MEPs pile pressure on Brussels to bring Malta into line on rule of law

Draft resolution demands that European Commission “start a dialogue” with the Maltese government in the context of the Rule of Law Framework “without further undue delay”

The outgoing PM chats with the top men and women of the EU in October 2019. His successor will face intensified scrutiny from the EU over rule of law reforms
The outgoing PM chats with the top men and women of the EU in October 2019. His successor will face intensified scrutiny from the EU over rule of law reforms

Malta’s next prime minister can expect intensified scrutiny on his administration from the European Commission, as MEPs pile the pressure on Brussels to bring the small member state in line with their expectations on rule of law standards.

EC president Ursula von der Leyen will face increased pressure now that Joseph Muscat has been forced to resign under the weight of the revelations that his former chief-of-staff, Keith Schembri, was in communication with the alleged mastermind behind the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, soon after the 16 October 2017 murder took place.

MEPs will now demand that Brussels “start a dialogue” with the Maltese government in the context of the Rule of Law Framework “without further undue delay”.

The rule of law framework’s objective is to prevent emerging threats to the rule of law to escalate to the point where the Commission has to trigger the mechanisms of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union.

This is done through a three-stage process that comprises a Commission assessment of the situation in Malta, a Commission recommendation, and finally the monitoring of the Malta’s follow-up to the Commission’s recommendation.

If no solution is found within the rule of law framework, Article 7 is the last resort to resolve a crisis and to ensure the EU country complies with EU values. Article 7 provides for special mechanisms with far-reaching sanctions in case Malta does not respect the fundamental values referred to in the Treaty.

Indeed, in their draft resolution, MEPs make clear reference to the Commission’s vice-president Vera Jourovà’s recent comments stating that “Malta’s failure to enact judicial reforms could serve as a basis for triggering an Article 7 procedure.”

Brussels sources said the three-hour debate on Tuesday will be followed by a vote on Thursday. A source close to the Maltese permanent representation described proceedings as “another shit-show for Malta” and predicted that the motion would pass generously. The Maltese government might expect lukewarm support from their socialist colleagues in the European Parliament, but many MEPs were questioning why Joseph Muscat was still hanging on as PM in the circumstances.

The Commission will also be told by MEPs of their concern about the integrity and credibility of the investigations into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, especially while Joseph Muscat remains Prime Minister despite a Labour leadership contest being underway. “Any risk to compromise the investigations, whether perceived or real, has to be excluded by all means; further stresses that this risk persists for as long as the Prime Minister remains in office,” the MEPs will tell the European Commission in their resolution.

While progress in the murder investigations have been achieved, numerous other investigations into related cases of money laundering and corruption have not advanced or not even been launched, the MEPs say in their resolution, in a reference to Schembri’s and Labour MP Konrad Mizzi’s implication in the Panama companies connected to Yorgen Fenech’s secret Dubai company 17 Black

Indeed, it is arguable that it was Caruana Galizia’s revelation of the existence of 17 Black, which was expected to pay money into the Panama companies, that prompted the chain of events that led to her assassination. Fenech was a shareholder in the Electrogas consortium that won a public tender for the construction of Malta’s gas plant, a chief Labour pledge in 2013 that led to cheaper energy rates.

A reform process is already underway in Malta to address the controversial constitutional role of the Attorney General and the current system of judicial appointments, which was recently adjusted for a judicial selection committee to vet candidate.

But Malta will now be called upon to fully implement all remaining recommendations of the Venice Commission and GRECO in due time.

The resolution, which is widely expected to be passed with the help of the dominant European People’s Party bloc, as well as the Liberals and Greens, will once again place more pressure on the European Commission to provide a single, evidence-based and EU-wide mechanism on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights, in the form of an annual review and specific recommendations for compliance with EU values.

The MEPs will also ask the Commission to restrict ‘citizenship by investment’ schemes like those employed by Malta, although such schemes are in place in various EU member states and the Commission’s power to regulate members’ rights in the area of nationality can be limited.