‘Eerie silence’ is not an answer

Muscat must be seen to be fighting to clear Malta’s name on the international circuit. This is simply not happening, and the country needs to be told why

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

One of the more uncanny aspects of the current political situation is that the major players involved – namely, Joseph Muscat’s government – seem to be behaving as if nothing of any note is even happening at all. Malta is currently at the centre of an unprecedented storm of global scrutiny and speculation... yet its government continues to resort to exactly the same tactics it always employed in times when no one was looking in our direction at all.

The Prime Minister’s comments that he has ‘nothing to add’ to the revelations of the Daphne Project – or, even more bizarrely, that he will give an answer by rallying the troops on May 1 – are simply incredible, at this late stage in the day. Government cannot continue to refuse to address issues because they are politically inconvenient... this would be outrageous at the best of times, but more so now that EU and global attention is so closely focused on Malta.

Already, Muscat has dismissed new revelations, to the effect that Keith Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s names appeared in an email by Nexia BT to a Dubai bank, linking their two companies – Tillgate and Hearneville – to 17 Black, which was to be a client company of theirs. Now, evidence has surfaced of a network of over 50 companies and trusts, secretly owned by Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, that used accounts at Pilatus Bank to move millions of Euros across Europe.

Other revelations (or, to be more precise, allegations) include that Economy Minister Chris Cardona twice met one of the three men accused of Daphne’s murder. Cardona has been vociferous in defending himself from these accusations, but once again the Prime Minister has chosen to respond by... not responding at all.

Meanwhile, questions are being asked about the legality of Malta’s IIP programme and the identity of people making use of it. Suspicions have been raised – possibly needlessly – by Malta’s commission for information and data protection, which upheld a refusal by Identity Malta to release detailed statistics on the agents of Malta’s sale of passports to the global rich.

Muscat’s only answer to all this, and more, has been that he does not want to comment on the “rehashed” stories being published by the Daphne Project. But whether he wants to comment – or whether it is in his interest to do so or not – is (or should be) irrelevant. The country is owed an explanation. Why did Muscat retain two high-ranking government members in spite of the Panama Papers revelations... and why does he continue to defend them to this day? The traditional ‘No comment’ approach may have worked well for previous governments (and for his own, before the spotlight was turned onto Malta)... but it cannot yield the same dividends today.

Nor does it help that the rest of government has rallied to the same cause. Elsewhere, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna said he knew nothing about the use of Pilatus Bank by Azeri politicians; Education Minister Evarist Bartolo reacted by dismissing the latest claims as merely an attempt to hurt the Labour Party; Justice Minister Owen Bonnici says he will ‘toe the party line’... missing from all these reactions is any form of concern with the affect of all this silence on Malta’s international image. What sort of government doesn’t respond to such serious issues? How will these non-answers be interpreted... not by Labour’s supporters, perhaps; but by the international press, by the European Union, by the Council of Europe, and other global entities that are following developments here with concern?

But it is becoming increasingly more evident that Muscat and his government can no longer refuse to comment on developments. On Monday, The Guardian said that “Questions over financial deals involving his inner circle have dashed the Maltese leader’s hopes of even higher office” and that “questions about Malta’s record under his leadership are growing louder”. These questions will only keep getting louder, if the answer coming from Malta’s government remains nothing more than an eerie silence.

It could, however, be argued that ‘silence’ remains preferable to saying the wrong thing. Muscat has now called for a public show of support on 1 May, at the traditional Labour Workers’ Day meeting, to be held in Triton Square. One can perhaps understand that – here, too, Muscat is playing to a musical score that has always worked well for beleaguered Maltese governments (of whatever political hue) in the past. In today’s context, however, it can only come across as brute populism, of the kind Europe has good reason to fear.

No doubt Muscat will get his show of popular support, but this only represents an ‘answer’ to himself and his party’s supporters. It does nothing to address the issues being raised in the international domain. Clearly, it is not enough for a Prime Minister to point to the number of people who support him or who turn up for meetings. It is no longer enough for him to say that ‘inquiries are under way’.

Muscat must be seen to be fighting to clear Malta’s name on the international circuit. This is simply not happening, and the country needs to be told why.