The price of maladministration

For even if there is room to complain about the USA’s arguably heavy-handed and overbearing pressure… the fact remains that we have no one but ourselves to blame for the mess we are now in

It is not surprising that Prime Minister Robert Abela appeared fidgety and uncomfortable, when confronted about reports that Malta may have consented to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States of America.

For while both Abela and Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo have strenuously denied that any such agreement has been finalised, neither could realistically deny that discussions between Malta and the USA are already taking place.

Sources close to government have confirmed that ‘SOFA and migration in the Mediterranean’ will be the main topics on the agenda for today’s visit by US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper.

Earlier, concerned Cabinet ministers had confided about growing pressure from the American government over Malta’s fight against money laundering, specifically in a bid to extract security concessions from the island-nation.

Placed in the context of Malta’s imminent appointment with the Moneyval test – and with it, the possibility of our financial jurisdiction being grey-listed by the Council of Europe’s financial monitoring agency – the implications are painstakingly clear.

For the past two decades, the USA has consistently requested a SOFA deal with Malta; and for just as long, Maltese governments (under both major parties) have resisted the proposal.

This is partly because of concerns it would go against the Constitution - in particular, the Neutrality clause – but partly also because Malta has always been wary of giving up jurisdiction in processing US military personnel who may be involved in a crime on the island.

The Labour Party has over the years been particularly opposed to a SOFA deal: as former Prime Minister Alfred Sant has just reminded us, by coming out forcefully against the proposal.

“I could never agree with a SOFA”, Dr Sant remarked. “Through SOFA, members of the American military present in the country, no matter what they do, cannot be brought before our courts to answer for crimes they may have committed, in line with our laws…”

From this perspective, even the fact that the Maltese government now seems willing to discuss the issue at all, can only come across as a major departure from what has always been a consensual national policy.

Hence the Prime Minister’s visible discomfort while addressing journalists yesterday. Given that the issue of neutrality has always had such resonance for the Labour Party in particular – as evidenced by its previous outspoken support for Dockyard strikes against the use of Malta’s naval facilities by (mostly US) military vessels - Abela clearly finds himself under fire from members of his own party.

Much more significantly, however, the country as a whole now finds itself under immense pressure to comply with this unpopular request: as it appears that the Americans have promised to use their international clout to help Malta pass the imminent Moneyval testas a ‘quid-pro-quo’ for our cooperation.

For 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 considerable influence inside the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF): and it is precisely here that the Moneyval assessment will be reviewed.

This places Malta in the awkward – if not downright humiliating – position of having to bite the bullet, and succumb to US pressure, simply to avoid the repercussions of a downgrade of our financial services sector by Moneyval.

And while one can reasonably question what appears to be a ‘politicisation’ of the Council of Europe’s financial agency… it would be naïve to expect otherwise, on the dog-eat-dog stage of international politics.

But this, too, is why Malta should all along have been ultra-careful not to find itself in this unenviable position in to begin with.  This was, indeed, the purpose of all the civil society pressure placed on Malta-s government over the past four years at least: ever since the fateful Panama Papers revelations in 2016.

It was Malta’s reluctance to address the corruption at the heart of its institutions that ultimately led us to this (otherwise entirely avoidable) impasse; and apart from illustrating the steep price of having disregarded our international money-laundering obligations for so long, our current predicament also exposes the sheer vulnerability of Malta’s position in real-politik terms.

In brief, it also a painful lesson which shows that, without a certain level of moral righteousness on an international level, countries like Malta can easily find themselves with their backs to the wall.

For even if there is room to complain about the USA’s arguably heavy-handed and overbearing pressure… the fact remains that we have no one but ourselves to blame for the mess we are now in.