Panama Papers MEPs stopped from Malta visit, Scicluna skirts grilling

Panama vice-chairman: ‘We will keep pushing for a full investigation of the Panama Papers scandal, including member states’ own dirty laundry’

Finance ministers Wolfgang Schauble, of Germany, and Edward Scicluna
Finance ministers Wolfgang Schauble, of Germany, and Edward Scicluna

Finance minister Edward Scicluna has told the chairman of the Panama Papers committee that he will not attend a 7 December meeting to face questions from MEPs on Malta’s compliance to EU legislation on tax avoidance and tax evasion.

The European Parliament’s committee of inquiry into money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion was formed in the aftermath of the Panama Papers revelations, which showed that former energy minister Konrad Mizzi and the Maltese prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, had opened offshore firms in Panama to hold potential business earnings and other wealth in a New Zealand trust.

The PANA committee chairman, Werner Langen, informed the committee that Scicluna would not make the meeting, due to the expected vote on the Budgetary Measures Bill in December which requires the minister to be in the House of Representatives.

But Scicluna also hinted that the Council of Ministers would be opposing having ministers give answers before the committee. “The Council may not be very keen to cooperate with the PANA committee,” Langen told the committee, referring to a legal opinion prepared for the Council in a bid to oppose having ministers appear before the committee.

The PANA committee’s vice-chair, Fabio de Masi, a German MEP from the European Left, said the European Council’s attitude towards the Panama Papers was scandalous

“The ministers’ show of zero cooperation with the Parliament reflects the dire state of democracy in the EU where government officials decide behind closed doors and a critical debate is shut out. We will keep pushing for a full investigation of the Panama Papers scandal, including member states’ own dirty laundry.

“If the Council continues to infringe on the Parliament’s treaty-based rights to inquiry, we need to look into legal steps as we did for access to documents under the LuxLeaks committee. It is equally lamentable that the EP itself has not authorised a much needed inquiry mission to Malta yet. There would be enough to talk about besides the country’s role as upcoming Council presidency. For instance why the Maltese government is still actively involved in slowing down progress on new rules for corporate transparency or against money-laundering in Council working groups.”

 

A joint meeting of the Panama and Economic committees on 26 January, 2017 could see Scicluna talking about the Maltese presidency’s priorities.

But the problem for the PANA committee is that the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents has declined its request to send a delegation to visit Malta as part of its work programme.

The conference, which groups the presidents of the parliamentary blocs and is the governing body of the European Parliament, rejected the request for a mission to Malta, saying that missions to the Presidency countries are now systematically rejected, unless linked to “High Level Conference”.

Langen told committee coordinators they could tell their political groups’ presidents, that the PANA visit to Malta would focus on the country’s compliance with EU legislation on money laundering and taxation.

The visit was planned for early 2017, and would seek to meet Edward Scicluna, Opposition leaders, the inland revenue department and the regulatory body on money laundering, law enforcement bodies, intermediary firms such as tax advisors and lawyers, MPs, and also NGOs and journalists about their take on the practices in Malta and how they feel Malta performs in enforcing European laws in these fields.

The PANA committee also wants to host a session in January 2017 in which representatives from six national parliaments – Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands as well as Malta – would make a statement on what follow-up there was on the Panama Papers and Bahamas Leaks.

Only Belgium and the Netherlands have or are considering setting up an inquiry Committee, while Maltese MPs heard two motions of no confidence against Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri on the subject.

Langen said he would tell the Conference of Presidents of the necessity for a Malta “fact-finding mission” since “Malta is frequently referred to in the Panama Papers publications as a facilitating country – the number of law firms, accountants and banks involved in the Panama Papers is comparable to Germany. Malta has a specific financial infrastructure with many intermediary companies involved in the setting up of offshore companies in jurisdictions where secrecy is for sale.”

Council contesting PANA legality

EU member states have been advised by the Council of Ministers’ legal service to coordinate a “unified approach” before any minister gets summoned to testify before the European Parliament’s committee to investigate the Panama Papers, and that governments could contest the legality of the EP decision to set up the committee.

The council was told by its legal service that member states could be in a position to refuse participation in the Panama Papers committee, saying that MEPs could not assume for themselves the power of the European Commission by asking member states on how they have enforced taxation rules, unless they had clear allegations of contraventions or proof of maladministration.

The 65-member committee seeks to investigate alleged contraventions and maladministration in the application by the European Commission or member states of EU laws on money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion.

 “The purpose of a committee of inquiry cannot be to substitute itself for the Commission by asking Member States to provide it with information on the transposition and implementation of Union acts, unless this request is duly founded through a link with alleged contraventions or facts of maladministration in the application of these acts of Union law,” the legal service said.

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