The Malta Business Registry’s overeager move to shut down access to its Ultimate Beneficial Ownership register looks to soon be reversed, with the European Parliament and the European Council going into talks at the beginning of next month that are expected to see the ban lifted.
Two different European parliamentary committees last month issued a joint opinion that member states’ registries of the ultimate beneficial owners of companies must be reopened to journalists and civil society organisations.
The Council has also signalled its approval for EU registries to be opened as is being suggested by the committees, which puts the Maltese government in a tight spot after it rushed to restrict access to its Ultimate Beneficial Ownership registry at the first given opportunity.
The EP had announced its draft negotiating mandates during its 17 April plenary session and since there were no objections to starting negotiations with the Council, the talks on the final form of the legislation can now begin.
And with both the Council and Parliament being of the same mindset when it comes to the closing, or rather the opening, of UBO registers, it remains to be seen whether the MBR will wait until it is ordered to the registry to journalists or whether it will do so voluntarily.
Journalists from The Shift, as well as other Maltese newsrooms, have applied through the MBR’s formal channels to be once again granted access to the register, in line with provisions of the ECJ’s ruling, but they have so far been denied.
Malta had been in the first small wave of EU member states that was quick to abruptly close off access to their registries for journalists last November in the immediate wake of a European Court of Justice ruling on the Luxembourg UBO registry.
The other EU states that immediately restricted access along with Malta were, tellingly, Luxembourg and The Netherlands.
All three are infamous for protecting foreign financial interests that create brass plate shell companies in their low-tax jurisdictions, which, among more nefarious purposes, effectively allow them to evade the taxman in the countries in which they operate.
UBO registries contain sensitive and often concealed information on the people behind some of those companies’ intentionally opaque ownership structures.
Malta closed off its UBO register to journalists the day after the ECJ ruling. Malta’s UBO registry is held at the Malta Business Registry, which falls under the political remit of Economy Minister Silvio Schembri.
Earlier this month the EP’s Economic and Monetary Affairs and Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committees both voted to have the registers reopened to people holding a legitimate interest. Such individuals include journalists, civil society organisations and higher education institutions.
MEPs also want member states’ UBO registries interconnected and accessible to the same group of people who have a legitimate interest in accessing them.
The committees’ MEPs also voted for such access rights to be valid for at least two and a half years. While member states will automatically renew access, it can also be revoked or suspended if it is abused, according to the rules being proposed.
They also voted for information on beneficial ownership to be available digitally, in an EU official language plus English, and include current and historical information for a defined period.
The entity in charge of the central register will also have the right to request from corporate and legal entities any information necessary to identify and verify their beneficial owners.
This information will also have to be up to date and a failure to provide accurate and adequate data to registers will be sanctioned.
A resolution on the matter will go before the EP’s plenary later this month, after which parliament will begin negotiations with the European Commission and Council to hammer out the final legislation.
Council has already signalled its approval for EU registries to be opened as is being suggested by the committees, which puts the government in a tight spot after it rushed to restrict access to Malta’s Ultimate Beneficial Ownership registry.
In its agreement on the EU’s anti-money laundering ‘rulebook’ and on a new directive, the AMLD6, the Council of the European Union made it amply clear that “Member States should ensure that any natural or legal person that can demonstrate a legitimate interest has access to information held in the beneficial ownership registers, and such persons should include those journalists and civil society organisations that are connected with the prevention and combating of money laundering and terrorist financing.”
It is unclear what position Malta had taken at Council level after it was one of the first EU states to have jumped on the bandwagon and cut off access to its UBO register in the wake of its questionable interpretation of the ECJ ruling.
The Maltese government will, however, soon be expected to abide by an eventual EU-level agreement, meaning the Malta Business Registry will be obliged to backtrack and re-open its ultimate beneficial ownership register to at least the press and certain civil society groups.
The decision by the European Council and Parliament is most welcomed by the independent media.
Please go ahead ASAP.
Opening up the registry should expose all the murky dealings committed by politicians. Little wonder the MLP didn’t want journalists’ access. The rats all might have to scurry off to Dubai!