, with its influence in the FATF and of course, Moneyval, is crucial. Every country – Italy, France, the UK, Germany – will put their interest first, and even when their shit hits the fan, they will do everything in their power to bury their own sins.

For us, it is a bit more difficult. We have a political crisis brought upon us by the unbelievable decisions of the Joseph Muscat administration – decisions that cost Muscat his premiership and dented the credibility of this nation. It seems, however, that some kind of action is being  taken to address our good governance lacunae, even in a climate where we have a lame opposition led by an Opposition leader who does not have the moral standing to serve as an alternative prime minister.

We must take stock of the situation and realise that we cannot sit by and simply take things at face value.

We have great faults as a nation, but we are no different to other nations. And it is about time we come to terms that in our endeavours to hit out at our politicians, our blundering political system, our ‘Latin’ approach and ‘everything goes’ attitude, and alas, even our ingrained corruption, we should not destroy the very edifice that makes our nation what it is.

We should be proud enough to stand our ground. Because it is here on this small island state that we want our children to grow up and it is here that at least we want to continue living.