A barrage of criticism about Malta was met with some cautionary words by European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans today, who urged MEPs to not play judge and jury when assessing the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Speaking at the end of a European Parliament debate about the rule of law in Malta, Mr Timmermans acknowledged concerns raised by MEPs but felt some were jumping the gun.
"Let the investigation run its full course," he said, telling MEPs that their questions would be answered. "What is not on is to start with a conclusion and look for facts to support that conclusion."
He also twice called on the Maltese government to join a planned European Public Prosecutor's Office, saying doing so would be a "strong signal" of intent.
The EPPO will be tasked with investigations related to the EU's budget and financial interests. Malta is one of five countries to opt out of the EPPO.
Mr Timmermans’ cautionary words came at the end of a 90-minute session in which Malta was compared by one MEP to Netflix cocaine-and-guns bonanza Narcos, described as being “run by a criminal gang” and likened to Poland and Hungary.
MEPs from across the political spectrum voiced concerns about goings-on in the country, with even members of the S&D, which the Labour Party forms part of, saying some issues had them concerned.
Sven Giegold asked the most probing questions of the Strasbourg plenary and Mr Timmermans.
The Green MEP flagged the potential conflict of interest Joe Bannister has through his dual role as both MFSA boss and vice-chairman of Finance Malta, asked how Nexia BT and Pilatus Bank had not yet had their licences revoked and said Malta’s remote gaming industry had taken advantage of “hyper-low” tax structures allowed thanks to a “hole” in EU legislation.
His criticisms, although perhaps the most specific, were hardly the only ones.
Some MEPs took issue with Malta’s taxation system, with the S&D’s Ana Gomes in particular arguing that rather than a corrupt state, Malta’s problem stemmed from a corrupt fiscal system which turned it into a “tax haven.”
Perhaps mindful of such talk, the Commission’s Mr Timmermans had opened the debate by noting that while Malta’s system could be improved, a review had found “no general concerns” in the country’s work to prevent money laundering.
That comment runs somewhat counter to the findings of a Pana Committee report released last week, which noted that while Malta's tax system was fully compliant with international and OECD standards, local tax and anti-money laundering institutions are “highly politicised”.
Christian Democrat MEP Frank Engel laid the blame for Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder right at the door of Castille, saying it came as the result of the “collapse of the rule of law in Malta”.
The man who followed him, Edouard Ferrand of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, went one step further and said Malta was being governed by a “criminal gang.”
For the EPP’s Michaela Sojdrava, Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder was an open-and-shut case. “Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed because she reported on the Panama Papers,” she said, around 30 minutes after ENF MEP Georg Mayer had compared the country to Netflix series Narcos.
Maltese MEPs' contrasting contributions
The charges were all too much for S&D MEP Alfred Sant, who said he could not respect “allegations, innuendos and issues irrelevant to the rule of law” that were “brewed like instant coffee.”
Miriam Dalli and Marlene Mizzi were also on the defensive, with the former telling the plenary that the same government accused of having forsaken the rule of law had removed prescription on cases of political corruption and Ms Mizzi telling MEPs that Malta was being scapegoated with a resolution aimed at “bringing it to her knees.”
Malta's other three MEPs could not have seen things more differently.
David Casa urged the EU not to “leave us alone” and accused the government of intentionally picking an incompetent police commissioner.
Roberta Metsola echoed those words, calling the European Parliament “the last bastion of the people we represent” against a government that worked by intimidation. Francis Zammit Dimech, meanwhile, said it was “surreal” to see the people who opposed Daphne Caruana Galizia now tasked with solving her murder.
MEPs will now vote on two separate resolutions tabled during the debate on Wednesday, with the first, presented by various groupings, raising "serious concerns about the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights" in Malta."
In a statement after the debate, the government reiterated its commitment to continue strengthening institutions through a comprehensive programme of reforms, on which it had already embarked upon over the past four years. It was also committed to continue to equip institutions with additional resources to allow them to operate in a more effective manner.
It welcomed comments by Estonian minister and sitting European Council president Matti Maasikas, who commended the government for taking immediate action following Ms Caruana Galizia's murder.
Malta, the government said, also welcomed any delegation from the European Parliament aimed at getting a better and informed insight of issues relating to rule of law in the country - though it would have been better for MEPs to debate the rule of law after their visit so that they could see the situation for themselves.
The government nevertheless expressed disappointment at the "gratuitous" attacks and "sweeping statements" some MEPs had made and asked whether political groups backing a resolution to be voted on tomorrow had independently verified the information it contained or "relied on incorrect information that was fed to them."
It also regretted that some MEPs had sought to attack Malta’s tax system and citizenship-by-investment programme.
PN leader's press conference
Addressing a press conference after the debate, Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia noted that all parties in the European Parliament were concerned about the threat to the rule of law in Malta, the involvement of Maltese politicians in the Panama Papers scandal.
He thanked Nationalist MEPs for doing their best to defend the country’s reputation which, he said, was being threatened by a government which did not want to acknowledge when things went wrong.
“This is something that concerns us all. We have to defend Malta’s name together. We have to show that we have good laws, that the Maltese will fight for democracy for the rule of law to once again reign in the country," he said.