‘I will keep an eye on Malta’, Rutte holds meeting with Muscat as Malta PM avoids press

In Brussels: Muscat does not do media, Dutch PM holds long one-on-one meeting with outgoing Maltese prime minister at his last European Council meeting

File photo: Dutch PM Mark Rutte (right) in conversation with Joseph Muscat at a Council meeting
File photo: Dutch PM Mark Rutte (right) in conversation with Joseph Muscat at a Council meeting

Outgoing Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat’s last European Council meeting in Brussels was conspicuous by his lack of media engagement.

There were no doorsteps for the media-savvy prime minister, and instead Muscat headed straight to the European Council meeting with little time to rub shoulders with counterparts.

Muscat released a short comment to national broadcaster TVM, in which he insisted it was his job as Malta prime minister to attend the Council. “In this month up until the election of a new prime minister, I have to keep the country’s administration going, and that includes attending Council meetings. I am here to see our country’s interests safeguarded here, while we discuss climate change, and it is what I will do right to the end.”

While MEPs conveyed a strong message to the European Council’s heads of government to “take a stance” on Malta, few leaders strayed away from the EUCO’s agenda on climate change.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte requested a one-on-one meeting with Muscat, after which he told reporters that he had had “a long conversation” with his counterpart. “I have emphasized to him that, pending his departure as prime minister, it is important that a separation of his office in Malta and the further prosecution [of the murder] is guaranteed, that this is crucial,” Rutte said. “He assured me that this was the case and I will now try to keep an eye on this as much as possible,” Politico reported.

Dutch police were involved in the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination probe and the country takes an active interest in the case with its Council of Europe MP Peter Omtzigt.

In comments to the press before stepping into the Council, Rutte replied to press questions on whether it was ‘not classy’ for Muscat to be present for the meeting by saying: “I would find it classy if Muscat were to address the developments in Malta; in the Netherlands, both Parliament and the government are united in their concern about what's happened in Malta. Muscat has announced he will be leaving; we will see.”

Rutter also said he would shake Muscat’s hands. “Yes, I shake everybody’s hand, even Bouterse’s,” referring to the Surinamese president jailed for the execution of political opponents.” I will stay polite. If Muscat doesn't raise it in the meeting, I will discuss it with him myself.”
European Parliament president David Sassoli told the press yesterday that a letter he sent to the European Council president Charles Michel on behalf of the civil liberties committee president to take a stance on the Malta situation, was not written in a way to suggest that Muscat should resign immediately.

Muscat arrives in Brussels for his last European Council meeting
Muscat arrives in Brussels for his last European Council meeting
Joseph Muscat at the 12 December Council meeting, speaking to Swedish and Cypriot counterparts
Joseph Muscat at the 12 December Council meeting, speaking to Swedish and Cypriot counterparts

Sassoli did not commit himself to a position on whether Muscat should resign immediately. “It is a developing situation right now in Malta. The judiciary is doing its job and drawing its conclusion. The EP’s work is to flag issues for the Council… I think it was right for the LIBE position to be made to the Council through me,” Sassoli said.

“We have closely followed the death of the journalist in Malta. We recently sent a delegation in Malta to verify the situation. We have a number of conclusions from the president of the civil liberties committee and the rapporteur… they sent a very precise letter to me and obviously I sent it to the President of the Council. It was the correct way of the EP to express its position,” he said.

Sassoli was pressed on the letter’s content by members of the press, being asked point blank whether he believed there was a problem of rule of law in Malta. “Look if there wasn’t a problem, I wouldn’t have sent the letter to Michel… the appropriate conclusions and response will happen.”

Only Finland’s Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tupparainen expressed concern about the situation prior to the EUCO, saying she was concerned about the rule of law situation. “I think we have all the reasons to be concerned, and we have to monitor the situation closely. We have to analyse it, and hear also an explanation,” she said, speaking on behalf of the Finnish Presidency.

The head of the centre-right EPP grouping in the EU Parliament, Manfred Weber of Germany, told journalists it was a “huge scandal” that Muscat was still in office and said he should resign immediately resignation. “For us it is a huge scandal that the prime minister is still in office, having in mind that there are obviously political links between the murdered journalist in Malta and on the other hand having in mind that the prime minister is still in office, so we are therefore supporting the demonstration and I think the prime minister should immediately resign.”

MEPs’ letter

In a letter conveyed to EU president Charles Michel by European Parliament president David Sassoli, the MEPs Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar and Sophie In’t Veld said they were concerned over Muscat’s delayed resignation while the Maltese parliament was in recess. “We fear this constitutes a serious risk, real or perceived, that the murder investigation and connected investigations will be compromised…

“We believe it is important for the Council and the heads of government to take a stance. Malta is part of the European Union, and all EU institutions have a responsibility to ensure European Values are upheld throughout the territory of the EU,” the two MEPs said.

Joseph Muscat is in Brussels to attend his final Council meeting before stepping down in January 2020 following the election of a new Labour leader and prime minister.

Last week, an ad hoc MEPs’ mission of the LIBE committee was sent to Malta in light of the latest developments in the investigation into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“The findings of the mission are alarming and require urgent action,” the MEPs said. “The delegation met with the police, the judiciary, politicians, journalists and civil society, and it has identified several serious shortcomings and threats to the rule of law. These relate directly to the integrity of the murder investigation and the possible political interference therein, as we as to broader challenges of insufficient law enforcement in cases of money laundering and corruption. Recent revelations, including the testimony given by the ‘middleman’ in court yesterday, suggest involvement of senior members of the Maltese government and staff.”