[ANALYSIS] Is migration Joseph Muscat’s Achilles’ heel?

Judging by the social media outcry following the decision to accept 50 migrants rescued by Italy and the more mooted reaction following the European Banking Authority’s rebuke of the FIAU’s investigation of Pilatus Bank, one is tempted to ask whether migration is becoming more of an Achilles’ heel for the Maltese Prime Minister than bad governance

An ad hoc agreement between eight European countries ensured migrants rescued by the Lifeline were distributed among them
An ad hoc agreement between eight European countries ensured migrants rescued by the Lifeline were distributed among them

Faced by the rebuke of the European Banking Authority on the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit’s (FIAU) handling of investigations on the operations of Pilatus Bank, Joseph Muscat has opted to ignore the problem.

It is an approach, which he has consistently taken to date: ignore the problem, and hope that it will go away on its own.

In contrast the Prime Minister felt duty bound to explain his decision to take in 50 migrants from the 450 migrants rescued by Italy, in an interview on One Radio.

With parliament in recess and the Prime Minister not taking interviews or engaging in televised debates, it is unlikely for the Pilatus Bank saga to lead a news cycle dominated by the World Cup, the migration crisis and the murder of Hugo Chetcuti.

Pilatus Bank remains at the centre of controversy after coming into the spotlight last year
Pilatus Bank remains at the centre of controversy after coming into the spotlight last year

Moreover, the government’s decision to ignore the issue of political responsibility for the FIAU’s shortcomings, may be based on a shrewd calculation; the whole saga involving Pilatus bank forms part of the news cycle supposedly exorcised by the 2017 election result in which the still unproven Egrant allegation also intimately associated with Pilatus Bank, featured prominently.

Meanwhile, the EBA’s decision was limited to censoring institutional failures including lack of record-keeping rather than a direct condemnation of any of the actors mentioned in the Pilatus Bank and Panama sagas.

The impression one gets is that after the resignation of former FIAU director general Manfred Galdes, there was a reluctance to pursue investigations vigorously.

Back in 2016 after the FIAU’s compliance visit to Pilatus Bank in March, Manfred Galdes penned a damning report on the findings. He had also referred some matters to the Police Commissioner, based on those preliminary findings. Galdes resigned some months later and in a subsequent visit to the bank, the FIAU found that the matters it had flagged were dealt with by Pilatus Bank.

The FIAU eventually did not sanction the bank, something the EBA found objectionable.

READ ALSO: FIAU breached anti-money laundering rules over Pilatus Bank, EBA says

Within this context, one cannot ignore the perception of over familiarity between the bank and the government, which was solidified by reports of Muscat’s attendance at the wedding of Pilatus Bank chairman Ali Sadr Hasheminejad in Tuscany.

News of his attendance was only confirmed following the bank chairman’s arraignment for breaching US sanctions on Iran.

Pilatus owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad had invited the Prime Minister for his wedding
Pilatus owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad had invited the Prime Minister for his wedding

This added another layer of suspicion over and above the use of the bank made by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, who is also facing a magisterial inquiry dealing with payments and transactions carried out through Pilatus.

The latest decision of the EBA does not throw any light on these events but suggests that the second FIAU investigation lacked vigour.

The trickle of confirmation by independent bodies like the EBA may further solidify this view among those who were already unhappy with this state of affairs. But one doubts whether it would impact substantially on a public opinion which may have already come to regard anything connected to Pilatus Bank as yesterday’s news.

The Prime Minister has had to explain his policy on migration to an uneasy home audience
The Prime Minister has had to explain his policy on migration to an uneasy home audience

From Pilatus to migration

In contrast, what may have taken a toll on Labour’s popularity among a section of its traditional voters was the decision to accept 50 migrants from a group of 450 rescued by Italy.

Negative reactions on the social media following this decision suggest that Muscat is struggling to persuade a large segment of the electorate on this issue. This sentiment even emerged on the Facebook wall of Education Minister Evarist Bartolo after he shared a post praising the decision to take in the migrants.

READ ALSO: Evarist Bartolo in spat with ‘patriots’ over government decision to take 50 migrants

It also suggests that the Prime Minister’s balancing act; that of offering solidarity when it comes to burden sharing while taking a hard-line against NGOs rescuing migrants in Libyan waters, has not entirely paid off in allaying an assortment of fears triggered by boat carrying migrants from Africa.

Ironically, Muscat is taking flak on an issue where he has shown statesmanlike qualities in a veritable international minefield poisoned by the rise of far-right populism.

In the absence of concerted European action, Muscat took a pro-active role by teaming up with French President Emmanuel Macron to assemble a coalition of willing European nations.

Ironically Muscat is taking flak on an issue where he has shown statesmanlike qualities in a veritable international minefield poisoned by the rise of far-right populism

The ad hoc coalition first intervened to share migrants on the MV Lifeline boat which was allowed to enter Malta. On Saturday the same formula was re-proposed to ensure that 450 migrants allowed entry in Italy are also shared between different nations.

READ ALSO: Lifeline to dock in Malta as Joseph Muscat announces migrant distribution deal with other EU countries

With an EU agreement which sees all European nations doing their part unlikely to happen because of entrenched opposition by the Visegrad nations, the creation of a coalition of the willing ensures that Italy and Malta are not left to their devices.

This pro-active approach may have also served to drive a wedge between Salvini’s tough anti-immigrant stance and Italian PM Guiseppe Conte’s insistence on a pan-European solution. Muscat was right in saying that we cannot expect solidarity from others if we do not show it ourselves.

In this case Muscat defied the populist label often attributed to him, insisting that he has no problem showing solidarity with other countries, adding that he “will shoulder the decision taken. This is what I am Prime Minister for, to take decisions”.

Muscat, whose international stature received a blow thanks to increased scrutiny on Malta’s financial sector following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, may well be on the rebound.

Lifeline activists protesting in front of the law courts in Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline activists protesting in front of the law courts in Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Reaping the harvest?

Yet in some ways Muscat is also reaping what he sowed when he raised the expectations of xenophobes through an aborted push-back threat in 2013.

And through policies like the Individual Investor’s Programme (IIP), Muscat inadvertently fosters a distinction between the ‘talented’ global rich and the wretched of the earth, a distinction which not only underpins Muscat’s cosmopolitanism but also Maltese cultural attitudes to foreigners in general.

In fact surveys confirm that the Maltese make a sharp distinction between foreigners who work here legally and those who are rescued on rickety boats.

READ ALSO: MT Survey | Maltese fear 'invasion' by asylum seekers

Moreover, to assuage popular feelings Muscat still plays the strongman by blocking Maltese ports to NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean.

In fact, Muscat’s solution to the migration problem remains two pronged; a coalition of willing nations to share humanitarian obligations while as far as possible preventing migrants from crossing the Mediterranean by equipping the Libyan coastguard and weakening NGO operations. The end result may well be a deterioration of human conditions in Libyan camps.   

Yet while Muscat’s approach is not solely motivated by humanitarian considerations and follows a cold logic, he is finding it difficult to assuage irrational fears of an ‘invasion’, which according to surveys is the main concern of the Maltese with regards to migrants.

Adrian Delia has asked for the finance minister's resignation over the damning report on the FIAU
Adrian Delia has asked for the finance minister's resignation over the damning report on the FIAU

The Opposition’s quandary

On Sunday, Adrian Delia resisted the growing temptation to put corruption aside and address the migration problem. In fact, in a brief radio interview, Delia pressed on political responsibility for the FIAU’s failures on Pilatus Bank.

Yet, when confronting the issue, the Opposition has changed tactics.

Instead of focusing on the role of the Attorney General and FIAU officials as it was prone to do under Simon Busuttil, the Opposition has taken a leaf from Eddie Fenech Adami’s book who always used to confront the politicians responsible rather than the public servants. The target this time is Finance Minister Edward Scicluna.

It may, however, be taking a risk by hitting out at one of Labour’s most respected ministers whose performance has been a positive one.

But perhaps the Opposition could be playing on the assumption that Scicluna is uncomfortable with being held responsible for events beyond his control.

During Sunday's phone-in Delia was surprisingly silent on the migration issue and refrained from capitalising on signs of fractures in Labour’s electorate on the government’s decision to accept migrants rescued near Italy.

While Delia’s party may score more political points in the short term if it capitalises on the migration issue, in doing so it may well alienate PN voters who cherish their party’s history of openness.

He also risks raising expectations of xenophobes which, as Muscat slowly discovered, can never be entirely satisfied. The problem for Delia is that silence may not be an option on the issue which dominates the current news cycle.

Migration may well be an issue where both major parties stand to gain by seeking a consensus based on humanistic values and a European approach to a problem which lacks a silver bullet solution.

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