The impunity enjoyed by the disgraced former prime minister and his untouchables depends on Labour staying in power, and that hold on power depends on their ability to keep the free-for-all going.
It’s not so easy to do on an island where everything ultimately comes from abroad.
Thanks to Joseph Muscat’s wholesale takeover of the country’s institutions, those enjoying impunity have been able to ensure they’re not prosecuted, fired, forced to resign, or even forced to account for their actions.
But one thing they can’t control is the flow of money their impunity depends on.
The cash-for-passports programme has long been a thorn in Europe’s side. It enriched service providers who took a cut for referrals, kicked money to the owners of empty flats who rented at premium prices to absent tenants, and gave politicians a lucrative coffer for dishing out direct orders and funding vote-winning ‘improvements’ in their own electoral districts.
The price, of course, was paid by someone else. Oh, what a cunning plan. Malta undermined the sovereignty and security of fellow member states and raked in cash.
The scolding of Brussels did nothing to stop this, nor did discrete hints. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen finally tried non-diplomatic bluntness on her last visit to Malta, saying, “we have been discussing the subject of the golden passports and that it is of utmost importance to stop that procedure”.
It all went over the head of the oblivious Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship Alex Muscat. Unable to distinguish opinion from ultimatum, he said, “there’s a point of principle where we’re not precisely agreeing.”
Well, cash-for-passports is one step closer to being stopped for good. MEPs voted this week to ban the practice, and to severely curtail so-called “golden visas”.
The draft text said cash-for-passports schemes undermine the essence of EU citizenship, are “objectionable from an ethical, legal and economic point of view, and pose several serious security risks”.
When it comes to golden visas, MEPs also want to ban intermediaries like Henley & Partners from peddling these programmes — and from using EU symbols or the benefits of EU citizenship to do so — as well as from being used to vet candidates.
The report will be voted on in early March, and when it passes it moves to the Commission — the same Commission that has already told Malta to stop selling EU citizenship.
The lucrative cash flow set up by Joseph Muscat is slowly but surely being cut off.
And as the salesman says, that’s not all.
This week, the European Court of Justice ruled against a challenge raised by Poland and Hungary over a mechanism — yes, Julia Farrugia Portelli, a mechanism — allowing the EU to cut funding to member states that fail to uphold the democratic standards they agreed to upon accession.
The so-called ‘conditionality mechanism’ gives Brussels the power to throttle Malta’s funding over rule of law violations. You know, things like rampant money laundering, the ongoing failure to prosecute politicians accused of corruption, and the ongoing failure to hold anyone accountable for the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. It’s not inconceivable that this mechanism could even be used to force Malta to honour its anti-poaching obligations.
While this law was clearly aimed at Hungary and Poland, which have increasingly been seen as ‘problem states’, Malta is no longer flying below the radar, able to get away with a certain level of dirty dealing simply because it was too small to be a threat to anyone else.
The shameless impunity perpetrated under Joseph Muscat and his successor, and the murder of the country’s foremost anti-corruption journalist, brought Europe’s spotlight shining into dark corners, and everyone was shocked by the filth that’s been revealed.
What will prime minister Abela do without EU payments? And what about those friends of friends who rely on it for direct orders?
This dual assault by the EU couldn’t come at a worse time. Not when other longstanding sources of revenue are also under threat.
Despite the government’s repeated attempts to deny it, greylisting is having an impact. Even MFSA chairman John Mamo said, “if I had to open my own company, I would definitely not go to a greylisted jurisdiction. That is so obvious.”
And now gaming giant Media and Games Invest SE (MGI) has announced its intention to pull out and move to high-tax Sweden. They aren’t alone. Fintech company Phoenix Payments Limited made the same decision late last year, along with so many others.
Greylisting isn’t the only obstacle to attracting new business for Malta’s financial services sector. The EU is moving closer to an agreement on tax harmonisation which, when it comes into effect, will remove the greatest incentive for foreign companies to establish a legal presence in the country.
But putting the crunch on Malta’s easy access to cash is just the inevitable loopholes being closed after the Muscat regime’s shameless impunity finally attracted international attention.
More troubling to Abela’s survival is the dramatic transformation of Malta’s reputation from sunny vacation spot and expat retirement haven to global money laundering pariah.
A recent piece in the Brussels-based EU Reporter described Roberta Metsola’s election to the presidency of the European Parliament as a last chance effort to bring Malta back in from the cold.
In addition to the usual concerns about “the seismic problems presented by its smallest member”, the article cites Malta’s “strengthening ties with questionable allies” as it moves “under the thumb of the Chinese and Russian States.”
While it’s not entirely fair to single out Malta here, given Germany’s self-sabotaging energy dependence on Putin’s Russia, and the amount of dodgy Russian money circulating in London, the ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in action.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz has called for a break with the pro-Kremlin former chancellor and advocate for Nord Stream 2 Gerhard Schröder. And government sources in the UK leaked hints about the imminent end of Tier 1 investor visas due to concerns over Russian influence. In other parts of Europe, the rule of law still holds.
Back in Malta, recent reports of Robert Abela’s alleged property dealings with an alleged kidnapper have hardened European opinion that nothing has altered Malta’s “downward spiral into the geopolitical gutters” since the forced departure of Joseph Muscat.
The US International Policy Digest’s prognosis was similarly sceptical, describing Malta as “a cesspool of financial degradation that is leaving a stain on the entire EU project” and “Europe’s next economic graveyard”.
That journal saw little hope of reform from within, saying, “Malta’s current administration does its best to keep the country shrouded in darkness to cover its own back.” The prospect of global sanctions was raised as a last resort for dealing with an ally now seen as a security risk.
In the meantime, there’s an election to be fought. The winner gets what’s left of the spoils.