Ah, but life isn’t fair, Robert. It’ what we all learnt at school...

To reduce it all, once again, to ‘headmaster-speak’… what we’ve just been told is: 'No more excuses; no more fancy talk; you know what you have to do… do it, or the punishment will only get worse…'

Marcus Pleyer
Marcus Pleyer

Now that I’ve watched last Friday’s FATF press conference, I can finally understand why this whole greylisting business has always been talked about in terms of a ‘test’, or ‘exam’.

Mind you: part of the reason was already evident, long before last Friday. Just consider Prime Minister Robert Abela’s reaction, for instance, when Malta finally got its ‘result’ a couple of days earlier.

There he was, report-card in hand, crying at the top of his voice: ‘It’s just… not… FAIR!’; and, to be perfectly honest… I kind of sympathise, really.

After all, it’s more or less exactly how I myself always reacted, each and every single time I failed Mathematics at school. It was never, of course, because I was simply ‘crap at the subject’ (and not much good at cheating, either…); no, it was always because every successive Mathematics teacher I ever had – from Year Six, all the way to Form Five – always ‘had it in for me’, for some reason or other….

And what do you know? That’s how it’s always been with every successive government of Malta, too: whenever faced with any form of any international condemnation whatsoever.

It is never, ever our own country’s fault, for always finding it so darn difficult to just ‘do things by the book’…

… no, it’s always because there’s a bunch of pesky foreign countries out there, permanently engaged in a global conspiracy to stop us from ever achieving Total World Domination (as we so easily could, of course, if it weren’t for so much dratted ‘foreign interference’).…

But last Friday’s press conference – you know, the one where the FATF finally came round to explaining why it chose to grey-list Malta, after an agonising two-day wait – well, let’s just say it drove the same connection home… ooh, so much more forcefully than that.

Starting with Marcus Pleyer himself, the FATF’s German president, who… erm… how can I put this?

I’ll be damned if he didn’t instantly remind me of all the strictest teachers or headmasters I’ve ever had at school: possibly including a couple of fictitious ones, too (like Mr Quelch from Billy Bunter; or Andrew Crocker-Harris from ‘The Browning Version’…).

Those gimlet eyes, that tone of voice… even the long wait, between the time we found out we were ‘in trouble’… and the time we finally found out why…

It all took me right back to Brother Martin’s office at De La Salle College, all those years ago… where – after an eternity of waiting on that dreaded bench outside his office door – we would eventually be given a long, patient and exhaustive explanation, of all the precise reasons for which we were about to receive such a good (and richly deserved) WALLOPING…

Ah, the good old days... But back to Marcus Pleyer: even the way he eventually turned his attention to Malta – in a press conference that was otherwise dominated by Pakistan – betrayed a vague hint of ‘headmaster-like’ impatience, when faced (yet again) with the naughtiest kid in the school.

His actual words may have been: “There have been a lot of reports about Malta in the media, so I’m happy to update you about this…”

… but – loosely translated from ‘headmaster-speak’ – what I heard sounded a lot more like: ‘Look, I’m sick and tired of listening to all your lousy excuses; you know perfectly well why you’re here, but I’m going to spell it out to you anyway…”

Which, of course, he went on to do: starting out by reminding us that the process of evaluating Malta actually began in 2019 – translation: ‘We’ve been repeatedly warning you for over a year now. I’m really starting to lose patience, you know…’ – and proceeding by spelling out, in no uncertain terms, exactly which of the ‘recommendations’ Malta has failed to implement (with such catastrophic consequences for the entire country).

In his own words: “[Malta’s] final report outlined a large number of […] serious significant, strategic deficiencies. Since then, the FTAF recognizes that Malta has made good progress in a number of areas. However, serious issues remain, including issues concerning criminal tax and related money-laundering CASES [my emphasis]. Malta’s FIAU needs to support law enforcement authorities to pursue these kinds of CASES [my emphasis, again]; and focus their analysis there….”

And… well, there it is: so clearly spelt out, that he may as well have written it in chalk on a massive blackboard (wearing a mortar-board, while he was at it).

Finance Minister Clyde Caruana can try and blame it on ‘cryptocurrency’ as much as he likes – or on the Opposition’s ‘treachery’, if it comes to it – but what the President of the FATF is telling us there, is that there are individual CASES (yes, my emphasis, yet again), involving tax evasion and money-laundering, that have yet to be properly investigated, prosecuted and brought to justice.

And… um… gee, what ‘cases’ could he possibly have had in mind?

But – and now I am beginning to seriously suspect he’s a German doppelganger, of the headmaster we affectionately (and apprehensively) knew as ‘Tinu’ – Pleyer went on to actually spell that out for us, too.

Turning to the action plan that Malta now has to implement to get out of this predicament – ideally (albeit unrealistically) by as early as next October – he quite emphatically singled out one, particular example:

“The Maltese authorities also need to ensure that beneficial ownership information is accurate, and up to date. This often relates to anonymous shell companies…”

This time, the emphasis was provided by Pleyer himself. Not only did he confirm that the main reason for Malta’s greylisting, was in fact the one that our government has been vehemently denying for at least four years – i.e., that it is ultimately tied-up with all the ‘unfinished business’ revealed by the Panama Papers – but he even narrowed the focus down to ‘anonymous shell companies’ owned by mysterious, undisclosed ‘ultimate beneficiary owners’…

Now: if this really was a good old-fashioned ‘Brother Martin’-style dressing-down, it would probably have ended with… ‘and I’m talking about YOU, YOU, and above all… YOU! Now, come up here and face the music!’

But by this point, I reckon Marcus Pleyer realised that he was not, in actual fact, addressing the assembly of a Maltese Catholic school for boys in 1977… even though he did end with what could have been a classic Brother Martin quote:

“The Maltese government has given a high level of POLITICAL commitment [three guesses whose emphasis, this time] to continue making the necessary changes. I urge them do so…’

Ouch! Ok, here, the translation may have to be slightly longer. In those few words alone, Pleyer makes it abundantly clear that the FATF – for better or worse – has seen through at least part of Malta’s strategy to avoid its place on that grey-list.

For some unfathomable reason, it wasn’t satisfied with our last-minute clampdown on presumed ‘money-laundering’ cases (mostly involving random village butchers, which doubled up as unofficial ‘banks’); or with any of the other procedural changes we have introduced over the past couple of years: changes which may have ticked off all the right boxes for Moneyval approval, yes; but which still do not actually address the conspicuous ‘elephant in the room’.

And having already spelt out, so meticulously, what that ‘elephant’ actually is… and what must now be done to remove it… those last words – ‘I urge [Malta] to do so’ – ring a particularly ominous note.

To reduce it all, once again, to ‘headmaster-speak’… what we’ve just been told is: “No more excuses; no more fancy talk; you know what you have to do… do it, or the punishment will only get worse…”

And yet, when all is said and done… Pleyer’s ominous warning still remains the thing it is: i.e., a strict headmaster’s justification, for a classic case of ‘collective punishment’ that – no matter how richly deserved, by the true culprits - remains rather harsh on everyone else who will ultimately be affected (and, even going only on the ‘best-case’ scenarios: that category is likely to include you, me, and both our dogs…)

So I guess the over-riding question still remains: does Robert Abela have a small point, by reacting to Malta’s grey-listing much as I did to all those Mathematics failures, way back in my schooldays? Is there any truth to his claim that the FTAF’s verdict was, in itself… ‘unfair’?

In all (ahem) fairness… the answer is: yes, very probably. And for a wide variety of reasons, too. For while there can be no real doubt that those ‘significant, strategic deficiencies’ do exist… they still pale into insignificance, when compared to glaring cases of impunity we have witnessed in other, non-greylisted countries: including the USA, no less (which is, after all, the country that gave the world the term ‘too big to fail’… precisely by ‘downplaying the seriousness’ of certain money-laundering cases).

One can also legitimately question – as we all routinely did, as schoolchildren – whether the punishment really does ‘fit the crime’, in this instance; or even whether – correct though the verdict itself may be – these ‘deficiencies’ are still simply being exploited by other countries that are (like it or not) our competitors, specifically in all the economic areas being targeted here…

Yes: we can question all that, and more. And there certainly still is room to discuss the ‘fairness’, or otherwise, of an indictment against which there seems to be no ability to ‘appeal’, either….

But… well… in the end, that’s just another of those things we were all once taught at school (particularly, when finding ourselves ‘in trouble’ at the headmaster’s office). Life isn’t exactly what you would call ‘fair’... is it, now?