Looks like we joined the wrong European Union by mistake...

Malta is not exactly the only EU member state where the rule of law has been undermined by systemic corruption, nepotism, institutional paralysis, organised crime… and even murder

Likewise, we are ranked 54th in terms of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index: a good 11 places above the bottom of the European table, which is occupied by...
Likewise, we are ranked 54th in terms of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index: a good 11 places above the bottom of the European table, which is occupied by...

Tell you what: let’s play a little game. I’ll reproduce excerpts from a report published recently in the European Council’s Foreign Relations website – with the name of a particular EU member state blacked out – and you try and guess the unidentified country.

Ready? Here goes:

“Thousands of people have taken to the streets across [XXXX] in recent weeks [to demand] systemic change on three fronts: the fight against corruption and the mafia links of those in power; reforms to the judiciary; and freedom of speech.

“In the EU, [XXXX] is the highest-scoring country in terms of corruption according to Transparency International […] Over the years, successive scandals have called into question its [judicial] independence. Civil society organisations in [XXXX] have long campaigned for judicial reforms…

“In comparison to other EU member states, the 2020 World Press Freedom Ranking ranks [XXXX] in 111th place, far behind all other EU countries but also behind many African or Asian countries….

And lastly: “If [XXXX] remains so far behind on fundamental questions like freedom of speech, rule of law, and an independent judiciary, this is damaging for the EU as a whole…”

OK, by now you will probably have guessed that our mystery EU member state cannot be Malta: if nothing else, because a simple Google search will reveal that our country places 81st – not 111th – in the 2020 World Press Freedom Rankings.

Likewise, we are ranked 54th in terms of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index: a good 11 places above the bottom of the European table, which is occupied by...

Oops! Almost gave the game away there, didn’t I? But no matter: you’ve probably worked it out already, just by following the international news over the past few weeks.

Yes, folks, the answer is indeed Bulgaria…. even though (let’s face it) if you filled in those blanks with ‘Malta’ instead, the chances are that nobody would even have noticed.

After all, the list of rule-of-law complaints against Bulgaria – ‘corruption’; ‘mafia links of those in power’; ‘judicial independence’; ‘freedom of speech’, etc. – is not merely similar to our own array of institutional problems; it is IDENTICAL.

And in case you were wondering, that also extends to the issue of politically-motivated, mafia-style murders.

Without in any way diminishing the horror of what happened here in October 2017… let’s just say that Bulgaria’s recent history of political assassinations would once again place that country far higher than ours, in a hypothetical ‘European Capital of Political Murders’ list.

Last July, New Eastern Europe reported that: “Between 2003 and 2018, Bulgaria witnessed a series of high-profile murders: famous businessmen, an established prosecutor, an important director at Bulgaria’s Tax Authority, and a key expert witness in a public trial on illegal wiretapping by [Prime Minister] Borisov’s government, were all shot dead.”

The article adds: “These murders were not solved by the authorities, and it is doubtful they were properly investigated either.”

It seems, then, that Malta is not exactly the only EU member state where the rule of law has been undermined by systemic corruption, nepotism, institutional paralysis, organised crime… and even murder.

And yet, it also seems that Malta is the only EU state to ever actually get called out over any of these issues. For just as there are overwhelming similarities between the two countries’ political landscapes… there are also a few little differences here and there.

One striking difference is that where the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia did eventually lead to resignation of Joseph Muscat last January, and the collapse of his government – in part, it must be said, due to overwhelming pressure by the EU – Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is still very much in place today.

Not only that, but where Malta has been consistently lambasted, humiliated, condemned, and abundantly defecated upon by practically every single European institution you care to name – the European Commission, the European Parliament, individual heads of state, the Council of Europe, etc. – Europe’s response to the Bulgarian situation has so far been…

Um…

… well, to be fair, you can’t exactly say it’s been ‘non-existent’. Because this is the truly bizarre (and woefully unjust) part of the whole equation.

Fact is that the European Union has not merely failed to condemn Borisov’s government, in the same way as it so utterly eviscerated Malta over the past three years… but it has openly and unambiguously supported the Bulgarian Prime Minister all the way.

Take our old friend Manfred Weber, for instance: the current President of the European People’s Party, which is also the single largest political bloc in the European Parliament.

You will not surely not need me to remind of the many, many times Weber took Malta to task over corruption and institutionalised criminality in recent years. As recently as June 19, he even told a local interviewer that the situation in Malta – where government officials had been ‘implicated in organised crime’ – was ‘unique’ in the European bloc.

Yet strangely, only a few weeks later – i.e., on July 10: when the Bulgarian street protests had already been raging for some time – the same Manfred Weber publicly stated that: “The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov and its efforts to protect the economy against the negative effects of the Coronacrisis, fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the Eurozone.”

Contradiction, much? And do I even need to explain why Weber’s stance on Bulgaria was (and still is) so very different from his earlier stance with regard to Malta? (I’ll give you a small hint: you’ll never guess which EP political bloc Borisov’s GERB party belongs to…)

And OK, granted: in the interests of fairness, it must also be pointed out that there are a few (somewhat rare) examples of other MEPs who actually do use the same yardstick when it comes to judging other EU member states.

Like Sven Giegold of the German Green Party, for instance: who has criticised Bulgaria in more or less exactly the same ‘brutal’ way (his own word, not mine) as he has repeatedly torn into our own country since 2017.

But what about the EP as a whole?

Where are all the EP resolutions condemning Bulgaria over its rule of law situation (which, as attested by the above quotes, is actually far worse than Malta’s)? And how many special ‘rule of law’ delegations have been despatched to Sofia, anyway?

As things stand, the only discernible reaction to the Bulgarian crisis was a four-hour EURACTIV meeting on 28 August: chaired by Dutch MEP Sophie In’ t Veldt (interestingly enough, the same MEP who headed all those delegations to Malta); and to which Borisov himself was invited… but didn’t even bother to show up.

Emerging from that meeting, In’ t Veld herself seemed to admit it was a waste of time. Her exact words were: “Our group will follow-up on corruption in Bulgaria and we will send additional questions to many of the participants because we did not have time to go into details.”

Not exactly the same tenacity and commitment she had displayed when rigorously (and repeatedly) passing Malta through the shredder, is it now?

But then again, I suppose it’s a whole lot easier to be ‘tough’ and ‘uncompromising’  with a tiny, inconsequential little country like Malta… than with a country whose Prime Minister seems to be best buddies with all the highest-ranking European Commission members; and who has been described (by Politico) as “a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European leaders…”

Which, of course, brings us to another of our old friends: Frans Timmerman, the EC’s Executive Vice-President.

Like Weber before him, Timmermans seems to think that there are actually two European Unions, not one. There is the EU that we are part of – i.e., the one that is supposedly guided by the principles of good governance and the rule of law… and where member states that fall out of line are scrutinised, publicly skewered, and mercilessly pressured to reform (as emblemised by Timmerman’s own claim, in April 2018, that “We will keep pushing the Maltese authorities”…)

… and then there’s the EU inhabited by his own personal buddies: like, of course, Borisov himself… whom Timmermans publicly praised in July 2019 (significantly, during a meeting to solicit the Bulgarian PM’s support for his own nomination to the European Commission).

On that occasion, Timmermans told Borisov: ‘I have always expressed my admiration for what you are doing in the fight against organised crime and corruption. We have had many frank discussions about that. And that is the basis on which I value our friendship….”

Well, what can I say? I have no doubt Borisov ‘values his friendship’ with Timmermans, too. It has, after all, spared his country all the European censure and condemnation that was so liberally dished out to Malta over the past few years; and it has also clearly stopped the European Commission from ‘pushing the Bulgarian authorities’, as it had done so forcefully – and effectively – in Malta’s case.

On the contrary: Commission spokesman Christian Wiegand’s only reaction to the Bulgarian crisis was to say that: “We support the right to peaceful protest” – Duh! – and… erm…  no, that’s it, really.

When pressed by journalists for an official European Commission position – of the kind the Commission is usually only too happy to give, when it comes to other, less well-connected countries – Wiegand simply ‘declined to comment any further’.

Hmmm. Faced with glaring contradiction of such astronomic proportions, I can only conclude that Malta must have accidentally joined the wrong European Union, way back in 2004.

Instead of becoming part of a small coterie of like-minded countries – which always cover up for each other’s corruption, and whose members get to enjoy limitless impunity for their mafia-style crimes – we ended up becoming the whipping post for all the other EU’s outrageous hypocrisy and double-standards.

But still: like any other mistake, I suppose it can always be rectified, if (or when) the time comes…

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