Robert Abela is so far out of his depth he no longer knows what sort of ocean he’s yachting in.
His government’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a story of obliviousness and incompetence.
The reluctance of Malta to impose sanctions which would require economic sacrifice stands in stark contrast to EU Member States that agreed to ban Russian banks from the SWIFT transfer system, despite the problems this will create for their own economies.
Even Germany, a country known for its love of cumbersome bureaucracy, made a stunning foreign policy shift in the course of a 30-minute speech to parliament. The new Chancellor Olaf Scholz removed longstanding restrictions against sending weapons to conflict zones, allocated €100 billion to the military, and committed to spend more than 2% of GDP on defence in line with NATO targets.
What a contrast this is to Malta, where the imposition of sanctions has been grudging at best.
Sure, Abela announced Malta would close its airspace to Russian aircraft — just hours before the EU announced its decision to do the same. As a Member State, he didn’t have any choice.
But his message was slightly at odds with the clarity expressed by EC President Ursula von der Leyen, who said EU airspace would be closed to “Russian-owned, Russian registered or Russian-controlled aircraft […] including the private jets of oligarchs”.
Abela, by contrast, said “Maltese airspace will be closed to Russian airlines”, a word that refers to a company providing public air transport on regular routes. Aeroflot doesn’t fly to Malta, but an awful lot of private jets do. But blocking flights is small beans for an island whose ports service Russian shipping.
The biggest thorn in the side of Malta’s international allies is the possibility of Maltese passports being used to evade sanctions.
The European Union has been trying to shut down Malta’s dodgy cash-for-passports scheme for ages, but it was US pressure that finally reined it in.
The White House issued a blunt statement last week that said “we commit to acting against the people and entities who facilitate the war in Ukraine and the harmful activities of the Russian government. Specifically, we commit to taking measures to limit the sale of citizenship—so called golden passports—that let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens of our countries and gain access to our financial systems.”
When they said ‘people and entities who facilitate’ in this case, I’m pretty sure they meant Malta.
The oblivious Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship Alex Muscat responded by quibbling over definitions.
“The concept of golden passports does not apply to Malta,” he said, “because investment tied to residency is completely different to golden passports.”
It was about as convincing as Ian Borg claiming a gaping hole in the Marsa bypass wasn’t a hole. I recommend Muscat read The Shift’s coverage of the Passport Papers for a primer on exactly where those ‘residents’ claim to be living.
It doesn’t matter what Alex Muscat thinks, or how he chooses to define the terms. What matters is what other powerful countries see — and no one’s been fooled by Malta’s program for a very long time.
“The due diligence that we do here is found nowhere in the world,” Muscat said. “We invest a lot in due diligence and we will continue to do so.”
Perhaps he meant ‘don’t diligence’? An awful lot of unsavoury characters manage to slip through the cracks.
Besides, he added, “let’s not have a blanket statement that all Russians are bad people”, as though anyone were claiming such a thing. Not all Russians are oligarchs, either, but how many of Malta’s passport customers are?
Alex Muscat should know. Apart from being the parliamentary secretary responsible for the IIP, he was also listed as Henley & Partners “contact person” at the Office of the Prime Minister, where his role was to “minimize grief to clients”, such as unwanted media attention when they made their obligatory whistle stop visit.
Muscat’s ‘definitional defence’ was a dismal failure. The government was forced to knuckle under, releasing a statement on Wednesday to announce that the processing of both cash-for-passport and ‘residency through investment’ applications for citizens of Russia and Belarus would be “suspended until further notice”.
The reason? They can’t conduct their legendary due diligence checks “in light of recent developments”. But don’t worry if you’re a Russian oligarch who bought a Maltese residency permit. Renewal applications will still be considered on a case-by-case basis, subject to fresh due diligence checks.
Profiting off the sale of EU passports isn’t the only area where Abela’s team of amateurs fumbled the ball.
At a virtual meeting with EU Foreign Ministers this week, Evarist Bartolo felt compelled to say that Malta has a strict policy of neutrality enshrined in its constitution which would prevent it from supporting the sending of lethal equipment to Ukraine to aid its defence.
However, ‘in the spirit of mutual solidarity, Malta would not stop the process.’
What was he going to do, veto it? Bartolo’s tone deaf statement was up there with Robert Abela’s bragging about Malta’s economy not being affected by the war.
The prime minister was stopped by reporters on his way to an emergency summit meeting of the European Council last week, where he was quick to reassure his domestic audience Malta’s trade would not be affected by the invasion. It’s difficult to top that comment for callousness.
‘Thanks god’ constitutional neutrality doesn’t apply when it comes to making money off the troubles of others.
Abela was also careful to point out that several Maltese investors in Russia could be affected by sanctions, and he would look into the situation and assist them if necessary. He didn’t say whether the investors he had in mind were customers of his passport program.
At a time when everyone is coming together to support the victims of an unprovoked war, these clowns put self-interest up front and don’t even seem to be aware of how bad they sound.
In what was surely one of the moral low points of this saga so far, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that the government would be lifting the covid travel ban for Ukraine in order to accommodate anyone so daft as to choose Malta as their place of asylum — but these war refugees would still have to cough up €100 per night for an obligatory stay in a quarantine hotel.
I wonder which hotel would stoop so low as to cash in on them?
Bartolo came to his rescue on Facebook, saying the Foreign Ministry would foot the bill. “We have a special fund to pay the bill for those who have to quarantine in a hotel,” he said. “These are people fleeing from a cruel war.” No one bothered to explain why the government can’t just waive the cost.
As all of Europe stands by Ukraine, Malta tries to make hay while the bombs rain down.