Looking back at 2019 | Joseph Muscat’s exit: from glory of victory to disgrace

Joseph Muscat carried an explosive secret all through 2019, even while entertaining the prospect of top EU office and keeping the Caruana Galizia assassination mastermind’s buddy – his chief of staff – in office till the very end

Keeping Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in office after Muscat knew that they had an offshore business relationship with a potential murderer was unforgivable
Keeping Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in office after Muscat knew that they had an offshore business relationship with a potential murderer was unforgivable

Muscat had a plan. A glorious exit from politics after 10 years in power and winning every electoral appointment.

Yet although still undefeated in the polls, Muscat now finds himself humiliated, abandoned by his socialist allies in Europe, ‘betrayed’ by his former chief of staff, and leaving behind him a dark cloud hanging on the office he served: a far more inglorious exit than being beaten at the polls.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that his disgraced former chief of staff Keith Schembri, while walking to court to testify, claims credit for winning the Labour party 10 consecutive elections.

Few would have foreseen this happening a year ago.

Sure enough the country was rocked by the revelation in November 2018 that the mysterious Dubai offshore company 17 Black, listed as a ‘target client’ for Keith Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s Panama companies, belonged to Yorgen Fenech, the scion of the Tumas Group and a shareholder in the Electrogas power station, now accused of being the mastermind of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

That scandal had little impact on public opinion, and it was Adrian Delia, not Muscat, who faced internal party turmoil. It seemed that after 2017 the country had been immunised to corruption allegations, possibly thanks to the unproven Egrant allegations which were weaponised by the same Muscat to secure his second consecutive electoral victory with yet another unprecedented majority of votes.

The first months of 2019 saw Muscat fighting on his preferred terrain: electoral campaigning. In May he reached new heights, trouncing the PN with 58% of the vote in local elections, and Labour winning historic majorities in PN-leaning localities like Valletta and Mosta. His party also won four out of six seats and 54% of the vote in the European elections. The defeat left the PN in tatters with its leader facing a confidence vote.

In that campaign he showed moments of statesmanship, particularly when he defended the spirit of integration while speaking in Hamrun, in the wake of Lassana Cisse Souleymane’s murder, openly challenging racism a few days before going to the polls in which the far-right scored its best result ever, possibly thanks to Muscat’s toxic mixture of neoliberalism and cosmopolitanism which is leaving the first signs of resentment.

This sense of statesmanship was reflected in his leading role in coalitions of willing EU members to share responsibility over migrants rescued on the high seas, was not reflected in his career moves. His ambitions pushed him to seek higher peaks than any other Maltese politician had dreamt of.

To Brussels with a ticking time-bomb

As recently as last June, he was actively entertaining the prospect of a top position in the European Union, possibly that of European Council president.

Now we learn that while he was lobbying for himself to get this post, he was also carrying a ticking time-bomb in his pocket, fully aware of the devastating consequences it would have had on his country’s reputation had Keith Schembri’s buddy Yorgen Fenech been arrested while he was already occupying a top EU position.

For it now emerges that Muscat had been aware of Yorgen Fenech as a potential suspect in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder since May 2018, when he first authorised phone tapping by the Malta Security Service. Moreover, Yorgen Fenech had been outed as the owner of 17 Black since November 2018. Muscat could have sacked Schembri and Mizzi back in 2016 but chose to keep them. That decision was wrong but understandable from a pragmatic perspective. But keeping them in office after Muscat knew that they had an offshore business relationship with a potential murderer, was unforgivable.

Had Muscat been appointed to the EU post he would have had to resign, leaving Malta in disgrace and a pariah of the European Union.

Ironically the PM who was so keen on serving in a top position in the EU, has now endured the humiliation of an overwhelming vote by the European Parliament asking the Brussels executive to enter into dialogue with Malta over rule of law failings and criticising his failure to step down immediately. The humiliation was greater because all socialist MEPs voted against Muscat, himself a former socialist MEP who cultivated strong ties to leading figures like Martin Schulz, then President of the European Socialists, who in 2008 came to Malta to endorse Muscat’s candidature for the leadership of his party.

Signs of internal turmoil

Despite his enduring popularity confirmed in the last European elections, for the first time in his political career Muscat started showing inexplicable signs of indecision and physical signs of stress. He sent mixed messages on whether he was going to stay party leader or not, leaving potential candidates for the leadership uncertain on whether to set the campaign machine in motion or not.

In hindsight his apprehension may well have stemmed from his knowledge of the Daphne probe, and the proximity between his chief of staff and the suspect. The tension and turmoil within Muscat, who knew who was behind Caruana Galizia’s assassination, must have been palpable.

He may well have thought that apprehending the mastermind of the assassination, a powerful businessman, may have redeemed him. He could have used this to press the point that the institutions were working and that the case was solved on his watch. But he also knew that the proximity between Fenech and Schembri rendered the whole case toxic, especially in view of Schembri’s access to sensitive information. The question remains: to what extent was Muscat, himself a close friend of Schembri, aware of the parallel friendship between Fenech and Schembri? It is this friendship triangle which gives new significance to Jeremy Boissevain’s ‘friends of friends’ tag, which has rendered Muscat’s position unredeemable.

The meltdown

In October he felt confident enough to quell speculations that this year’s budget was his last one, making it clear that he had no intention of stepping down in 2020. He even gave a formidable performance in his reply to the leader of the Opposition where he stood his ground in defence of cosmopolitanism and his economic model, even if opinion polls showed a small dent in his popularity following the Hal Far riots.

Yet something was evidently happening on the investigation front, with the US embassy making an unusual offer of FBI assistance to apprehend the mastermind, and the government having a change of heart by accepting a public inquiry on Caruana Galizia’s death, and even changing its composition to the satisfaction of the family.

The real meltdown started the moment Yorgen Fenech was arrested trying to escape from Portomaso after Muscat offered a presidential pardon to Melvin Theuma, the middleman.

Initially Muscat insisted that he would stay on as PM until the case is solved, playing the script that the institutions were working and that he had a duty to have the case solved. The parliamentary group granted him a confidence vote, followed by the resignation of Keith Schembri with whom the Prime Minister met the night before at his Burmarrad home, and Konrad Mizzi resigning after resisted any calls to step down.

Muscat’s future was sealed in a six hour-long Cabinet meeting convened to discuss a request for a pardon for Fenech. A diminished Muscat emerged from the meeting at 3:30 am holding a press conference in which he reiterated his intention to stay to see that the case is closed under his tenure. But after details of the dramatic and mutinous meeting emerged in the media, showing a horrific resentment of Schembri in the Cabinet, Muscat was cornered.

The way he announced his resignation left critics angrier. Not only did Muscat chose the medium of a solitary, pre-recorded and solemnly packaged message reminiscent of his New Year address, he also delayed his resignation until after the election of a new leader in January. The decision triggered more protests demanding his immediate resignation.

Muscat held on, making his best to fan the adulation of the crowd by embarking on a farewell tour in different Maltese and Gozitan localities, boosted by surveys which still showed his party enjoying a comfortable lead over the opposition. Muscat’s primary consideration may have been to ensure a dignified exit for himself, but his prolonged stay in Castille coupled with Schembri’s release from arrest, raised suspicion that he was still pulling the strings on the investigation.

Faced with mounting evidence against his chief of staff, Muscat himself acknowledged to a delegation of visiting MEPs that he felt betrayed by Schembri. Muscat – who had thanked Schembri following his resignation from chief of staff – has yet to explain that betrayal.

At best Muscat will be remembered for making grave error of judgement, which leads one to believe that he was a naïve person. At worse he will continue facing questions on his relationship with Schembri, which may lead one to believe that he closed an eye, or maybe two eyes, or was even complicit. It will be hard to reconcile his otherwise formidable career as a politician, with this kind of unforgivable error of judgement.

Ironically Muscat’s obsession with his legacy, a theme that dominated his speeches in the past months, backfired. His decision not to resign immediately brought the country to the brink of civil unrest, bringing back memories of the confrontational style of politics of the 1980s or Labour’s celebrations marking the ‘victory’ of its partnership model after the EU referendum. Such memories may well cloud the judgement of a whole generation of activists and intellectuals, including many on the left.

The sudden collapse of his ‘house of cards’ and the circumstances behind it, has inevitably rekindled memories of Labour’s more tragic moments, which obscure the great social reforms enacted under Labour administrations – including Muscat’s – who did change Malta for the better in many areas but fatally undermined trust in the institutions.