Updated | MEPs voice concerns about Malta becoming one of EU’s weakest links

Despite calls for further investigations by some, and reassurances from Justice minister Owen Bonnici, the general sentiment expressed was that Malta needed to address serious systematic failures

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri meeting MEPs at Auberge de Castille last December
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri meeting MEPs at Auberge de Castille last December

Several MEPs from across the European political spectrum continued to voice concerns on the rule of law in Malta, during a debate discussing the findings of a fact-finding mission to Malta last month.

The delegation of MEPs visited Malta to investigate allegations off corruption and the deterioration of the rule of law following the adoption of a European Parliament resolution precipitated by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in September last year.

In a report on their findings, the MEPs raised serious concerns what they described as a widespread culture of impunity, as well as local authorities inability to investigate serious allegations of corruption and money laundering.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici was present at the debate and answered some questions raised by the MEPs present in the short period of time at his disposal.

Socialist MEP Ana Gomes, who led the delegation to Malta, expressed her satisfaction at Bonnici’s presence, adding that the committee was determine to keep an open dialogue with authorities in Malta to resolve pending issues.

Gomes said the MEPs’ report was “fairly descriptive”, adding that the delegation had ensured they were well informed before finalising it.

Moreover, she said the delegation had felt the need to make a number of recommendations to both the Maltese authorities and the European Commission.

“This does not only concern Malta, but it affects us all,” said Gomes, adding that issues of money laundering presented a challenge to the whole of the EU.

Gomes stressed there were several facts that could not be ignored, including two high-ranking government officials had been “exposed” in the Panama Papers and retained their positions, despite being the subject of a number of Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU) reports.

She said both were viewed as being corrupt, especially given that the reports had been leaked to the press.

Furthermore, she said the Police and the Attorney General had failed to act on the reports, and that despite there being five magisterial inquiries that were currently on going, one was being “blocked by the government”.

She noted that Daphne Caruana Galizia had been killed in Malta – a murder undoubtedly related to her writings.

Gomes stressed there were also a number of questions that needed to be answered on Malta’s sale of citizenship programme, the relationship between disgraced former European Commissioner John Dalli and the government, as well as the activities of Nexia BT and Pilatus Bank.

The MEPs present stressed that the fact-finding mission had not been prompted by the revelations from the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers, but rather the murder of a journalist.

“Here we have two things to follow upon,” said one MEP.  “The first is the question of corruption and money laundering and whether it is systematic thing, but also, and more worrying, who demanded the killing of a journalist.“

Among the issues raised was the impression that there were “clear incentives for corruption and nepotism” that were not worthy of democratic state.

 “When I read the details I thought this is not something we see every day in the European Union,” said another MEP.  “The EU has an important role in clearing this up. It is as strong as its weakest link and Malta is becoming a weak link.”

MEP Roberta Metsola, the European People’s Party Coordinator in the Civil Liberties Committee, said stressed that while MEPs had gotten a clear picture of the situation on the ground, the problems facing Malta should have been apparent without a fact-finding mission.

“The Police have refused to even investigate - let alone prosecute - accusations of corruption and money laundering by politically exposed persons and their dodgy banks,” said Metsola, who stressed what was outlined in the report did not represent the characteristics of the majority of the Maltese people.  

“Our Prime Minister’s machine spared no time in going after me, the whistle-blowers, and all the Members of the delegation, but by now they should know that we will do our duty, come what may.”

Maltese MEP David Casa, said Malta could no longer tolerate corruption at the highest levels of government, nor could it allow banks used to launder money to remain operational. He said that while authorities would seek to hide behind the introduction of a whistle-blowers act and the removal of prescription on the actions of politicians, its actions showed otherwise.

Questions were also raised on arrest warrants issued against Maria Efimova in Cyprus and Malta.

More analysis necessary

While in a minority, some MEPs called for caution in the interpretation of the report’s findings.

One MEP stressed that that the period of analysis was too short, adding it did not have the opportunity to speak to all members of civil society and the mass media.

“We have no answers about whether the media had the full reports when they were writing their stories,” she said, adding that the delegation had met Michael Briguglio as a representative of Malta’s civil society when he was in fact a Nationalist Party councillor. “I don’t know how ethical this is.”

Moreover, she said that the delegation had met with “Austin Gatt’s mass media representative”, presumably a reference to blogger Manuel Delia who had worked in Gatt’s secretariat.

She pointed out that Gatt was a former minister who was also involved in a corruption scandal.

Another MEP insisted the report contained some facts, but also contained many allegations, stressing that it had clearly shown that Maltese society was very polarised and that a complete picture could not be obtained at this point.

Report does not give a correct picture of Malta – Owen Bonnici

Bonnici, having only five minutes to his disposal, said he was willing to meet all MEPs to answer any remaining questions they had, stressing that the government was determined to portray the correct picture of Malta.

“This is not the correct picture of Malta,” he said.

The minister pointed to a survey by the Times of Malta carried out shortly after Caruan Galizia’s murder, which found that a majority of Maltese people had stated they had faith in the Government, the Armed Forces, and the Police.

“This is a snapshot of the results obtained from surveying the people,” said Bonnici, who also stressed that MEPs had misunderstood the role of many of Malta’s institutions. 

“What is even worse, is that the people who wrote the report relied on recommendations that either out of date or incorrect,” he said, insisting that Gomes was wrong in a claiming that Malta had not yet implemented the 4th Money Laundering Directive.

A representative from the European Commission later clarified that Malta had transposed the directive in December, but this did not necessarily mean it had been implemented. He said the Commission was currently monitoring the situation.

Furthermore, he said that the government had undertaken a considerable number of reforms, which had been ignored by the delegation.

He said that Malta’s system allowed for individuals to present evidence to an inquiring magistrate as had happened with all of Caruan Galizia’s “main allegations”.

“So when you tell me there is no rule of law and no accountability, this is not true,” he continued.

Turning to Jonathan Ferris, Bonnici insisted that Gomes had not understood how whistle-blower protection worked, stressing that the disclosure of information was a part of the requirements and would result in automatic protection being granted.

Moreover, he said that Ferris was seeking protection because he wanted to publish confidential information.

This is not about politics – Andrew Caruana Galizia

Andrew Caruana Galizia, who together with his brother Matthew was present at the debate, stressed that his brothers and himself had spent the last three months, “fighting for their basic rights”, and had filed a constitutional case in court to have an independent inquiry. 

He said their efforts were about more than the investigation into their mother’s murder.

Caruana Galizia said that everyday that passed it became harder for the people who commissioned the assassination to be brought to justice.

“It is very hard for us to have faith in the investigation when the people our mother investigated for very serious crimes remain in positions of power,” he said.  

“Your report vindicated so much of our mothers work, so much of what she spent the last five years investigating is there in black and white.”

He called on MEPs to continue demanding answers from the Maltese government, because applying pressure could lead to “surprising results”

Ultimately, he said, it was not longer about politics, but basic European values and the integrity of the European project.

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