If it’s ‘not about Moneyval’... then why are we even discussing it?

All things considered, then: I’d much rather we failed this test, and face the consequences we so richly deserve…  than pass it so dishonestly, and at such disproportionately higher cost

Then again, however: if it IS about Moneyval… then Moneyval itself is not exactly about ‘fighting financial crime’, either. You can’t, after all, have it both ways…

But one step at a time. And the first step should surely be to determine whether there is any truth to recent press reports, in virtually all local papers, that Malta has just consented to sign a ‘State of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) with the United States.

If so, it would amount to arguably the single greatest U-turn ever performed by any Maltese government – Labour or Nationalist - in our entire (and evidently quite brief) history as a sovereign, independent nation.

For 20 solid years, Malta has consistently resisted US diplomatic pressure to enter into what is effectively a military agreement with a world superpower: something that is quite unequivocally forbidden by Article 1.3 of the Constitution.

Even without the implications for Malta’s cherished neutrality/non-alignment clause, however… a SOFA agreement would still add up to the loss of national jurisdiction over criminal offences committed on Maltese soil (in this case, by American military personnel).  And that means there is more than just our Constitutional neutrality at stake: criminal jurisdiction is, after all, part of the very building-blocks of any country’s national sovereignty. Quite simply, you can’t really have one without the other.

This might explain why there has ‘so far’ (ahem) always been bi-partisan consensus on the issue: as attested by the opening paragraph of an article published in this newspaper way back in May 2011.

“Government and Labour [in Opposition, back then] are seemingly on the same wavelength when it comes to protecting Malta’s national interests with regards to visiting foreign servicemen. Both Foreign Minister Tonio Borg and Labour’s shadow minister for foreign affairs George Vella have reacted with a clear refusal to cede jurisdiction on crimes and offences committed by visiting United States military personnel…”

So for Prime Minister Robert Abela to so suddenly overturn that common position, and simply hand over a sizeable chunk of Malta’s sovereignty to a foreign power, on a silver platter… I’d say that would, at minimum, warrant something of an explanation.

Not just because it would constitute a colossal betrayal of the national interest, in and of itself; but also because it would have come from a Labour prime minister, no less; and – rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, and all that – ‘Neutrality’ just happens to be viewed (by Labourites, at any rate) as one of that party’s most iconic historical achievements… if not an intrinsic component of Labour’s entire political identity: alongside the Torca symbol, the red carnation, ‘Gensna’, and, of course, the mandatory compilation of Mary Spiteri’s Greatest Hits.

But these are all arguments that have already been made since the news broke last Tuesday; and in any case, they all still hinge on two all-important provisos.

One, did it really happen? And two, is it really a case (as portrayed in all media) of succumbing to American pressure, in order to avoid being ‘grey-listed’ by Moneyval in the coming weeks?

According to Abela, the answer to both those questions is ‘No’ and ’No’ respectively. And for the time being, I see no reason to withhold the benefit of the doubt: at least, regarding that first ‘No’ of his (if nothing else, because there was no significant seismic activity recorded over the last few days: which also means that Dom Mintoff can’t be turning in his grave.)

As for the second, however… I have my doubts. And Abela himself seemed to confirm them quite graphically, when he (correctly) pointed out that: ‘Malta has been discussing SOFA for 20 years… and there was never any talk of Moneyval until now’ (or words to that effect, anyway).

Erm… ye-e-es, but… isn’t that precisely the point? In all those years of ‘discussing the issue’, Malta had never budged an inch from its consensual position of fiercely resisting any form of SOFA agreement… ‘until now’.

Or in other words: until a time when ‘consenting to this agreement’ might be the only thing that spares our country’s sorry ass from failing the impending Moneyval test: with all the financially apocalyptic consequences such a catastrophe would inevitably entail.

Because in case you missed it the first time: “While the American government only has observer status at the Council of Europe’s Moneyval monitoring body on compliance with international standards on money laundering, it retains clout inside the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), where the Moneyval assessment will be reviewed.”

What other reason could there possible be, then, for us to even consider the possibility of capitulation, on what was once such an unmovable, non-negotiable ‘red line’?

No, no: make no mistake, this is very much ‘about Moneyval’. Very much indeed. And people are quite right to point out (as so many are doing) that… well, it is also exactly what all those anti-corruption protests (and international condemnation, etc.) were all along about in the first place.

There is a price to be paid, for having so cavalierly disregarded all those previous warnings about ‘financial probity’, ‘good governance’, ‘checks and balances’, ‘the rule of law’, and all the rest of it. And if those reports are true… it is a hefty price indeed: arguably worse than even the most dire economic consequences of Moneyval failure.

For let’s face it: the economy might always one day recover from the ensuing crisis: no matter how severe the short-term (or even long-term) effects may be. But… will we ever get back even a tiny fraction of the sovereignty we choose to relinquish today? I somehow doubt it…

At the same time, however: should that really be the price to pay, under the circumstances? And if so: what does it actually tell us about Moneyval itself… and how this international financial watchdog – which describes itself as a “permanent monitoring body of the Council of Europe, entrusted with the task of assessing compliance with the principal international standards to counter money laundering and the financing of terrorism” - actually carries out its anti-corruption functions?

Reason I ask is that… well, last I looked, the whole point of this Moneyval evaluation was to ensure that Malta (along with all the other assessed countries) really is compliant with the highest international standards in the fight against money laundering and terrorism…. and NOT just to ensure that US military personnel get to avoid local justice for any crimes they happen to commit in other jurisdictions.

Don’t get me wrong, mind you: I can fully understand that the United States would have its own interest in that direction (just as Malta has an equally obvious interest in refusing to co-operate: ever, under any circumstance whatsoever). But… Moneyval? The Financial Action Task Force? Or, for that matter, the European Council as a whole?

What interest could those possibly have, in upholding US foreign policy for its own sake? And what on earth does SOFA even have to do with the current state of Malta’s anti-corruption legislation, anyway?

The short answer, I suppose, is ’nothing at all’. And yet, it clearly does have a lot to do with our actual chances of passing this dreaded ‘test’, once and for all.

All we have to do, it seems, is ‘suck up to the Americans’, and… hey presto! All those financial crimes and misdemeanours we’ve been accused of in recent years; all those rule of law transgressions; all the dodgy banks and their dodgy transactions; all the offshore companies; the kickbacks in the sale of passports; the impunity enjoyed for so long by politically-exposed people… everything, in brief, that anti-corruption crusaders have (quite rightly, I might add) been protesting and complaining about for so long…

.. suddenly, all of it (and much more beside) gets swept under the carpet, and our international reputation wiped clean by a last-minute Moneyval reprieve… not because we actually addressed any of the compliance issue sidentified in past Moneyval reports, of course; but simply because we entered into a military agreement with the United States of America….

I don’t know. Back in my University days, we would have called that ‘cheating’. Much worse, actually; for if it ever transpired that an examiner had allowed an undeserving student to pass an exam, purely on the basis of a personal ‘favour’ that had nothing to do with the subject at hand… it would actually be considered a criminal offence, liable to a rather lengthy spell in jail. (And I need hardly add that the consequences would be much worse for a judge who acquitted a guilty defendant in similar circumstances.)

But the worst part of it is that: just as Prime Minister Robert Abela would undeniably be betraying Malta’s interests, by consenting to such a deal…. Moneyval, too, would be betraying its anti-corruption remit by allowing Malta’s malfeasance to go so conspicuously unpunished… and, much more damningly, by allowing a country like the USA to subvert international financial assessment mechanisms, and turn them into a tool to serve its own foreign policy interests.

All things considered, then: I’d much rather we failed this test, and face the consequences we so richly deserve…  than pass it so dishonestly, and at such disproportionately higher cost.

As always however… that’s just me.

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