‘Qatargate’ is about more than just ‘Qatar’ | Alex Agius Saliba

Labour MEP ALEX AGIUS SALIBA acknowledges that the Qatargate scandal has dealt a crippling blow to both the European Parliament’s credibility, and also that of his own political grouping: the European Socialists. But he argues that other groupings – the EPP in particular – have serious questions to answer, too

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba
Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba

As an MEP, you have raised several complaints about discrimination against Maltese citizens by European Institutions. Examples include the case of Martins Zemitis: a Latvian national, appointed as policy-advisor to Malta’s EU Representation, without the necessary Maltese language qualifications.  Do you feel that, at a certain level, the European Union treats Malta differently from other member states?   And if so, how do you account for the discrimination?

That ‘Malta is treated differently from other EU member states’ is, I think, very clear and self-evident.

Just look at the situation concerning DGs (Director-Generals), for example. It is a very important role in which to have [Maltese] nationals, because – within the structures of the Commission - it’s an equally powerful position, as that of a European Commissioner. Yet to date, we have not had a single Maltese DG: despite the fact that we’ve had Maltese nationals working within the Commission’s civil service, since way back in 2004.  This, on its own, just doesn’t make sense.

As for the appointment of Martins Zemitis: I raised that issue, because it was a classic, clear-cut case. But if you look at all the other appointments, and vacancies, at the EU’s Malta representation office… you will find that this is actually happening on a regular basis. There were a lot of Maltese candidates for other posts, many of whom were already contractually engaged by the Commission, who were likewise totally discarded [in favour of other nationalities].

And this is something that just doesn’t happen anywhere else. We looked into similar appointments in other EU member states: in France, Germany, Spain, etc… and in all those countries, it would be considered ‘unthinkable’ to appoint, say, a Maltese candidate for a similar role: even at much lower levels… let alone, as a policy-advisor to the EU representation (as was the case with Zemitis in Malta).

Bear in mind also that the position itself is very sensitive: the Representation Office is the European Union’s direct link with all Malta’s ministries, government departments, NGOS and civil society; and at the end of the day, its function is to collect data and information that will ultimately be used in the Commission’s assessment of the country as a whole…

Your last point, however, may also explain precisely why the EU prefers to appoint foreigners. Could it simply be that the Commission doesn’t trust Maltese citizens enough to occupy such a sensitive role: especially, given all the ‘rule-of-law’ issues that have arisen in recent years?

That’s not the reason I was given, myself. I was told, by some people, that there were a number of Maltese officials who had occupied similar roles in the past – going back to well before 2013: some had been working within the Commission’s civil service ever since we joined - who, I was told, ‘did not perform their job very well’.

Now: even if it’s true (and this is debatable) that some past Maltese officials, for whatever reason, may have performed their job in a less-than-satisfactory manner… it cannot be used as a pretext to permanently deny that position to ANY Maltese citizen, in future.  That would be a classic case of discrimination, right there.

But I consider that to be just an excuse, myself. After all, there are many Maltese officials who are trustworthy enough to be given high-level appointments, in other European institutions… including the office of the Commission presidency itself.

Was that the official reply you received from the European Commission, though?

No. Let’s just say it was an ‘informal’ explanation: something I was told behind the scenes. The official answer I got from the Commission, on the other hand, was that ‘the Maltese language was only one of several requirements, that they based their assessment upon’. Now: if we were talking about a minor requirement, that wouldn’t make much of an effective difference… I would more or less understand.

But the requirement we are talking about here, is ‘having a good command [of the Maltese language]’. And the person they appointed is a Latvian national, who, quite frankly, cannot speak even a single word of Maltese. So to me, the language requirement cannot be regarded as ‘just one of several requirements’, to be simply ‘discarded’ at will.  It is a fundamental necessity to even be able to function at all, in that particular role.

Even less can I accept the Commission’s official answer, however, when they also tell us – informally – that: “Listen, we can do without Maltese, because your second language is English’. To me, that is totally unacceptable. Maltese is one of the official languages of the European Union. We can’t just ignore that fact…

How long will Maltese remain an official EU language, though? Let’s face it: the country has struggled to provide all the logistical infrastructure – interpreters, translators, and so on – ever since we joined in 2004. And from what you’re now telling me: it seems as though there are efforts to strip Maltese of its ‘official’ status, altogether…

Let me put it this way: Maltese will, I think, remain an official EU language… but only for as long as we keep using it ourselves.  And I’m not just talking about Malta’s six MEPs – myself included – who all speak Maltese, when delivering our two-to-three-minute interventions in the European Parliament.  That is, of course, important: as for myself, I will always speak my own language… unless the circumstances genuinely make it impossible for me to do so.

But the real reason we have all those translators, and interpreters, working at various levels within the European Union, is not just so that they can translate whatever I – and other Maltese MEPs – say in the EP; nor even to translate all the official documentation, and legislation, into Maltese.

No, their job is also to translate all the e-mail correspondence. I myself, for instance, often receive emails in German, or Portuguese: which I obviously have to have translated for me; and then, I also have to reply to those emails in the same language. Likewise, when I recently sent an email to the assistant General-Secretary of the EP, I wrote it in Maltese; and the answer I received was in Maltese, too.

This is, after all, what being an ‘official EU language’ actually means, in practical terms; and it’s just as true for Maltese, as for French, English and German.

So the infrastructure is all there, for Maltese to retain its official status. But unless we make an extra effort to actually use it ourselves – especially in our communications within the European Civil Service – it would be pointless to claim that ‘we are trying to safeguard the importance of Maltese, vis-à-vis other European languages’.

Coming back to your earlier complaint about discrimination in European appointments: what sort of reply did get from the Commission, regarding the Zemetis case?

Well, the most recent update is that the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly – whom I met, and corresponded with, about the issue – has started an investigation into ALL the European Commission’s recent appointments (not just Zemetis) to its representation in Malta, to see what type of assessment procedures were used.

Having said this, the Latvian case is a very ‘hot’ one, so to speak. Because Zemetis himself is a person considered to be very close to Valdis Dombrovskis: the Commission Vice-President responsible for the EU’s representations in member states. So the European Ombudsman’s investigation will be looking closely into that appointment; along with all the others that were made.

In a word: the case itself is still wide open…

Onto other matters now: the recent Qatargate scandal has dealt a blow to the European Parliament’s own credibility… in particular, when it comes to lobbying; and the apparent ability to ‘buy influence’, by simply bribing MEPs. In your own experience: how widespread do you think this practice really is?

Well, I can certainly give you plenty of other examples: including some from my own experience.

You might recall how, around a year ago, there was a story about how ‘sparks flew’ because I requested to speak at a session of the Budget Control Committee (of which I am not a member); and how there was a ‘tit-for-tat’ between myself, and the (EPP) committee chair, Monika Hohlmeier.

I won’t go into all the details again: suffice it to say that I was sent there as a representative of the Socialist group; and that my intention was to defend Malta’s position, in the face of an entirely fabricated story about ‘systematic corruption in the use of EU funds’ (which story was also allegedly linked to an unfinished investigation by Daphne Caruana Galizia, on her blog, before her assassination… even though there was no mention, anywhere on Daphne’s blog, of the actual case in question.)

Now: obviously, I am aware that not everything is ‘plain sailing’ in Malta; and that there were things that needed to be investigated, at the time. But I could not, and cannot accept that an EP Committee would be exploited like that, for political purposes, to simply invent stories about Malta that were not true.

But to cut a long story short: at the same session, a Czech MEP - Tomáš Zdechovský, of the EPP – had delivered an entire condemnation of Malta: portraying our country as if it were riddled with corruption, at absolutely every level; and at one point, he came close to actually calling for Malta’s expulsion from the EU, under Article 5.

Meanwhile, by pure coincidence, just a couple of weeks ago I happened to walk past as the same Zdechovský was filming a testimonial video: in which I heard him urging all citizens of Malta and Gozo to ‘vote for David Casa’ in the 2024 MEP elections.

But I’m not at all sure if that video will ever be shown: because two days after the Qatargate scandal broke out, a separate investigation began into alleged bribes paid by Bahrain – a country which has a human rights record that is just as bad as (if not worse than) Qatar’s.

Well, it turns out that the same Tomáš Zdechovský – who had criticised Malta so much over corruption, and the ‘rule of law’ – had himself been travelling to and from Bahrain, for free, without ever informing the European Parliament; and without keeping records of his meetings, or providing any information about these visits at all. And because he never provided any receipts: no one knows exactly who paid his hotel bills, or other expenses, either.

And on top of everything else: Tomáš Zdechovský is also the co-author, on behalf of the EPP, of a European Parliamentary resolution about none other than… Bahrain.

So as you can see: the ‘Qatargate’ scandal is already about more than just ‘Qatar’. Not only are there more countries involved; but what is beginning to emerge, is the picture of a widespread corrupt practice that was more or less ‘systematic’…

All the same, however: Qatargate did not reflect particularly well on the European Socialists did it? After all, most of the MEPS who have been arrested, or placed under investigation, have so far been members of the PES…

Yes, that’s true; and to be perfectly blunt, it must also be stated that the entire Qatargate scandal actually began with an investigation into the activities of individual Socialist MEPs – all of whom have been expelled from the PES, in the meantime - even if it is now extending to involve other political groupings also.

This is, in fact, my own internal message to other members of the PES: clearly, we need to rethink, and reform, the way we operate as a group. Because unfortunately, we are not talking only about ‘one rotten apple’ here. What we are looking at amounts to an entire web of corruption, that threatens the entire ‘apple-basket’...

At the same time, however: even if the scandal were actually limited only to Socialist MEPs – or if, for example, the only one involved was [former EP vice-president] Eva Kaili herself; and no one else – there would still be a lot of questions to answer, for other political groupings: including the EPP.

For example: among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eva Kaili, is the fact that she had openly defied the position of her own PES group, by voting in favour of the appointment of [EPP candidate] Alessandro Chiocchetti as EP Secretary-General. As you are no doubt already aware: Chiocchetti was also Roberta Metsola’s private secretary; and he is now under scrutiny over his own visits to Qatar… [Editorial note: Transparency International has said Chiocchetti met with the Qatari authorities in Brussels on at least two occasions earlier in 2022, but the EP says Chiocchetti did not visit Qatar].

And while the media focus has subsided a little, in recent weeks: something tells me that a lot more will be coming out, regarding this aspect of the scandal, as the investigations progress. Even before Qatargate, there had been rumours (as well as accusations by Transparency International) of a ‘backroom deal’, between Eva Kaili and the EPP, to support Chiocchetti’s appointment, in exchange for a high-ranking job for Kaili’s own husband…

So while I fully agree that the European Socialists have some soul-searching to do, in the wake of Qatargate: the EPP has a lot of serious questions to answer, too.