MEPs question Carmelo Abela and Owen Bonnici on Panama, cash-for-passport scheme

Ministers attending EP committee on justice and home affairs face demands for tangible answers on migration • MEPs raise Panama Papers and cash-for-passport scheme to question Malta’s commitment to deliver on priorities

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici face questions on migration, justice, Panama Papers and IIP (Photo: Ray Attard/Maltese Presidency)
Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici face questions on migration, justice, Panama Papers and IIP (Photo: Ray Attard/Maltese Presidency)

Panama Papers and Malta’s cash-for-passport scheme cropped up during a meeting of the European Parliament’s committee on justice and home affairs, with MEPs demanding reassurances from two ministers that these would not be in conflict with the priorities set by the Maltese Presidency of the European Council.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici faced repeated questions on solidarity and migration, but a number of MEPs took the ministers to task over the Individual Investor’s Programme.

Portuguese socialist MEP Ana Gomes, who has never shied away from making public her “disgust” of the Maltese scheme, asked the ministers to make public the list of investors who became EU citizens through the IIP.

“I know that you will invoke Data Protection but I think that you should at least pass on the list to Europol to check who these persons are,” Gomes said, adding that her home country employed similar schemes.

“We are trying to fight organised crime: these schemes are not only immoral, but they actually defeat what we’re trying to do in terms of security … these schemes are used by organised criminals.”

The IIP has proven to be a solid source of revenue for the government: since the launch of the IIP until June, over €54 million were deposited in the National Development and Social Fund; over €23 million were deposited in the consolidated fund whilst Identity Malta Agency (IMA) received some €7 million.

The socialist MEP also questioned Malta’s commitment is blacklisting tax havens: “You have a minister, who is going to chair the EU energy council, who was listed in Panama Papers. The point now is not about corruption, but about credibility. Will you really commit to anti-tax avoidance and fighting money laundering?”

According to the latest report issued by the IIP regulator, a total of 241 applications for Maltese citizenship were approved in 11 months, and 52 were rejected.

Swedish MEP Cecilia Wikström (ALDE) described the irony of countries chasing rich investors, when refugees were seeking protection in Europe and member states insisting they cannot take them in.

“It seems a bit ironic that this is happening in Malta,” Wikström told Abela and Bonnici.

“I am not judging you but I am asking you to explain how you continue in this way when we are seeing people in need of safety to save their lives… perhaps it’s not right to offer [what you’re offering] to extremely rich individuals.”

Another MEP argued that corruption was “flourishing in Malta” and that the country should focus on tackling that.  Yesterday, Politico reported that corruption allegations are “tarnishing” Malta’s EU presidency.

Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola asked the ministers how Malta planned on fighting corruption.

“The ongoing Panama Papers scandal is not only about Malta, but also Europe. What new proposals will you push?”

Taking the lead, Owen Bonnici reiterated that Malta was committed to achieve progress on the anti-tax avoidance directive and instruments to fight money laundering.

“Rest assured of our commitment,” Bonnici told the MEPs.

The Justice Minister avoided any controversial answers on the IIP by reminding the MEPs that a meeting of the same committee had been held with the European Commission “where all questions were answered and clarifications given”.

“I’ve been asked about corruption: as you know, I am now representing 28 member states and not just Malta. If I were allowed to speak on Malta, I would remind that our government has removed prescription on acts of political corruption.”

Migration: MEPs seek concrete answers

The majority of MEPs who spoke sought concrete answers from the ministers on how Malta would try and achieve concrete solutions on migration.

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli questioned how Malta will get member states to honour the pledge of resettling migrants from Greece and Italy: the latest figures show that only 8,161 people – of 160,000 dispersed refugees – have been found a home.

MEP Barbara Spinelli, European left, asked what the ministers made of the recent agreement signed between Libya and Italy, aimed at “stemming the flow of migrants”.

“How are you going to concretely apply solidarity?” Italian socialist MEP Cécile Kyenge said.

Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, European Green, described the Commission’s proposals as being “regressive”.

“Solidarity remains the key in what we do, and no solution to migration can transpire if we do not take a holistic approach,” Carmelo Abela told the MEPs.

Malta will keep on working on the seven proposals that are currently on the table, set to reform the Common European Asylum System.

“Solidarity is important and responsibility goes hand-in-hand with it. We know of the existing differences in the Council and we are going to try and reduce those differences.”

Abela argued that the present migration management system did not meet the current demands.

“It’s going to be difficult to achieve a compromise but we need to continue with the political dialogue... we have to keep in mind that we are talking about people, not numbers… we need to work on all fronts as member states.”

The minister reiterated that progress must be registered on the action plan agreed to by the member states during the Valletta summit.

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