Disorder in the House as Agius Saliba clashes with MEP over EU funds debate

Sparks flew in the Budget Control Committee: watch the moment heated argument between MEP Alex Agius Saliba and the committee’s Chair over the role and competence to examine Malta’s rule of law

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba
Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba

Feathers were more than ruffled in the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee on Tuesday, when Maltese Labour Party MEP Alex Agius Saliba entered the chamber and requested floor time in a debate on the ‘administration of EU funds in shared management in Malta’.

Agius Saliba had previously warned the issue could end up having eventual repercussions on Malta’s EU funding because of a political proposal tabled by Renew Europe, which envisages a cut in the EU funding being allocated to Malta over rule of law concerns under the EU’s rule of law conditionality regulation.

Renew’s proposal to the Committee had noted how it remains unclear from media reports whether any EU funds or policies had been compromised as a result of government corruption exposed by slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and it suggests the European Commission be officially asked for its opinion on the matter

Wednesday’s hearing brought in representatives from OLAF and the Commission to that particular end.

But CONT chair Monika Hohlmeier (EEP) only entertained Agius Saliba’s request to speak under the EP’s catch-the-eye rule, as he does not form part of the committee in question.

A political diversionary tactic – Agius Saliba

Taking the floor toward end of the debate for his two-minute time slot, Agius Saliba told the committee it had no competence to debate the rule of law in Malta or Caruana Galizia’s murder.

He insisted there was no correlation between the stories the journalist had been investigating and three investigations that OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud body, currently have open with respect to Malta’s use of EU funds.

Under new EU ‘conditionality’ rules, budget payments can be withheld from member states where it is established that rule of law breaches have compromised the proper management of the EU funds.

This rules requires that breaches must affect or seriously risk affecting the sound financial management of the Union budget or the protection of the financial interests of the Union in a sufficiently direct way.

But following a positive assessment from OLAF and Commission representatives on cooperation from Maltese authorities, central anti-fraud mechanisms and low error rates, Agius Saliba said it was “tangible proof that the situation that some members are trying to depict about Malta is incorrect.

“I cannot understand this attempt by some MEPs to put Malta in the same cohort as those member states that had objected to it.

“Not even Daphne Caruana Galizia ever identified anything specific to the misuse of EU funds when she was dealing with allegations of corruption cases in Malta.  Therefore, I cannot understand the attempts to link her to the issue of corruption and the use of EU funds in Malta.

“Today’s attempt by some political groups in this committee is, again, another partisan attack, a diversion tactic from the real misuse of...”

Respect the Committee, Chair demands

At that point Hohlmeier, who chairs what is, in effect, a highly technical committee, cut him off mid-sentence, saying, “We are not discussing what you are discussing at the moment. May I ask you to respect the task and context we are discussing here?

“You have already been speaking for over your two minutes, please stay in line with the Committee’s duties. We are not in the LIBE Committee, we are not talking about the rule of law. You will have to change committees if you want to do that.”

Agius Saliba, however, argued that, “This link is trying to be made between the killing of the journalist, and the misuse of EU funds in Malta.”

Agius Saliba said it was evident that Malta has one of the bloc’s most rigorous systems in place for the disbursement of EU funds and had earned praise from OLAF and the European Commission

But he was again unceremoniously cut off by Hohlmeier, who appeared unwilling to indulge the Maltese MEP. “I would ask you to conclude please, you have now been four minutes.”

A tit-for-tat erupted about speaking time, with Hohlmeier telling him he has exceeded his limit, was out of context and ordered him to “respect the Chair”. Agius Saliba however insisted he had been allocated five minutes as part of the exchange of views, and that another MEP from the EPP had availed himself of four minutes to speak exclusively about Caruana Galizia and the rule of law in Malta.

Calling him “very impolite”, she gave him 30 more seconds to conclude. “This a futile, useless discussion motivated by partisan reasons of some political groups,” Agius Saliba charged.

Hohlmeier, in reply, insisted that, “In this committee, unlike others, we have the habit of looking at all member states going beyond our parties and so we ask factual questions. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia has obviously raised question in this Committee in respect of how national authorities are set up and if they can do their job independently.

“That is all we do so please do try to understand that... This is not against Malta, we are just asking the questions like we do with all member states,” she insisted.

Maltese ‘fed up’ with PN’s partisan attitude at EP – Engerer

Agius Saliba’s fellow Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer echoed his sentiments, Engerer slamming the meeting as “nothing more than an another orchestrated attempt by the Nationalist Party to try divert the European Parliament’s attention towards our country.

“This could have easily denigrated Malta’s image in the EU fora, even though it was made crystal clear by these institutions that the allegations thrown by the Nationalist Party were absolutely baseless.”

He highlighted statements from representatives from the European Commission and OLAF, who applauded Malta’s EU funds management and cooperation levels.

“It was of great satisfaction listening to OLAF and European Commission representatives state that Malta has not only got one of the lowest error rates in EU funding in the European Union, but has also given the highest amount of feedback and acted on 100% of the recommendations made by OLAF on the management of European Union funds throughout the years,” Engerer said.

The Maltese, Engerer said, “are now fed up with the PN’s partisan attitude in the European Parliament.”

Labour’s ‘embarrassing narrative falls flat on its face’ – Metsola and Casa

When contacted, the Nationalist Party’s delegation to the EP – comprised of MEPs Roberta Metsola and David Casa – said it was “absolutely false that the PN had anything to do with pushing a discussion on Maltese EU funds management.

“Today, as expected, Labour's narrative, again, fell flat on its face. We are proud of the system Malta set up when we acceded to the European Union to manage EU Funds and pleased that unlike other areas this has not been dismantled by the Labour Government. We ensured at the time that inbuilt checks and balances meant this was one aspect where any issues could be quickly addressed.”

This, they insisted, has always been recognised by the European Union institutions.

“Today's show by Labour's MEPs was embarrassing. It clearly showed that they do not know how the European Parliament works.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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