Malta must mend the fences

The country cannot continue to ignore the present antipathy in its regard within the European Parliament, even if the EP’s treatment of Malta is sometimes unfair

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

On Friday, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs released a 36-page report following its fact-finding mission to Malta last November.

Among other things, the report indirectly calls for the removal of Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff Keith Schembri: both of whom were identified as owners of secret offshore companies by the Panama Papers in 2016.

It also calls on the European Banking Authority and the European Central Bank to investigate Pilatus Bank; while recommending an array of reforms to Malta’s criminal justice system.

Perhaps inevitably, media attention has focused more on the calls for resignations, than on the many shortcomings the committee highlighted within our legislative set-up. This has had the regrettable effect of politicising the issue, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat now adopting a defensive position.

Under such circumstances it is highly unlikely that Mizzi and Schembri will be removed (indeed, Muscat has already ruled it out). Paradoxically, the demand itself has made the objective unobtainable for the present.

Nor does it help that the MEPs who formed part of this delegation had passed judgment on the case before coming here on a fact-finding mission. This inevitably was interpreted as a sign of political prejudice, and was seized on by the Prime Minister as a pretext to ignore the recommendations: “I disagree with the analysis [in the report],” Muscat said. “I still respect it, and I met with the delegation. But I think that most of the things they wrote in the report were basically decided beforehand.”

This is, however, an unhelpful position to take at this stage. Even if there are definitely signs of prejudice in the EP’s approach to Malta, the writing is still on the wall. This report is about more than just the political fortunes of two disgraced public officials: there is also Malta’s reputation at stake. More significantly still, many of the problems highlighted by this report are factual and require urgent attention.

It is true, for instance, that the local authorities fell at the first hurdle when it came to investigating the damning revelations of the Panama Papers. These should have been investigated, irrespective of whether any facts, evidence or traces of money laundering and corruption existed or not. Evidence of a crime can only be brought to light through investigation; so the Prime Minister’s line of defence – i.e., that there is no ‘proof’ – is in itself illogical. If no proof exists, it may also be because the people entrusted to uncover it did not do their job properly.

Failure to investigate was a serious shortcoming on the part of the police; and another thing that emerged from the committee’s interviews was an apparent contradiction between the submissions of the Attorney General and the Chief Justice.

The AG told the committee that he had no executive authority to investigate allegations about money laundering; the Chief Justice said that the Money Laundering Act empowered the local authorities to initiate investigations ‘even without reasonable suspicion’ (adding that ‘reasonable suspicion became necessary only when it comes to performing an arrest and starting a judicial process).

It is unconscionable that the two foremost authorities on Maltese law would adopt such contradictory interpretations of the law they are supposed to enforce. Without entering into the merits of who is right or wrong, there is clearly a level of legal confusion ingrained within the system. The left hand knows not what the right hand is doing... and that can only help wrongdoers to get away with their misdeeds (be they political in nature or otherwise).

If indeed there are impediments to the authorities’ legal ability to investigate, they should be removed immediately. Likewise, the EP committee is right to highlight political interference in both the police and the judiciary. For too long, the Malta Police Force has not shown itself as pro-active, and has only sprung into action when a green light is somehow shone from the government of the day. This is unacceptable, regardless of who is in power. One can only agree with the recommendation to revise the system of appointments of the Police Commissioner, and to take steps to prevent political influence of police work.

On a separate note, it is also pertinent to observe that, according to the same report, Russian whistleblower Maria Efimova told MEPs that she was not the original source for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Egrant claims. This naturally has no bearing on the other recommendations, but it does open up more questions about a case that has divided public opinion in Malta.

With so much contradictory information being distributed, it is high time the magisterial inquiry into the Egrant allegations is concluded. Naturally one appreciates that such things take time, but an entire country cannot be kept on tenterhooks about such an urgent matter for so long. 

Lastly, Malta cannot continue to ignore the present antipathy in its regard within the European Parliament, even if the EP’s treatment of Malta is sometimes unfair. This is not the time to dig deeper into political trenches. There is a lapse of trust between Malta and the EU; and it must fall to us to try and mend fences.