Hours following the publication of the European Commission’s first Annual Rule of Law Report, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis took to social media to celebrate ‘a job well done’.
In a Facebook post, he writes that while some are ashamed to be Maltese, not only is he a proud citizen but adds that the report ‘praises’ Malta as an example of “best practice” for its extensive law reforms, institutional and judicial reforms, the new powers given to the President and much more.
In sum, the Justice Minister makes it sound like Malta received nothing short of a glowing report. Prime Minister Robert Abela reiterated that while some are “ashamed to be Maltese”, Brussels-based newspaper Politico names Malta as an example of reform best practice following Commissioner Reynders’ comments.
While some are ashamed to be #Maltese, @POLITICOEurope names #Malta as an example of best practice after #Commissioner Reynders lauds our considerable #progress and the real evolution of #institutional #reforms in 2020. – RA
— Robert Abela (@RobertAbela_MT) September 30, 2020
We’ve seen this spin before, like when Joseph Muscat ‘almost got a top job in Brussels‘, so we need to separate fact from fiction.
‘Best practice’ – copying what someone does better than you
Now nobody wants to rain on the Justice Minister’s parade but a closer look at the text reveals a more nuanced and matter of fact report than the minister would have us believe.
First of all, there is no mention of the term “best practice” in the report itself as described by the Justice Minister. A simple word search within the document reveals that soon enough.
The @EU_Commission certifies the significant historic reforms undertaken recently to strengthen rule of law and governance further indicating Malta as a 'best practice'. We are committed to go on with more reforms to further reinforce our democratic and institutional framework pic.twitter.com/5IgXj5s1I9
— Edward Zammit-Lewis (@ZammitLewisEdw) September 30, 2020
As for the mention of Malta in Politico, Malta is indeed mentioned in the sub-heading “Best Practice: Malta” but the real evolution of reforms that Reynders is praising is followed by the Commissioner musing that this was “certainly due to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, to the turbulence of the political level,” to pressure from the EU and the involvement of the Venice Commission. “But also due to more and more pressure coming from civil society.”
Hardly a pat on the back for Zammit Lewis or Abela. In fact, Special Rapporteur for the Council of Europe Pieter Omtzigt called it out.
Curious to know where he read this. Malta was frequently mentioned in the EU rule of law report but never with the adjective ‘best practice’
— Pieter Omtzigt (@PieterOmtzigt) September 30, 2020
Another article in Politico describes how the report found that many EU nations fall short on rule of law and includes a chart that shows the number of times “concerns” or “serious concerns” is mentioned in each country report. Malta ranks seven out of 27, with nine concerns raised.
Yet another article names Malta as one of the countries, along with Croatia, Romania and Slovakia, where there has been an effort to tackle long-standing problems, but that significant challenges remain. It uses the more accurate sub-title of “uphill struggle”.
‘Welcoming’ is not praise
The report itself is as comprehensive in its research as it is neutral in its tone.
There are a number of instances where it notes that the reforms or the plans for reforms were “welcomed” by the Venice Commission. Yet nowhere in the text does the language lean towards praise of any sort and the Justice Minister would have known this as a draft of the report was given in advance to all the Member States to check and correct any factual inaccuracies.
The report recognises and describes the various reforms (implemented or proposed) in Malta. These include new rules on the appointment of police commissioners, the transfer of prosecution responsibilities – including for corruption-related cases – from the police to the Attorney General, a reform of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption and new provisions to allow appeals against non-prosecution by the Attorney General.
But it also highlights major shortcomings, most notably the lack of convictions for high-level corruption, deep corruption patterns across institutions, and substantial concerns about court proceedings being some of the longest in the EU.
The report describes how the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia led to concerns about freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Malta.
It also raises concerns about the effective independence of the media regulator as well as legal and online threats to journalists, and it also notes the increased role of civil society in the public debate.
Not only is there no praise in the report but the Commission also states that it was now up to the government to implement these reforms effectively to show that the recommendations made by the Venice Commission and GRECO (The Group of States Against Corruption), in addition to the European Commission, had been credibly addressed.
One more thing…
Both the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister made spurious claims to try to appeal to their core supporters by portraying government critics as people who are “ashamed of being Maltese”.
We're not ashamed to be Maltese. Malta regarded as best practice by Commissioner Reynders regarding rule of law reforms by #politico. Let us keep on working together to enhance #Malta's reputation!@POLITICOEurope
— Edward Zammit-Lewis (@ZammitLewisEdw) September 30, 2020
Being ashamed of a government for having institutionalised corruption and for having enabled a climate of impunity in regard to such corruption has got nothing to do with our citizenship or nationality.
Zammit Lewis and Abela could have chosen to treat the Maltese electorate with a modicum of respect by simply saying that, in reality, Malta received a mixed review of its rule of law reforms.
They could have said that the work done so far has been acknowledged and welcomed and that there is more work still to be done, instead of painting a rosy picture based on all “the praise” Malta never received.
But that’s continuity of tactics for you.