This week we had two EU reports on Malta’s rule of law that found us wanting. The government itself should have bounced back with answers, whether in protest or apology. Instead, it seems to have just shrugged, like a waiter at some tourist trap that’s out of half the items on the menu.
One report was by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). The Committee made the news when its conclusions “expressed concern about the impunity afforded to key figures in the Muscat administration, including of former prime minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, and former Cabinet minister Konrad Mizzi, who remain unprosecuted for serious and substantiated evidence of corruption, including through NAO and FIAU reports and evidence published by the late Daphne Caruana Galizia”.
If the government reacted, we missed it. You’d think it would have something to say — if only to reject the grave accusation flat. Instead, silence.
It’s one of those moments where Malta must look deeply odd to observers. Any self-respecting government would react. Ours didn’t. And most of us act as though this is natural.
Silence isn’t neutral. It’s a message. The news media should be besieging the prime minister. Why hasn’t the government reacted? If LIBE passed fair comment, what is the prime minister going to do about it?
Muscat himself did react through his lawyers, of course, stating that there is no substantiated evidence or report that names him.
The MEPs obviously know this. They have included him because they are measuring Muscat’s behaviour, in office and since, by an accepted European standard.
According to that standard, his behaviour has been deeply suspicious, if not self-incriminating. He didn’t sack Mizzi and Schembri on the spot when their Panama companies were discovered. On the contrary. He provided each with cover.
And, despite all the evidence that has since emerged about the Electrogas consortium and the Vitals hospital scam, Muscat has said nothing. No apology for what happened on his watch, no condemnation. Not even when the US government publicly passed judgement on Mizzi and Schembri by accusing them of involvement in “significant corruption” with respect to the power station deal.
The European standard demands that a prime minister in office resign over such scandals — precisely to acknowledge the gravity of what happened and to affirm a sense of honour, which serves to clear the country’s name.
Not reacting to such evidence of corruption is considered to be political evidence of involvement. Why, there was a time when Muscat (still in Opposition) upheld that as the standard too. (“Whoever does nothing about corruption…”).
Now we have the government being silent as though any reply would be compromising. Such silence is more eloquent than all the meetings LIBE had with State officials.
The second rule of law report is by the European Commission. It’s a detailed look at our justice system, media landscape and perceptions of corruption. We generally underperform in terms of the European average but two items stand out.
First, we are massively below average when it comes to perceptions of corruption in relation to doing business. The EU average is 34%. In Malta, it’s 58%.
That figure should be alarming. It’s a bad portent for inward investment and competitiveness. The pan-European crises due to COVID and, now, Ukraine-induced inflation might disguise the economic implications. But if those perceptions are congruent with reality, we are in for a rude economic awakening in the medium term.
Yet, that figure has hardly merited a mention in the news reports.
Another area where we’re doing badly concerns the media landscape. For the Commission, a healthy media landscape goes hand in hand with rule of law. If media freedom is weak, so is rule of law.
And how’s our media freedom ranked by Reporters Without Borders? We’re 78th globally, having barely budged from last year (81st).
Corruption perceptions and media freedom do not just measure deficits. They indicate two different models of government.
For the Commission, rule of law means restraining the arbitrariness of politicians and broadening consultation and decision-making. Transparency and freedom of information help keep politicians in check.
In Malta, it’s clear from the Commission’s full report that our government operates according to a different model. It maximises politicians’ freedom of action, minimises real consultation and, to that end, restricts information, irrespective of what the laws say.
Our problem isn’t that we’re falling short of Europe’s standard. It’s that we have a different one altogether, and by its measure we’re doing rather well.