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Residency concession was negotiating tactic

Joseph Muscat: “We mistake the idea of Europeanism with the notion of submissiveness. It’s like you are a good European if you don’t have issues with the European Commission”. Photo: Jason Borg

Joseph Muscat: “We mistake the idea of Europeanism with the notion of submissiveness. It’s like you are a good European if you don’t have issues with the European Commission”. Photo: Jason Borg

Bullish after reaching an agreement with Brussels over the controversial cash-for-citizenship scheme, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat suggests that he did not concede on the residency component earlier as a negotiating tactic. He spoke to Mark Micallef.

Are you satisfied with the way things developed on the citizenship scheme?

I said from the start that we could have done things better and we’ve learnt from this process. I am not satisfied with the way the Opposition acted; it looked after its partisan interests... and used a destructive strategy which at the end of the day, I think backfired.

You’re talking about the Opposition’s wrongs and not yours. What would you have done differently?

There would have been more consultation, across the board. And we would not have trusted the Opposition with the informal feedback we were getting either. Because, in June, the informal feedback was that there would be no problem, and I have documentary evidence of this, but then everything turned upside down.

You emerged from last week’s discussions with the Commission with triumphant statements, as though you hadn’t just conceded something you had been resisting for months...

On the contrary, we had offered that concession almost from day one. But the Opposition did not accept it.

So why didn’t you put it in place?

Once the Opposition did not accept, there was no need for us to shift from our position.

The Opposition also wanted you to ask candidates to buy properties that are worth more than €350,000 but you still changed the scheme so why hold out on the residency component?

Because that is how you negotiate, when you would be anticipating certain things, like discussions with the EU. You don’t concede everything at one go.

Did you hold back on the residency component, even after you got a bashing at the European Parliament, because you felt that if you conceded one year at that point, the Commission would have asked for three?

Don’t we all have negotiating stands?

And that is what this was about?

No, that is not what I am saying. I am saying that the Commission took the stand it took to reach certain goals, some of them political, not in respect to Malta but wider than that, and we are not naive and we went into talks with a strong negotiating stand. In my view, we understood each other immediately and we knew what we wanted so I don’t think anyone can accuse us because we negotiated well.

The question is, why did it have to come to this? You resisted every step of the way: on the secrecy clause, on the level of investment, on the property component and on the residency component...

...And today we are in a situation where we have the only programme in Europe sanctioned by the European Commission. I think the way we positioned ourselves and negotiated was very effective.

But why did it need to take four months and all this controversy? And why did you resist so stubbornly whenever the Nationalist Party and others raised an objection?

There are people who will tell you that if we produced this sort of programme from day one, we would have still have had all these objections and we would have ended up with a programme that is less attractive.

So you anticipated that you would need to make changes when you approved the law back in November?

We anticipated that there would be a number of instances where we would need to negotiate further.

But don’t you feel that this process damages Malta’s image, especially in the financial sector?

Simon Busuttil certainly tried to damage Malta’s image. What’s for sure is that all the players in the financial sector are on board...

You don’t concede everything in one go

I am talking externally. Last week our newsroom got a phone call from a foreign newspaper which was clearly after the angle that Malta is doing this because it is in ruins, financially.

But it’s not.

But what counts is that it’s the impression given out there.

Let me tell you something else. A very high-ranking person in a foreign European government has asked to be able to send someone over to see how we implement the scheme because they plan to introduce one in the coming months.

And you are going to help them?

The important thing, in terms of competitiveness, is not that other countries should not copy us but that we need to be there before others.

Let’s say it’s Germany, for argument’s sake...

I believe we are nimble enough to have a competitive edge over others. In the business world, the goal is not to avoid being copied, that is actually a certificate of success, but it’s to be one step ahead of others. The biggest regret I have in this sense is that Opposition wasted so much of our time because we would have started six months ago with this programme instead of now...

You can turn that argument on its head: had you listened to the Opposition, possibly we would not be here...

If I had listened to the Opposition leader, the scheme would have been a flop.

But isn’t that a negotiating position too?

He didn’t want to budge. He didn’t want to budge not because he... is afraid of this programme. He is afraid that with €1 billion euros we will make a big difference.

You used the concessions you made over the original scheme as an example of the government’s willingness to listen but you made these changes only when you had your back to the wall. It’s not an example of a government that listens; it’s actually reminiscent of how the previous government handled the honoraria controversy.

Not at all, because they kept taking the €500.

And the changes they made, they did when they had their backs to the wall.

So far as I know, the only person with his back to the wall is Simon Busuttil... As I said, we could have handled things better, and we could have consulted more and we should not have trusted the Opposition with the informal feedback.

Again you project the issue onto the Opposition, it’s as though the government came out of this unscathed. There is a certain element of bravado that was not present before the election. Is that how you really feel or is it...

...I think that, today, as things have been concluded, Malta has the best product, because we have the only programme in Europe that has the approval of the European Commission.

You had an Opposition which was making points that in the end resulted to be valid because the changes you made followed their line of thought.

Absolutely not, the Opposition wanted five years’ residency, it wanted us to issue only a couple dozen [citizenships under the scheme]... There is a basic difference, the Opposition took an extreme stand and it stayed there while if we were initially the opposite extreme, we eventually moved towards a moderate position.

Yes but the point is you were forced to into that position.

I don’t think so.

There could be consequences at a European level after what happened, concerning immigration, for instance. You might have a hard time making your case for help.

Absolutely not.

Your own people, the Socialists, made the point at the European Parliament that Malta’s positioning in respect to immigration and citizenship are inconsistent.

That is, they want us to take care of the poor and rightly so, and we do, but then they don’t want us to attract the rich?

Take the children of illegal immigrants, for instance. They would have been born and raised in Malta and yet they could never be eligible for citizenship.

I think they are two different issues. The government’s approach is consistent. We mistake the idea of Europeanism with the notion of submissiveness... It’s like you are a good European if you don’t have issues with the European Commission. Last week we had the vice president of the European Commission with us, you asked him about the Commission’s relationship with Malta and he said they are excellent and that is the truth. We are among the best countries when it comes to the transposition of laws, we have among the least infringement procedures and an issue which people in Malta were projecting to be a huge issue was resolved... If I or my government were not sure of our position we would not ventured the first step.

These applicants will have paid with their contribution, 10 or 20 times more than most Maltese people will have paid in taxes throughout their lifetime. That is an extraordinary contribution

I am talking about real cases of illegal immigrants whose children would have been born and raised in Malta. The policy is that such children should not be considered for citizenship.

Someone who has entered the country legally and who contributed to this country over some years can apply for citizenship, even if they have no Maltese relative. With regard to the citizenship by investment, we are talking of a situation whereby these applicants will have paid with their contribution, 10 or 20 times more than most Maltese people will have paid in taxes throughout their lifetime. That is an extraordinary contribution.

Do you expect the Farrugia Sacco case to be concluded before he retires in August?

I hope so.

Yes, but what is the feedback from the Commission for the Administration of Justice? Are they going to spend another year investigating this case?

How can I tell the commission what to do?

That’s a very convenient position. Before the election you came out saying that you would follow the decision of the commission.

And we did.

But in practice that is not going to happen now, if the case goes back to the commission.

What are you proposing?

I am proposing nothing, I ask questions.

And I am answering. You are proposing, or rather the Opposition is proposing, that the Prime Minister should take the law into his own hands, and proceed with a procedure which – according to legal advice we have been given and the Speaker has been given – is not correct...

This legal advice is contested.

The advice we have been given was pointing in that direction.

Who gave you this advice?

I think you should ask the Opposition who gave them their advice.

But you should be in a position to tell us, isn’t this advice paid with taxpayers’ money?

We got the advice from the people we had to obtain advice from and we got more than one opinion. And what emerges from this advice is that the Opposition wants us to proceed with a procedure which could be challenged in court. The case could go against the government and the country and this would mean that we would have breached fundamental human rights.

This seems like a face-saver. Did you at least make enquiries to see if the commission will be investigating this case all over again?

Enquiries? How can I?

You can at least ask for information; that is not interference in the process...

You mean, the Prime Minister asking for information? It is now up to the Commission for the Administration of Justice to decide on how to proceed from here on. I say it should act swiftly but for, heaven’s sake, you cannot accuse the government of having a convenient position just because it is following the rule of law.

I could also say that the timing of the original motion was convenient for the person who filed it. Perhaps it was convenient for the other party to try and take political advantage from this issue.

At the time, I did not make a political issue out of it, even though everyone knew that the son of Mr Justice Farrugia Sacco was contesting the election with us. I said, in the clearest manner, that we would follow the advice of the commission. The advice could have been given before the election.

But this was unlikely.

Well, some people were calling on Parliament to reconvene urgently should the Commission for the Administration of Justice make a decision before the election... Before any of this unfolded, I stated that we would act on the advice of the commission... The commission decided and now that it has, there is this procedural problem. If we need to change the law then we should change it for the future but the government follows the rule of law and I don’t accept accusations that we are trying to take advantage of anything.

Do you have a candidate in mind for the next presidency?

I would be lying if I said no. I have candidates in mind.

Are we talking about someone who is outside the political circuit, a woman?

I believe that whoever is President needs to send a message to the people. The presidency needs to be formed by the person... If you ask me for my preference, I have stated it many times and said that I would like it to be a woman.

But you are now in the hot seat. It’s no longer a question of preference.

I have started consultations with the people I have to consult... I also consulted with the Opposition leader.

You have started having discussions on potential names?

I don’t think I should speaking about what was said between me and the Opposition leader.

Could it be a member of Cabinet? George Vella is mentioned insistently, for instance.

I will not say what was mentioned with the Opposition leader.

Do you rule out that it could be someone from the Cabinet?

I have a very short list of names and which I am in consultations over, and I don’t think...

So there isn’t the name of a member of Cabinet?

I think I have said enough...

But you do not rule out that there is someone from the Cabinet on that list.

I said what I had to say.

The idea of a reshuffle is being mentioned persistently, is it something you are considering?

I always look at performance and evaluate it and when the time comes for me to decide, I do. I think that in almost five years as Opposition leader and almost one year as Prime Minister I have shown that I am not afraid to take decisions. And I think that the changes, if and when they are done, are a part of the system. So if you ask me, do you think you will change some things, I say I will never exclude changing anything. On the contrary it’s part and parcel of how I operate.

I am sensing from your reply that this is a probability in the coming months.

I think it is natural that after the first period of government, you should make assessments, you should see if there is need for certain changes and you make those changes.

Are there any ministries that you are disappointed with?

I don’t think it is good to single out certain situations.

I didn’t ask you to name anyone.

I think that I had positive surprises, there were also situations where the rate of progress was not as expected. You also learn to understand people better and you learn where a person can contribute more.... So I am not going to hold back from telling you that change... will happen and it will not happen once but as many times as needed because that is how I feel an efficient government works. Nobody, and that includes myself, has some sort of job guarantee.

What happened to the code of ethics? In September you said that it was ready.

It is ready and we are currently discussing it in Cabinet. We are going into a discussion to see that this code will be realistic and implementable.

Will there be any changes to the clause which says that a minister cannot work privately?

That is one of the points we are discussion because the situation as it stands makes concessions that are made for lawyers and for those who lecture at university so we are discussing among other things, whether that concession should change.

But are you going to remove it or are you going to widen it?

That is what we are discussing in Cabinet. Once that is decided, we will assume responsibility for what is decided and I will be able to come back here and face your scrutiny on why we decided one way and not another.

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