Joseph Muscat’s government is faced with an opportunity to go down in history as the administration that brought Malta in line with modern European standards on the rule of law, but it must first accept “well-meaning, constructive proposals for reform”, according to the Council of Europe’s Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt.
Speaking to The Shift News, he said he was “still hopeful” that the government would correct its piecemeal approach to implementing recommendations by the Council of Europe and use the expertise available from such international bodies.
“Neither I, nor the Legal Affairs Committee (of the Council of Europe) are enemies of Malta. On the contrary, we believe that the rule of law is a universally good thing, for both authorities and citizens,” Omtzigt said.
The Special Rapporteur has been a target of the Maltese government, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici expressing “doubts” about him. Lawyer and Labour MP Manuel Mallia led the Labour delegation’s objections to the Council of Europe report on Malta, though his attempts failed.
Omtzigt’s report was adopted by the Legal Affairs Committee on 29 May despite Mallia raising close to 50 objections – every single one having been shot down by the committee.
Mallia was undeterred, sending a message to the Malta delegation on a social media app on Thursday informing them that the South EU Summit held in Malta on Friday would be a good opportunity to “lobby against Omtzigt’s report”.
Omtzigt told The Shift News that if these reports were correct then he was “very disappointed” that Mallia was still not engaging positively and “accepting our well-meaning, constructive proposals for reform”.
“When Member States say that they are committed to respecting European standards on the rule of law, we believe them; we do not expect perfection, but we do expect a willingness to respond to problems. The Council of Europe is a friend that can provide expert support and assistance in this process,” Omtzigt said.
For this to happen, the government cannot adopt “a piecemeal approach” to changes and conduct a reform process in an untransparent manner, he added.
Speaking on the Bill to ‘split the role of the Attorney General’ by establishing the Office of the State Advocate, which had just been published when Omtzigt filed his report, he stressed that it was immediately obvious that it did not satisfy the Venice Commission recommendations. His concerns were echoed by the former Dean of the Faculty of Laws Kevin Aquilina.
Omtzigt’s report highlighted three main concerns on the role of the Attorney General:
- The Attorney General’s decisions on prosecutions are still not made fully subject to judicial review,
- The Attorney General is not given responsibility for magisterial inquiries, which leads to confusion, inefficiency and ineffectiveness,
- The Attorney General continues to be chair of the FIAU, a situation that the Venice Commission considers to be “problematic”.
He told The Shift News the analysis was far from exhaustive, stressing the need for a holistic approach to implementing in their entirety the recommendations by two Council of Europe bodies – the Venice Commission and the Council’s anti-corruption body GRECO.
Omtzigt said the untransparent process defined in a vague ‘roadmap’, that was never sent to him despite his requests to the Maltese government, made it close to impossible for outside observers – whether Maltese opposition politicians and civil society, or European institutions – to say whether or not things were heading in the right direction.
‘Roadmap’ must be the word that defines Joseph Muscat’s government. It was elected on a ‘roadmap’ for energy that landed the country with the “sinister” Electrogas deal. It has used it repeatedly every time it has been cornered since.
In this case, the ‘roadmap’ the government is referring to consists of a letter to Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova outlining steps it intends to take along the way. The Bill on the Office of the State Advocate should not be debated in isolation but as part of a package of reforms, Omtzigt insisted.
While saying that PN MP Simon Busuttil’s labelling of the Bill as “anti-European” was probably a step too far, Omtzigt said the proposed law was an important – but not a sufficient – first step towards reforming the Office of Attorney General.
“If it is completed by other necessary measures, then the final result may be compliant with European standards. The Council of Europe has decades of experience in monitoring reforms and will have no difficulty in analysing the final outcome, no matter how complex and lengthy the process and how numerous the measures taken,” he said.
But he agreed that the reforms are being developed in a “sporadic, disjointed manner” and that if the final result of the reform process as a whole was inadequate, then Malta would have a problem with European institutions.
“I cannot understand why this approach has been taken. Why not let the world know what the final outcome is supposed to look like?”