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Europe is worried about Joseph Muscat

“Killing a journalist is like stabbing democracy” – Assita Kanko, member of EP delegation to Malta.

This week’s European Parliament delegation’s urgent fact-finding mission to Malta is over, and MEPs are returning to Brussels with serious concerns about the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation, and Joseph Muscat’s insistence on remaining in office.

“We are very concerned with what we have seen and heard over the last two days,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, head of the delegation during a press conference today. “I think everyone agrees there is serious pressure on the rule of law.”

She also expressed concerns over Muscat’s ability to act unilaterally during his remaining days in office. “Parliament has been suspended for a fairly long Christmas recess and we feel this is a very worrying situation,” she said.

“We have serious concerns about Muscat staying in office. We have concerns about the integrity of the murder investigation,” the delegation said. Those fears include a lack of trust in the process and the risk of evidence going missing.

As well as in t’Veld, the delegation included MEPs Roberta Metsola (EPP, MT), Birgit Sippel (S&D, DE), Sven Geigold (Greens/EFA, DE), Assita Kanko (ECR, BE), Stelios Kouloglou (GUE/NGL, EL) and Lars Patrick Berg (ID, DE).

They noted that important progress has been made by investigators in recent days, but no one is comfortable with Muscat remaining in a position to wield power or influence over it — especially after both middleman Melvin Theuma and alleged mastermind Yorgen Fenech implicated Muscat’s chief of staff and others from the Office of the Prime Minister in the murder plot. Fenech pleaded not guilty to the charges of being an accomplice in Caruana Galizia’s murder.

“It is quite remarkable how they had substantial access to the investigation,” in ’t Veld said, referring to the Office of the Prime Minister and former chief-of-staff Schembri, who is not being considered by the police as a person of interest in the investigation.

The Prime Minister is expected to leave office by mid-January, assuming he decides to honour his promise. Muscat has set many bars for his own resignation in the past, all of which changed when events transpired that should have resulted in his stepping down.

His departure can’t come soon enough for this delegation.

“The next 40 days are crucial for the murder investigation and we don’t want any risk or even a perceived risk that the investigation may be compromised in any way,” in ’t Veld said. “There has to be absolute confidence, and I think that when he is in office, that confidence is not there.”

She said that Europol “should have full access to the relevant investigations, and really witness what is going on minute by minute”.

In an obvious reference to the failure of the institutions to investigate the many scandals of Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, in ’t Veld said, “We have great concerns that other investigations into money laundering and corruption — which are clearly related to the murder case — those investigations have not yet started or they won’t be conducted very vigorously. There we have very serious concerns.”

The government’s practice of attacking the messenger who speaks about corruption rather than prosecuting that corruption also came under fire.

“We get very worrying signals of the safety of journalists, their livelihoods and their independence are under threat,” in ’t Veld said. “I am very annoyed to see that the hate campaign against certain people, in particular the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia, has not stopped, and it has to stop.”

The intimidation of the press and the pressures on press freedom and freedom of expression were repeatedly referred to by different members of the delegation. Several expressed shock at the situation.

Kanko said: “Killing a journalist is like stabbing democracy.” She said it was “heartbreaking” to look into the eyes of Caruana Galizia’s sons and see their pain.

The delegation recognised that such responses to criticism had their roots in Malta’s heated and highly polarised political culture. “We have also noticed that it is not only about political institutions and culture,” in’t Veld said, “but also about a partisan system that has led to a bipartisan situation that has become toxic and needs to be addressed”.

The delegation will be pressing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to act immediately. “There is this 40-day period and that is crucial because if the Commission is too timid, reticent; if evidence disappears or people escape, we will never be able to forgive ourselves”.

The Head of the delegation stressed that the European Parliament regarded this issue as more than just a Maltese problem. “This is about preserving the integrity of the EU, the Schengen area,” she said, “Malta is part of the EU.”

The Muscat government has come under repeated fire from the EU over the sale of Maltese passports and lax enforcement of money laundering laws, practices which have been described as a threat to the entire block.

Metsola said it was difficult to hear this criticism. “It’s hard to be coming from Malta and hear this about your country.” In the lead up to the last European Parliament election, Metsola, as well as MEP David Casa, were both the target of a hate campaign orchestrated by the Labour Party in government that branded them as “traitors” for airing Malta’s dirty laundry in Brussels.

In 2018, the OECD placed Malta on a blacklist of 21 countries whose passport schemes are deemed to pose a high risk of tax evasion. Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said, “We have legitimate concerns, because if in one country a dangerous person gets citizenship, he gets citizenship for the whole of Europe.”

But more words and more promises of discussions in Brussels are of little comfort to protestors on the ground in Malta who want Muscat out now — not tomorrow or next week.

And it is of little comfort to the Caruana Galizia family, who fear that justice and a truly impartial investigation are at risk every day that this Prime Minister remains with his hands on the levers of power.

Muscat seems determined to hold on no matter how much pressure is brought against him. As new testimony continues to emerge implicating people inside the Prime Minister’s Office in the assassination, there are clearly serious concerns that he is clinging to power in order to protect himself and Schembri.

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