Those of us watching in disbelief as Labour supporters and their puppet masters attempt to brush off the enormity of the FATF greylisting, while concurrently furiously accusing the PN of somehow having orchestrated this catastrophe out of pure spite, might be forgiven for feeling a little moment of despair.
These people, all of whom have votes that count just as much as yours or mine, seem to have no idea at all of what this really means for every single person living or working in Malta. Instead, they treat it as yet another opportunity for mindless jingoistic diatribes, yet another opportunity to vent their hatred on their political opponents and kill off a few more of their fast-dwindling supply of brain cells in the process.
Will they ever really get it? Must they all lose their jobs, have their businesses grind to a halt or their bank accounts gone over with a fine-toothcomb before they realise how foolish and dangerous their blind support for the gang of thieves that hijacked the country has been?
People working in finance, those employed by igaming companies, banks, investment funds, back-office operations, and a host of other segments within the financial services landscape are very worried. This development hits right at the heart of their industries and, of course, there’s no sentimentality in business. If the risk of staying in Malta outweighs the benefits, they’ll pack up and go.
But beyond the obvious sectors, it seems the implications are being lost on the general public. Because it’s not just those who work in financial services that are going to suffer.
A friend of mine who works remotely for a Maltese company from northern Europe has already tasted a little bit of what “greylisting” means for the ordinary person in the street. Her husband got a call from their bank asking him to explain the transfers of money from Malta (you know, that disreputable jurisdiction on the list pinned to every bank employee’s desk) every month. He was questioned about every single one of the transactions, her monthly salary payments, going back more than a year. This has never happened to them before.
Her situation isn’t unique. There are thousands of Maltese living and working abroad who might receive and send money home at regular intervals. Thousands of young students dependent on their parents’ contributions to pay for tuition, accommodation, living expenses and books. Are they all going to be hauled over the coals every time one of their relatives sends them some cash for their birthday? Every time their parents transfer the money for their rent?
And with banks being put on high alert, how many are going to simply decide they can’t be bothered with the added hassle and risk Malta now poses, as a greylisted country? All the extra paperwork or investigation involved for every single transaction, like the phone calls to my friend’s husband; it all costs money, and for profit-driven organisations, every penny counts. Malta offers no rewards large enough to justify the added risk.
I was sent a clip showing Charles Cassar, the founder of a company offering compliance consultancy, talking on NET TV about how the FATF greylisting will impact the general public. Quite apart from those working in the industries directly affected by the downgrading, he said, people operating in sectors totally unrelated to finance are going to feel the pain too.
All businesses need to have at least one bank to work with. But banks aren’t obliged to work with any business they don’t feel comfortable with, as so many igaming companies have discovered to their cost. This greylisting could expand that blanket ban to include an array of other industries, even those far removed from the world of finance.
For Maltese companies that take on contracts or other types of work outside Malta, Cassar said, this is going to make it much more complicated to find a bank to support that work. Even for companies that only operate within Malta, banks engaging in “de-risking” could sever relationships with companies they’ve worked with for years simply because keeping them going comes with too much expensive paperwork and red tape.
Cassar cites the example of a reputable, totally legitimate used car dealer: used car dealerships are notorious for being used as money laundering vehicles. The particular car dealership itself may be the most honest, by-the-book enterprise possible, but the words “used car dealership” will trigger a red flag, followed by a host of reporting and monitoring obligations.
The bank, Cassar said, is more likely to simply terminate the relationship with that unfortunate business than retain it and all the headaches that go along with it. That leaves that used car dealer, through no fault of his own, without a bank and without a means to process transactions. No company can operate without a bank these days. No bank account means no business.
On top of all this, we have to factor in the opportunity costs of this humiliation – the lost foreign investment when Malta is discounted from the get-go simply because of its pariah status, meaning fewer jobs and vanished potential careers for our children and grandchildren. And the effect of this, the black cloud hanging over our heads, won’t be shed any time soon. It will take years, decades even, to rid ourselves of the distrust this downgrade is already creating.
The FATF warned clearly that Malta should not attempt to “downplay” the rebuke it’s been handed – presumably in response to the defiant, irresponsible accusations that it was “unjust” and “unfair” that the Labour government began making between Wednesday, when the news of the greylisting emerged, and Friday, when the international anti-money laundering watchdog made the official announcement.
But, as ever, the words fell on deaf ears. Finance Minister Clyde Caruana said in parliament on Monday: “Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty to fall back on”.
“We’re not going to cry over spilt milk,” he said, astonishingly.
Spilt milk? The failure to uncover the owner of Egrant: spilt milk? The failure to prosecute Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri after they were caught with secret Panama companies, very clearly set up for nefarious reasons: spilt milk? The failure to protect the Maltese taxpayer from being robbed blind by those involved in the Electrogas scandal: spilt milk? The failure to intercept and imprison those involved in the brazen theft from the public purse that constitutes the Vitals hospital scam: spilt milk?
I could continue with that list ad infinitum, the number of crimes committed by this government is so vast. Crime is not “spilt milk.” Corruption, money laundering, cronyism, theft of public money; these are not “spilt milk”.
When is the penny going to drop for these people? Caruana had better step up fast, and Prime Minister Robert Abela too, to ensure everyone involved in the scandals that have destroyed their country’s reputation is prosecuted and jailed.
The longer they continue protecting the crooks that control them, the greater the damage to Malta, its reputation and, most importantly, to its people, its children and its very survival. Everyone is going to suffer the impact of this calamity. Unless the government acts fast, the effects will be felt for generations to come.