Familiarity on a small island

As the old joke goes: success is relative – the more success the more relatives!

The government’s decision to investigate all the IIP applications made by the legal firm whose IIP licence was suspended, is definitely the correct one
The government’s decision to investigate all the IIP applications made by the legal firm whose IIP licence was suspended, is definitely the correct one

Some time after I was appointed Minister in 1987, an old schoolmate, whom I had not seen for years, requested an appointment with me and I, unfortunately as it turned out, acquiesced – more for old times’ sake than for anything else.

On the appointed day, he strode into my office with a foreign man whom he introduced as a representative of a foreign company for whom he was acting as an agent. The fact that he turned up with his business associate – without informing me beforehand – already miffed me a bit. But what followed was even worse.

My old acquaintance started off the meeting by chattering about our school days even recalling silly boyhood episodes. Then it dawned on me. This ‘appointment’ was all about my acquaintance impressing the foreign representative by how familiar he was with the Minister. This in the hope that it would impress his foreign guest by implying that he had some undeclared advantage over his competitors when it came to bidding for some tender or other falling under the aegis of my ministry. Using – or rather abusing – of one’s acquaintances for monetary advantage is a common pastime in Malta, even when this use is limited to just bluffing one’s way to one’s ultimate end.

This is Malta. Whether we like it or not, we are an incestuous country with everybody knowing everybody else and somehow related to the second cousin, twice removed, of one’s wife. As the old joke goes: success is relative – the more success the more relatives!

Acquaintances in Malta are not of the rare type one finds abroad like David Cameron having been at Eton with Boris Johnson. That would have been probably a long shot, even in high-brow Tory circles.

The problem is that foreigners cannot understand how small this island is and cannot realise that knowing almost everybody or their cousin is possible, much more than it can be possible in a country like France. As I often like to say, this is an ‘incestuous’ island.

Unfortunately, boasting about one’s familiarity with politicians in power is common – more common than foreigners might possibly think. In Malta such claims are believed to help one overcome all obstacles, or sometimes seem to do so. I think this boasting is very stupid – but that’s my point of view.

All this passed my mind when news about a French TV sting hit Malta the other weekend. The story involves two episodes – the interview with Paceville entrepreneur Luke Chetcuti and the interview with a representative of a legal partnership that acts as agents for the IIP scheme, the sale of Maltese passports scheme, as we know it.

For one thing, it does seem to me that the inexperienced Luke Chetcuti is naive and – as circumstances would have it – wearing boots that are obviously beyond his depth.

The other ‘sting’ is far more interesting! Legal people are expected to be careful when they talk to clients or potential clients. Boasting about their friendliness with people in powerful positions in order to lure clients is much more serious. There are some who even tell their client they are in contact with the member of the Judiciary hearing their client’s case. This would be mostly bluffing.

It is very difficult to assess how much of this type of boasting is based on facts and how much is based on fantasy. The law firm’s allegation that the words of their representative were translated incorrectly by the French TV station looks like a flimsy excuse. There is no doubt that the names of politicians were bandied about to impress a potential client. If it was just bluff, it is – to say the least – unethical. And stupid, of course.

The government’s decision to investigate all the IIP applications made by the legal firm whose IIP licence was suspended, is definitely the correct one. The Commissioner of Standards, George Hyzler, who is a former politician himself, has also been asked to investigate the matter.

The English idiom has it that “familiarity breeds contempt” and even though some have satirically shortened it to just “familiarity breeds", we Maltese have turned it into “familiarity breeds power and money”.

No foreigner coming from a big country, however, can easily understand the intricacies of the interactions between members of a small community living on a tiny island that has asserted its ‘nationhood’.

Trouble for Trump

On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of President Donald Trump’s phone call last July with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following the call made by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, for a formal impeachment probe. The probe will investigate whether the President urged a foreign power to investigate his political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

Senators who have seen the whistleblower’s report say that the whistleblower points to witnesses and other documents in the report. Democratic Senator Mike Quigley called the complaint ‘deeply disturbing,’, ‘extraordinarily detailed’ and ‘very, very well done.’

While Trump claims that releasing the summary exonerates him from wrongdoing, the text tells a more troubling story.

Trump had twittered that he would release ‘the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript.’ But that is not what happened: the five-page document detailing the President’s conversation with Zelensky is a summary, not a verbatim transcript.

The demands for impeachment intensified after news reports had revealed a White House whistleblower had information showing the President asked a foreign government to dig up dirt on his political opponents. The summary of the call suggests that is exactly what Trump did.

The summary shows that Trump suggested his personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as a mediator between the US and Ukraine, that he also disparaged a former US ambassador.

Trump also disparaged the EU. He claimed that Germany does ‘almost nothing for Ukraine ... all they do is talk,’ while alleging that the EU has done practically nothing for Ukraine. In fact, the EU spent more than €15 billion in grants and loans to Ukraine since 2014.

The call record shows Trump then mentioned what the US does and can do for Ukraine just moments before he asked for dirt on his rivals.

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