[ANALYSIS] Helena Dalli’s EU forecast: Sunshine, turning cloudy at times

Helena Dalli appears to be in the safe zone ahead of her grilling at the hands of MEPs but the commissioner-designate may face some uncomfortable questions

Helena Dalli
Helena Dalli

It’s not a bad deal for Helena Dalli as she prepares for a five-year stint in Brussels as Malta’s next European Commissioner.

Apart from a substantial pay rise, Dalli has been assigned the equality portfolio that fits in perfectly with her political profile and experience.

The former equality minister’s transition to the Berlaymont building will represent a continuation of the work she has carried out in Malta over the past six years.

European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen steered clear of presenting Dalli with a poisoned chalice.

A draft list seen by MaltaToday had originally linked Dalli to the justice portfolio that would have raised eyebrows in the European Parliament.
Instead, the equality portfolio was hived off from justice and given greater standing in von der Leyen’s commission. The German chief of the Brussels executive wants to lay greater emphasis on equality and gender balance in the new legislature, and it will be up to Dalli to deliver.

A perfect fit

Dalli represented a perfect fit, given the work she put in since 2013 to transform Malta from European laggard to top of the Rainbow Index for LGBTIQ rights, the transposition of the Istanbul Convention dealing with gender-based violence, and the emphasis on equality in other legislative initiatives.

A Labour Party veteran, Dalli, who will be 57 at the end of this month, was appointed civil liberties minister after the 2013 election.

A year later she piloted the ground-breaking civil unions law that for the first time gave gay couples the possibility to have their union recognised by the State, allowing them also to adopt children. This was followed with marriage equality legislation shortly after the 2017 election.

The past few years have been one hell of a ride for Dalli as she piloted the Labour government’s reformist agenda.

She pushed forward legislation that banned harmful gay conversion therapies – making Malta the first European country to do so – fully transposed the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence, and piloted the introduction of a maternity fund to which all employers contribute.

Helena Dalli was tasked to captain the Labour government's reformist agenda on equality
Helena Dalli was tasked to captain the Labour government's reformist agenda on equality

After the 2017 election, Dalli’s portfolio was renamed equality and included the added responsibility of European Affairs minister, giving her greater visibility in the corridors of Brussels.

Dalli will now be preparing herself for the grilling at the hands of MEPs. Confirmation hearings for each commissioner-designate will start on 30 September and end on 8 October.

Given the portfolio she has been assigned and the high level of competence Dalli has in the field, it is unlikely she will face insurmountable difficulties.

She is also untainted by scandal despite forming part of a government that has had its fair share of controversies to deal with.

Dalli’s name is not being mentioned as one of the vulnerable commissioner candidates, a source in Brussels said.

Several other candidates, including the French and Romanian nominees, are subject to investigations in their home country or at an EU level.
“There will be very hard questions for some who are being investigated by national authorities and this diverts the attention from Helena Dalli and other candidates,” the source said.

Greens likely to make most noise

Another source close to the European Parliament told MaltaToday that the Greens will likely “make the most noise” during these hearings because they have “nothing to lose”.

The Greens are the fourth largest group in the European Parliament, with just one commissioner-designate coming from their political family.

Dalli could face some uncomfortable questions on the absence of abortion in Malta, the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the Labour government’s track record on the rule of law.

German Green MEP Sven Giegold was at the forefront of rule of law missions to Malta
German Green MEP Sven Giegold was at the forefront of rule of law missions to Malta

The Greens are likely to bring up these issues – key exponents like Sven Giegold were at the forefront of rule of law missions from the EP, in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s murder.

But it is not excluded that individual MEPs from the European People’s Party and Renew Europe (the liberals) will ask Dalli about the Panama Papers involvement of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.

Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia has pledged his party’s support for Dalli’s nomination, and MEPs Roberta Metsola and David Casa told MaltaToday last week they will back her nomination.

Metsola and Casa, vocal critics of the Muscat administration in the EP, are scheduled to meet Dalli ahead of the hearings.

“The PN support for Helena Dalli’s nomination makes a difference because this means the European People’s Party is bound to support her nomination,” the sources said.

PN MEP David Casa introduced a condition on support for Helena Dalli's nomination
PN MEP David Casa introduced a condition on support for Helena Dalli's nomination

However, on Saturday Casa introduced a condition on support, saying on Facebook that Dalli couldn’t hope to secure the post if she continued to close an eye to alleged wrongdoing by Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.

“It is futile of this government to claim that it will address deficiencies in our money laundering system whilst keeping Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri on board and allowing them total impunity,” Casa said. “Helena Dalli can’t hope to secure the post of Equality Commissioner if she continues to close an eye to the blatant inequality in how people are treated in Malta. Normal citizens face the law, whilst her colleagues are protected at all costs.

“We expect unequivocal condemnation of this during her Parliament hearing.”

A balancing act hard to discard

Several members of von der Leyen’s team will face a hard time over personal scandals but given the political machinations that went into this complicated geo-political exercise in appeasement, it is likely that MEPs from the three largest groupings – the Christian democrats, the socialists and the liberals – will support the new commission while holding their nose.

Meet the new boss: Commission president and former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen
Meet the new boss: Commission president and former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen

The political balancing act that EU leaders went through to apportion the bloc’s top posts, in July, and von der Leyen’s exercise to balance geographical interests and gender, will not easily be discarded by a split parliament.

But the ball also rests in the court of the commissioner-designates and how well they respond to the questions MEPs will raise.

A bad performance on the day of the grilling could easily turn a sunny day into a thunderstorm, and that is a prospect candidates will want to avoid.

________________

The uncomfortable questions Helena Dalli may face

Abortion

Malta is the only EU member state without safe and legal access to abortion (Photo by Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Malta is the only EU member state without safe and legal access to abortion (Photo by Anthony Tran/Unsplash

Malta is the only EU member state without safe and legal access to abortion and this will continue to be an issue for MEPs. This time around, however, the issue may take on greater significance during the grilling process, given Dalli’s equality portfolio.

Her positive track record on pushing forward trail-blazing legislation on equality is not matched by the country’s continued resistance to introduce abortion, or, at the very least, reform the draconian law that criminalises women.

The Labour government has consistently said it has no mandate to discuss abortion and the matter is not on its agenda.

To Dalli’s advantage, abortion is not an EU competence, although some MEPs from the Greens and S&D are passionate about the subject and will continue to raise the topic.

Dalli is likely to be asked where she stands on the matter.

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder

The government has so far refrained from ordering a public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder
The government has so far refrained from ordering a public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder

The government’s resistance to set up a public inquiry into the journalist’s murder is likely to be a bone of contention for some MEPs.

The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly approved a damning report earlier this year, which also called for the setting up of a public inquiry to determine whether Caruana Galizia’s murder could have been prevented.

The three-month deadline set by the Council of Europe expires at the end of the month and this will not go unnoticed. Dalli will possibly be asked for her view on the Maltese government’s decision to stave off the inquiry pending the conclusion of criminal investigations.

She may also be asked to justify the Maltese government’s repeated attempts to clear the makeshift Caruana Galizia memorial at the foot of the Great Siege monument.

Panama Papers and the Mizzi-Schembri legacy

Minister Konrad Mizzi (left) and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri (right) were retained by the Prime Minister despite their names cropping up in the Panama Papers scandal
Minister Konrad Mizzi (left) and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri (right) were retained by the Prime Minister despite their names cropping up in the Panama Papers scandal

Joseph Muscat’s stubbornness to keep Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri by his side after the 2016 Panama Papers revelation continues to be a bone of contention.

The pair had opened companies in Panama. In later revelations, it transpired that Mizzi and Schembri expected to receive income from a Dubai-based company 17 Black that turned out to be owned by one of the owners of the company that won the gas power station tender.

Mizzi and Schembri have always denied wrongdoing and Muscat’s justification for keeping the men inside his government has always been tenuous, at the least.

Dalli could be asked to justify why she voted in favour of Mizzi when a motion of no confidence was presented in Parliament in 2016.
She may also have to field questions on the perceived culture of impunity the Muscat government is accused of fostering.

________________

Helena Dalli’s task-list

In her appointment letter to Helena Dalli, European Commission-elect Ursula von der Leyen laid out the tasks expected of the Maltese commissioner-designate.

Dalli will have to strengthen Europe’s commitment to “inclusion and equality in all of its senses, irrespective of sex, racial or ethnic origin, age, disability, sexual orientation or religious belief”.

The job entails that Dalli will have to raise awareness and promote equality across the EU.

Dalli has been tasked to:

  • Lead the fight against discrimination and propose new anti-discrimination legislation
  • Lead on the EU’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability
  • Develop a new European Gender Strategy to address areas in which women still face additional barriers and put forward proposals on pay transparency
  • Work with the member states to find a way forward on the Women on Boards Directive and ensure the Work–Life Balance Directive is fully implemented
  • Do more to crack down on gender-based violence and better support victims
  • Prioritise EU accession to the Istanbul Convention and if it remains blocked in the Council, Dalli should look at strengthening the support, protection and rights of victims

More in Europe