The mark of Panama

Leo Brincat's vote against the no-confidence motion filed against Konrad Mizzi caused him to pay the ultimate price before a majority of MEPs who included members from the greens, liberal democrats, as well as left-wing and other eurosceptic groupings

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Leo Brincat may be one of the least polarising figures of the Labour government, and his experience in both the private sector and ministerial level would have rendered him suitable for the post of member in the European Court of Auditors.

But it is Labour’s sheer devil-may-care attitude in fielding a government minister who supported the retention of Konrad Mizzi as minister, at the height of the Panama Papers scandal, that has resulted in a costly outcome for Labour’s nominee. Irrespectively of the distance of the European capital from Malta’s political scene, the climate inside the European Parliament is inclement when it comes to gross tax avoidance and the world of offshore. And Malta’s former energy minister is so far the only minister in any European member state to have been tainted by Panamagate.

It is indeed questionable why Joseph Muscat would have risked, in kicking Brincat upstairs to the Luxembourg post, to have his second nomination flounder before an unforgiving European Parliament, especially considering the Nationalist Party’s vociferous battle on the Panama scandal.

A clue in itself is Brincat’s response to the MEPs’ questionnaire: unlike Toni Abela, the second Labour nominee did not commit himself to withdraw his nomination should it be turned down by MEPs – which is why it is very likely that Brincat will be Malta’s member of the ECA when the Council of Ministers will follow the Maltese line to approve him.

It has to be stated that Brincat’s kick upstairs was itself part of a maligned Cabinet reshuffle through which Muscat tried to, unsuccessfully, appear as taking some form of action on Konrad Mizzi’s Panamanian misadventure. He ‘demoted’ his energy minister to a ‘minister without portfolio’ – when in reality today Mizzi is still de facto minister for energy affairs – while reintroducing Manuel Mallia to the Cabinet (who had been dismissed a year earlier over the Sheehan incident).

Throughout the entire affair, Brincat was his characteristically neutered self, never once publicly declaring his displeasure at the Panama affair. But only to MEPs in the budgetary control committee earlier last week did he admit that he considered resigning, but shied away from earning his peers’ rebuke and instead attempt to “exert influence internally”.

This apparent admission rings hollow when Brincat voted against the no-confidence motion filed against Mizzi. And for this indecisiveness on the gross Panama affair, Brincat has paid the ultimate price before a majority of MEPs which did not include just the dominant European People’s Party, whose 215 members were expected to all vote against – but also members from the greens, liberal democrats, as well as left-wing and other eurosceptic groupings.

There is of course, another prosaic dynamic that was put into play. A fundamental difference demarcating the way a Maltese political party will lobby its European political family in approving such political appointees is how this plays along with the party’s electoral chances.

In 2012 when Labour was on the ascendant, it could afford to pledge a conciliatory endorsement of Tonio Borg, who was replacing John Dalli after his resignation from the European Commission. In 2016, Simon Busuttil is in no position to allow any concessions to Labour.

The Panama Papers are an indelible stain on Labour’s desultory governance record, permanently denting the government’s pretension of ever having held the moral high ground in politics: by retaining Mizzi in its executive, it was harbouring tax avoidance of the highest order, nothing short of an individual’s plan to relocate potential business earnings offshore, unbeknown to the Inland Revenue Department.

Despite the gravity of the case (on Sunday, this newspaper’s leader ‘What happened to the Panama Papers investigation?’ complained about the dearth of information surrounding tax investigations into the Panama Papers scandal, compared to the Australian tax commissioner’s vociferous investigation), Joseph Muscat still seems to have weathered the worst storm to hit his government.

Surely it must have cost him middle-of-the-road voters, ‘switchers’, and other decent taxpayers who revile such piratic tax practices. And yet, they have been losses which did not automatically translate into gains for Busuttil, who time and time again has encountered difficulties in connecting with his grassroots base and ‘switchers’.

Behind the PN’s voluble effort to see Brincat flounder inside the plenary, Busuttil and the PN are in no serene position to concede anything to Labour. Busuttil’s divisiveness may rankle with level-headed voters who feel his energy is wasted on such an appointment that is distant from voters’ concerns in Malta.

But the Opposition leader has problems of his own, inside his very own political house. Any perception that he is not seizing upon every single opportunity to make Joseph Muscat’s life difficult, will ultimately be damaging to Busuttil.