Finally, after far too many long years, the European Commission has put its dentures in and is showing some teeth. Malta’s shameful passport-selling scam – opening the gates of Europe to some of the sleaziest individuals in the world – will have to go, or it will find itself hauled over the coals in the European Court of Justice.
Brussels yesterday threatened Malta, and Cyprus, with court action unless measures were taken to ensure the so-called “Golden Passport” schemes respect European values, which, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “are not for sale”.
The Commission opened infringement proceedings against the two Mediterranean islands last month and described the two countries’ cash for passports schemes as “unlawful”.
Malta has already proven to the EU that it’s a bad faith customer; it pledged in 2019 to overhaul the Individual Investor Programme to satisfy Brussels’ demands, only to launch a new version almost identical to the first, with the few cosmetic changes completely neutralised by loopholes as large as the empty space in Prime Minister Robert Abela’s head.
It always astonishes me that dishonest people think their sly, underhand ploys will deceive anyone but the village idiot propping up the nearest bar. When Abela’s government proudly announced that the IIP scheme was being “scrapped” and a completely new programme, that answered all the European Commission’s concerns, was being introduced, it was obvious, even before reading the details, that this was going to be yet another ‘cunning’ attempt to hoodwink the authorities.
The smug expressions on the faces of those convinced they’d succeed in fooling the world into accepting the supposedly “new” scheme told us all what we needed to know before they’d even begun speaking. I can just imagine them smirking at each other as they mapped out their plan to pay lip service to the demands for changes to the scheme, while – wink wink, nudge, nudge – slyly incorporating fixes to ensure they didn’t hamstring their golden goose at the same time.
Cheap and nasty. The manner in which this PL government conducts itself, in all situations, is mortifying to watch. These pig-ignorant incompetents, totally bereft of integrity or honour, succeed in embarrassing the rest of us literally on a daily basis. Some days, on an hourly basis.
I was working in a big, international newsroom in London when the newly-elected Labour Party under disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, announced in 2014 that they’d decided to start selling passports. This came shortly after they’d won the 2013 election – on a manifesto that had no mention of selling passports – and regained power after close to a quarter of a century in opposition.
It felt like reading that my father had decided to start pimping out my mother. And most of my colleagues had the same reaction. There was a sense that Malta had diminished itself enormously and, from being viewed as a small, but decent, even trustworthy country, suddenly it was being seen as a maverick, desperate little nonentity of a state that was so cheap that it would sell its own soul to the scores of devils waiting in the wings.
Because citizenship, as anyone with any sense of amour propre will understand, is more than just a passport. It’s an identity, it’s a privilege, it’s a badge of honour. But of course, those who have no honour can’t possibly conceive of something of value that can’t, or shouldn’t, be monetised.
And, crucially, since 1 May 2004, a Maltese person is no longer “just” a Maltese citizen. We’re fortunate enough to be citizens of the whole of Europe, no longer marooned in solitude on our dusty little rock in the Mediterranean.
This adds a much more serious dimension to the whole affair. It was immediately clear that behind the pompous fanfare of the announcement lay a much more disturbing reality. Malta wasn’t only going to be selling Maltese citizenship, it was going to be selling European statehood, essentially providing a clandestine route into Europe to people who may otherwise have been denied visas.
The change in attitude towards Malta was palpable. Overnight, we found ourselves lumped in with what the BBC described as “cash-strapped” countries like Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and the like. The idea of selling passports is such anathema to most decent people, they can’t imagine anyone doing it who didn’t have their back to the wall.
At the time, assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog was the only source of any kind of sensible discussion of the topic. She characteristically saw right through the scheme that the government’s appointed passport-sellers, Henley and Partners, said was proving very popular with Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern citizens.
Earlier this year, The Shift reported on a collaborative investigation into the passport scam after a whistleblower leaked key documents about applicants from Henley and Partners – the government’s snake oil salesmen who went around the world touting Maltese passports to suspiciously wealthy individuals from around the world, including from countries that prohibit their citizens from holding dual-nationality or frown upon them as disloyal or unpatriotic.
Nevertheless, hundreds of applications were received from individuals born in these countries. Malta, shamefully, appears to have colluded with at least some of them, offering “face-to-face” meetings with Identity Malta, since renamed Community Malta Agency, to iron out the minor issue of helping people get around the laws of their own nations. They even, in at least one known case, deliberately recorded a passport buyer under the wrong name in the published list in order to help him escape the notice of his government.
The IIP programme was criticised in the European Parliament several times before the Commission issued its first rebuke in 2019. The revised scheme, which came into force in September last year and was described by the government as a “totally new programme,” failed to convince the European Commission.
His Prime Ministership Robert Abela responded to the EU’s rebuke by declaring he will fight tooth and nail to keep the scheme. But this sordid cash-for-passports scam needs to end fast, no matter how convenient the easy money is.
It’s generated some cash for the public coffers, true – €1.5 billion since 2014 – but it’s done enormous damage to Malta’s international reputation in the meantime. It’s hard to imagine how that could be repaired, but the longer Malta fights to keep it, the greater the long term cost will be.