For too long, the press has declined to address the full implications of the mysterious relationships that the equally mysterious Neville Gafà has with Libya. The press has been very good in showing the slipperiness and evasions of both Gafà and the government. But the affair has been treated as largely a domestic scandal, not a potential undermining of Malta’s geo-strategic interests.
Since the evasions have been so absurd, the whole thing has come across as a twist on old comic strips. Say, Asterix in Libya. Tintin in the Land of Militias. Or, given the upcoming Malta Book Festival, a new native addition to the comic strip classics: Puttinu Cares for Tripoli.
In case you haven’t kept up with all the twists in the Gafà case, here’s a brief recap.
He was once supposed to be an employee of the Health Ministry, then he wasn’t. Gafà wouldn’t commit to who employed him. The Prime Minister couldn’t remember, although he knew Gafà was doing “very good work”. Then it turned out that Gafà was actually employed by the Office of the Prime Minister.
What he did absorbed everyone because Gafà was spotted in Tripoli having coffee, as one does, with a warlord. A Libyan warlord is not a politician with rough canvassers. He’s a businessman who launches rockets as part of his special offers.
Gafà told us that he just bumped into the warlord in main street and decided to catch up. How did he happen to be in Tripoli? Oh, he was on holiday.
Wait for what happened next. The foreign ministry denied that Gafà had anything to do with it. But it said nothing about someone who seriously imperilled Malta’s international credibility – with Tripoli itself and the world.
Foreign policy is not for freelancers. If you’re a government official linked to the heart of government, then you should take special care not to give anyone the mistaken idea that your personal friendships also represent government policy. It did transpire later that Gafà has represented the Maltese government in meetings in Libya.
In the US, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, is in hot water precisely for this. In his dealings with Ukraine, he blurred the lines between his personal business and government business – while not officially representing the government.
Gafà denied anything other than a purely personal conversation with the warlord. But his boss Joseph Muscat confused matters. He said it always helps to talk to all sides.
Maybe – if you’re a mediator or an authorised envoy. But not if you’re on holiday. Theresa May forced the resignation of her international development minister for having unofficial meetings, while on holiday, with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and a senior lobbyist. (Can we at least agree that a warlord qualifies as a senior lobbyist?)
All the above is in an especially delicate context. Gafà has been accused of having routinely asked Libyans for bribes in return for health visas in Malta. He has sued a newspaper for libel. The case is in the courts. Gafà is contesting the sworn testimony given by several Libyans earlier this week.
Court procedures and testimony are a matter for the courts. But the political implications are for the public sphere and parliament.
Muscat is responsible for the country’s reputation and international relationships. Independent Malta’s relations with Libya go back to 1965. It was, deliberately, the first country outside Europe that Prime Minister Giorgio Borg Olivier visited.
Suspending Gafà pending the court outcome – does the Libyans’ testimony lose him the libel suit? – is what any government would do. It puts country first. It sends a clear signal that the government completely repudiates even the suggestion, however malicious, that Malta would tolerate the cynical exploitation of Libyans’ health. It would affirm the long-standing friendship with Libya.
But whether the Prime Minister does it or not, parliament should do something about it. All self-respecting parliaments would assert their right to inquire into the startling facts that have been admitted about this case.
We have seen the House of Commons assert its right, independently of Downing Street, to debate Brexit. We are seeing the US Congress assert its right to see if US foreign policy was undermined by the President himself.
What is the Maltese parliament – particularly its Foreign Affairs Committee – waiting for? Malta-Libya relations have been built up over decades. If a government official has undermined them, we should find out.
And, even if we believe Gafà’s version, we need to understand why an OPM official is considered so important by malicious Libyan interests that they want to destroy him.
At stake are an entire country’s strategic interests – political, economic and even cultural. Undermine those, wittingly or not, and you’ve hijacked the country’s foreign policy. Not just with a key neighbour. But with the entire world watching you. Malta’s historic relationship with Libya used to exercise international influence elsewhere.
If parliament doesn’t hold hearings on something like this, it’s admitting that it is subservient to Castille.