An opportunity to strengthen rule of law

Ultimately, the rule of law exists to guarantee protection for ordinary citizens against abuse of power by the State… and recent events have clearly shown that the structures in place are not fit for purpose

There has been much misunderstanding surrounding calls by various members of the European Parliament for Article 7 procedures to be initiated against Malta.

Article 7 is a procedure in the treaties of the European Union to suspend certain rights from a member state: including voting rights in the European Council.

It is usually enacted where the EU identifies a member persistently breaching the EU’s founding values: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

But contrary to popular perceptions, this week’s debate in the EP Plenary was not about triggering Article 7 against Malta.

In reality, MEPs will demand that Brussels “start a dialogue” with the Maltese government in the context of the Rule of Law Framework “without further undue delay”.

The rule of law framework’s objective is to prevent emerging threats to the rule of law to escalate to the point where the Commission has to trigger the mechanisms of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union.

Technically, then, today’s vote is a last-ditch effort to prevent Article 7 from becoming necessary. This is done through a three-stage process that comprises a Commission assessment of the situation in Malta, a Commission recommendation, and finally the monitoring of the Malta’s follow-up to the Commission’s recommendation.

If no solution is found within the rule of law framework, Article 7 is the last resort to resolve a crisis and to ensure the EU country complies with EU values.

As such, it was perhaps unhelpful of EP President Antonio Tajani to describe today’s vote by the Plenary as a ‘vote of no confidence in Joseph Muscat’.  

“We need to restore dignity to a country that should not be regarded as a place where dirty money is recycled or where passports are sold to Russian magnates. That dignity can only be restored when Muscat resigns,” Tajani said.

In the first place, Muscat’s political downfall has been sealed; and while doubts may persist as to his delayed departure, Muscat’s role of prime minister has effectively already been terminated. He now persists only in a caretaker capacity, and only until a new Labour leader (and de facto prime minister) is appointed on January 12.

Statements such as Tajani’s – while welcomed by Nationalist (and other) MEPs - only feed into the misconception that the vote is being spearheaded by the European People Party’s for EU-level partisan purposes: provoking knee-jerk defensive reactions from those who feel Malta is being ‘picked on’.

This view, however, does not take into account the position of Labour’s own political grouping, the S&D: which could not ignore calls to have Malta brought into dialogue with the European Commission to sort out its shortcomings on rule of law.

Significantly, however, the European Socialists also demanded that the Commission apply an equal yardstick with member states caught breaching the EU’s standards on values: including those under EPP governments, such as Jungary.

This week’s debate in the European Parliament should therefore serve as a useful tool: on one level, to help the European Union come up with a consistent way to tackle such problems in all member states; and on another, to help Malta identify and overcome the problems that have dogged the consistent application of rule of law.

Paradoxically (given his past views on EU membership) it fell to former prime minister Alfred Sant to spell it out succinctly in his intervention yesterday: “That Malta faces serious problems of governance is clear. They arose in the context of the horrendous murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and also beyond… There have been fatal failures of judgement even at the top level. The political price for them is being paid.”

But Sant called for a dispassionate review of the situation leading to reforms that will ensure no future repetition of past mistakes.

“When considering how European values are being respected, we must follow objective criteria, applied to all by an institution that all can trust. […] There has to be a right way for this assembly to consider the affairs of Malta, one that would be applied equally to other member states like Hungary or Poland.  No matter how well intentioned, the direction in which this debate has been driven is not the right way, not for Malta, neither for Europe. We need a better way.”

Sant is right that a better way is needed; but it is premature to dismiss today’s vote as a step backwards in the pursuit of a functional rule of law.

Rather than decry what many perceive to be undue interference in local politics, we should recognise today’s vote as an important opportunity to undertake necessary reforms which will ultimately benefit the citizens of Malta.

Ultimately, the rule of law exists to guarantee protection for ordinary citizens against abuse of power by the State… and recent events have clearly shown that the structures in place are not fit for purpose.

It remains unfortunate that Malta proved incapable of ironing out its problems without the need for overseas intervention. But now, the important thing is to ensure that the reforms are undertaken.