Dalli tipped for EU’s justice portfolio as MEPs sharpen teeth for her roasting

Leaked document shows Maltese commissioner-elect is tipped for justice portfolio, whose two predecessors have been critics of Maltese governance

“The Germans are undecided about whether to serve you with sauerkraut…”: Helena Dalli, right, in conversation with permanent representative Daniel Azzopardi
“The Germans are undecided about whether to serve you with sauerkraut…”: Helena Dalli, right, in conversation with permanent representative Daniel Azzopardi

Helena Dalli, the Maltese commissioner-elect for the Von der Leyen executive in Brussels, could face the political test of her lifetime: the former equalities minister is being tipped for the justice portfolio.

Official posts are yet to be announced, but a leaked document seen by MaltaToday, which is still subject to changes, shows that Dalli is expected to take on the post once held by Vera Jourová.

In the past, the commissioners who held the post have been critics of Maltese governance, first with Viviane Reding after Malta introduced its sale of citizenship, and later with Jourová as Malta’s rule of law came under Brussels’s lens in the aftermath of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

Jourová is expected to be the European Commission’s first ever commissioner for democratic rule of law.

But it also means that Dalli will have to undergo what will probably be the toughest grilling ever meted out to a Maltese commissioner-elect by the European Parliament, after years of being under the sharp light of MEPs’ scrutiny. Still, without the rule of law element in the justice portfolio, grilling might just focus on civil liberties rather than more controversial issues.

Another fine grilling: Tonio Borg, who in 2012 faced tough questions from MEPs over his conservative beliefs

She will also have to contend with Nationalist MEPs David Casa and Roberta Metsola, fierce critics of Malta’s rule of law shortcomings, despite assurances from the Delia leadership that Dalli will be supported by the PN.

Maltese commissioners have previously held the fisheries, health and consumer policy, and environment portfolios. But with justice, Dalli would also be expected to be her country’s critic in the aftermath of the last five years of Brussels scrutiny.

At the same time, Ursula von der Leyen has selected a Luxembourger, Nicolas Schmit, for the post of financial services commissioner, who is also surely to face a decent grilling on issues of taxation: perhaps this marks the VDL commission’s attempt to change tack on its zealous pursuit of member state governments by selecting a more ‘defensive’ cadre of commissioners.

Both before and after the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta was the focus of various committees of MEPs, most especially the PANA committee which investigated the effects of tax evasion and money laundering revealed by the Panama Papers, and later a ‘rule of law in Malta’ committee of MEPs.

With Malta’s tainted reputation a pet subject of various MEPs from all political groupings, Dalli’s record in Cabinet will be dissected, poked and prodded by eager interviewees.

She can be expected to face questions on Malta’s sale of citizenship, the role of Malta in pursuing justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia and its refusal to hold a public inquiry while a criminal inquiry is ongoing in its prosecution of her three killers, as well as general criticism from NGOs who have shadowed Malta’s governance and democratic evolution in the past years.

More recently, during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dalli’s delegation was criticised for Malta’s weaknesses in areas pertaining to freedom of expression, media freedom, media independence, and the safety and protection of journalists.

Dalli is Malta’s first-ever female nominee to the European Commission, which under German president Ursula von Der Leyen has more gender balance than ever before.

Currently, the Commission’s directorate-general for justice handles EU policy on justice, consumer rights and gender equality: the latter has been a portfolio piloted with success in Malta by Dalli, who heralded unprecedented civil liberties and equalities reforms.

The portfolio has also included EU citizenship, which is why former commissioner Viviane Reding had originally warned against Malta’s sale of citizenship under the IIP; she later reached agreement on Malta’s right to sell citizenship.

Malta had a rocky relationship with former justice commissioner Vera Jourová, accusing her of ‘unfair’ treatment for speaking to the press on Malta affairs she did not raise in face-to-face meetings.

Jourová was seeking a “formal opinion” on action against Malta after its Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit had allegedly failed to address European Banking Authority concerns over its handling of the Pilatus Bank affair, even though FIAU officials had insisted they had consented to all EBA and EC recommendations and instructions. Finance minister Edward Scicluna had accused Jourová of being part of an "orchestrated media campaign" against Malta.