Malta is in no position to criticise ‘Qatargate’

From this perspective, it is clearly hypocritical of countries like Malta to criticise the EU over Qatargate: when the situation on their own home soil is so much worse

The Qatargate scandal has dealt a major blow to the European Parliament’s credibility, when it comes to monitoring EU member states over corruption and governance issues.

But while criticism of the EP may be justified, individual member states – including Malta – would be wise to bear in mind that the scandal itself came about because of loopholes in the EU’s otherwise comprehensive system for registering lobbyists and their activities.

It was for specifically for this reason that EP President Roberta Metsola yesterday launched an urgent procedure to waive immunity for two Members of the European Parliament. For while the EU has a transparency register - recording the actions of more than 12,000 lobbying groups, whose objective is to influence public decisions made at the EU level – these rules do not apply to foreign diplomatic representations.

This means that while meetings of EU officials and MEPS with businesses and other lobbies, such as trade unions and religious organisations, have to be logged; no such obligation exists for meetings with representatives of foreign states like Qatar.

The European register itself emerged in 2011, in the wake of the “fake lobbyists” scandal: when three MEPs were tricked by journalists from British newspaper The Sunday Times into tabling amendments in exchange for bribes of up to €100,000.

Hopefully, the latest scandal will spur even stricter rules which are also applicable to foreign diplomats lobbying EU officials, including MEPs and European Commissioners.

But while it is understandable that that European citizens feel disappointed, that highly paid MEPs who are expected to set an example of ethical behaviour have allegedly received bribes from Qatar, we should not forget that Malta has absolutely no rules to regulate lobbying, by both local and foreign actors alike.

In this field Malta lags far behind European institutions, where lobbying is at least regulated (albeit insufficiently).

Moreover, Malta has no excuse for failing to ever address its own glaring ‘lobbying loopholes’. Back in 2020, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler had drafted regulations which – if enacted – would have compelled Ministers, parliamentary secretaries, state officials and MPs to register all their relevant communication, including meetings with lobbyists, in a transparency register that should be accessible to the general public.

Back then, Hyzler had warned that “lobbying raises many questions in many countries because if not regulated, it can lead to private interests assuming vast influence in the making of government decisions and the general public stands to suffer.”  One reminder of why we need such rules, is the way planning goal-posts have been shifted over the past decades to accommodate the developers’ lobby.

Enacting such rules would mean that any businessman meeting with a politician, to discuss a project or a policy, would be obliged to first register as a lobbyist.  The state official in question would have to record the communication by logging it in a publicly available transparency register where the minutes of such meetings are also kept.

Yet over the past two years, Robert Abela’s government has not shown any enthusiasm to enact a ‘Lobbying Regulation Act’, as proposed by both Hyzler, and later by the Opposition, in its raft of anti-corruption laws which were turned down by the government earlier this year.

Even Minister Aaron Farrugia had to backtrack on his initial promise to register his own meetings with lobbyists in 2020, by saying that he would wait for the approval of the rules proposed by Hyzler.

But two years down the line, absolutely nothing has been done for the enactment of such rules: a clear indication that there is little appetite for such reforms, despite mounting concern on the undue influence that powerful lobbies – like land developers, or the hunting lobby – have on the political class.

This suggests that Prime Minister Robert Abela is either unaware of the threat posed by lobbying to democracy; or else, he is complicit in a system where public authorities serve as lubricants for private gain, rather than as guardians of the public interest.

Nonetheless, as amply shown by Qatargate, Hyzler’s proposal can still be improved.  For example, it fails to regulate the lobbying of Maltese officials by foreign diplomats.

Qatargate is a reminder of the danger posed by lobbying by representatives of repressive states, bent on influencing European politicians in a bid to whitewash their country’s poor track record on governance, human rights and corporate crime.

As things stand, the only silver lining regarding Malta’s failure to ever enact anti-lobbying rules, is that we are still in time to learn from the experience of other countries by extending lobbying rules to also include foreign representatives.

This is crucial in a world where reputation laundering has become a foreign policy cornerstone of oil- and gas-rich kleptocracies, like Russia, Qatar and Azerbaijan. And while not all meetings necessarily result in bribes, the obligation to record such meetings would at least ensure that the public is not kept in the dark about attempts by foreign representatives to curry favour with Maltese state officials.

From this perspective, it is clearly hypocritical of countries like Malta to criticise the EU over Qatargate: when the situation on their own home soil is so much worse.