Muscat now faces MEPs in debate on rule of law

On Wednesday, MEPs will line up to put their questions to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on his country’s follow-up on the Panama Papers and the rule of law: some sparks will fly…

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will next Wednesday face the European Parliament
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will next Wednesday face the European Parliament

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will next Wednesday face the European Parliament in a debate that takes on Malta’s state of rule of law in the context of the Panama Papers.

Many MEPs will have to contend with Muscat’s second major landslide victory, whose unprecedented majority of 35,000 votes seems to put to shade concerns that the Panama Papers and a corruption allegation which he put to a magisterial inquiry, would cost him his government.

One German MEP, Sven Giegold of the Greens, seemed incredulous at the election result. “Normally, when there are extreme governments, things get corrected in an election,” he said. “Here what strikes me most is that the government was not only not sanctioned in the election, but has once again won a landslide victory.”

Giegold is one of the Green members in the Panama Papers committee that interviewed minister Konrad Mizzi and sought the attendance of chief of staff Keith Schembri, both having opened secret offshore companies in Panama.

MEP Sven Giegold
MEP Sven Giegold

“It is highly unusual that the parliament openly meets to discuss the behaviour of a government and the state of the rule of law in a member state,” he said. “In fact, we have only done this once when we had a similar debate on Viktor Orban and what was happening in Hungary,” Giegold said of the upcoming debate.

Giegold acknowledged that he was aware that Mizzi and Schembri had been once again chosen by Muscat to serve during this administration – the first as minister for tourism while the latter was confirmed as chief of staff within the Office of the Prime Minister.

Schembri is also currently the subject of two magisterial inquiries into allegations of graft and money laundering, while Muscat himself was the subject of a separate inquiry into claims that his wife Michelle is the ultimate beneficial owner of a third secret Panama company – Egrant. The claim has been strongly denied by Muscat, who vowed to resign if any such link is proven.

Giegold said that he firmly believed there was still time for Maltese democracy to save itself and take charge of the situation.

“Malta’s parliament could start by setting up a commission to investigate the claims and the government’s response,” he said, “although I realise this is difficult to do in Malta’s bi-party reality.”

He said he could not understand why the Opposition itself had not recommended such an investigation – despite having a strong case to do so – and suggested that civil society too could perhaps lead an inquiry into the matter. “A proper investigation would serve as a tool for public healing in Malta, because healing comes through truth,” Giegold told MaltaToday. “Unfortunately, Malta’s bipolar party system makes it very difficult for the search for truth to be successful in Malta.”

The German MEP admitted that the European Parliament had no authority to force Muscat or Malta down a certain path. “We only have a moral authority and we can only suggest that Malta search for a way to find the truth in these matters,” he said.

Giegold said he hoped Muscat would agree on Wednesday to present a full plan laying out how he intended to deal with the allegations and with those involved in the Panama Papers scandal.

MEP Ana Gomes
MEP Ana Gomes

Ana Maria Gomes, a Portuguese MEP member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats which includes Labour MEPs, confirmed that the debate would focus on politically-exposed persons, as well as governance in Malta, its tax regime and anti-money laundering enforcement.

“MEPs are expecting clarifications from the Prime Minister on these issues and an opportunity for MEPs to expose their views,” the socialist MEP said.

Gomes said that if she did get to address Muscat on Wednesday, she will express her dismay over Malta’s sale of citizenship, which she believes can be a vehicle for money laundering, and the ways Malta is being used by foreign PEPs like Isabel dos Santos as a platform to invest in other countries and possibly launder illicit assets. 

“On the Panama Papers revelations, I will also request to PM Muscat to ensure that no one interferes with the police and prosecutors’ investigations,” she said.

MaltaToday also reached to Maltese MEPs Alfred Sant, Miriam Dalli, Roberta Metsola and David Casa, but the only response – Dalli’s – was short and to the point.

“As to the scope of the debate and what is expected out of it, I suggest that you direct these questions to the PN MEPs who form part of the EPP, which pushed really hard for this debate to be put on the agenda even before the general elections in Malta,” she told MaltaToday. “I do have an opinion on their reasoning behind this, but at this point this would be only an assumption from my end.”

Dalli insisted her political group was proud of the Maltese Partit Laburista, the positive achievements and progress it had registered in our country and also the way that Malta was leading the Presidency of the Council of the European Union during the past six months. 

“We showed that a small country can achieve great results through its hard work, energy and determination,” she said.

Labour Party MEP Alfred Sant told MaltaToday that it was obvious that the PN and their umbrella organisation at the EP, the EPP, have been hoping to embarrass Muscat politically. "At EPP level, they consider this exercise as a tit for tat response to the S & D targeting of Hungarian PM Orban, for his illiberal policies in Hungary," he said.

Sant said that the S & D group was very happy with the result of the electoral consultation in Malta, which has returned a rare outcome in Europe today, the outright and strong victory of a democratic socialist party.

"There might be some within the S & D who criticise the Maltese government, but in the EU that is the lot of governments from small states.It is easier to chastise Valletta than Berlin," he said. "The S & D group is behind the Muscat adminstration. Indeed, the PM will be addressing it on Tuesday evening."

Sant said that if he was allocated time to speak in Wednesday's debate, he would insist that the rule of law in Malta is alive and well.

"For me, it could seem like a throwback to 1985 when I attended a Council of Europe parliamentary plenary which - also doped by the propaganda of the Nationalist Opposition of the day - was debating supposed breaches of democratic rights in Malta," he said. "We then managed to persuade parliamentary leaderships not to take a vote on the issue."

The former prime minister said that on Wednesday, PN MEPs will be able to show whether their choice is really for Malta, or for issues they wrongly thought would win them an election and wrongly raised in European and international fora, stupidly undermining the country’s reputation.

"We saw this happen when Leo Brincat’s nomination to the European Court of Auditors came up for confirmation as well as during other occasions at the EP plenary," he said.

More in National