At her state of the EU speech yesterday Ursula von der Leyen had words of praise for Malta’s judicial reforms of last year. She was talking about the changes to the way Malta chooses its judges.
Labour trolls somehow took this as a club to bash in the heads of the government’s critics. ‘Do you see? Europeans think Malta’s Labour is ace.’ But logic was never trolls’ strongest suit.
The reforms happened because the government feared losing the case brought against it by Repubblika in the European Court of Justice arguing the old system was in breach of EU law. The government defended the old system. They mocked and criticised Repubblika for treasonous conduct for even making the claim.
But they could not risk the scrutiny of the evidence: not merely that we had a system of appointing judges that was open to abuse. But that the system was systemically abused by Joseph Muscat’s government who stuffed the judiciary with his cronies.
Is it not hilarious that Jason Azzopardi is being dragged to have his criticism of Judge Giovanni Grixti examined by a commission empowered to disbar him? What’s funny about it? I admit it may be hard to see the humour in the ridiculous state of affairs, I grant you. But it must be there somewhere considering that Giovanni Grixti was the judge who blocked the criminal inquiries in Labour politicians for uncited reasons that can generously be described as partisan. If we are unable to criticise him, we are truly unable to criticise anyone.
The fact is the mess of judicial partisan bias has not been removed by last year’s reforms. A lid has been put on its aggravation which is as much as we could achieve.
And we achieved as much in spite of the government rather than because of it.
Incidentally, while we’re at it, just in case President von der Leyen reads this, we achieved those reforms in spite of her Commission rather than because of it as well. They refused at every step of the way to openly press the Maltese authorities for judicial reform. They refused to acknowledge the argument that the way Joseph Muscat stuffed the judiciary with his cronies undermined the rule of law. They supported the Maltese government in the European Court case instead of bringing the case against them themselves.
And they did that because of the Commission’s relativistic and tactical approach of wanting to avoid adding to the troublesome list of tyrannical member states like Hungary and Poland. Ignore Malta’s manifest erosion of its rule of law mechanisms so that it can be kept on the longer list of good guys.
The Commission President’s remarks about Malta yesterday sounded like sitting on laurels, other people’s laurels as it happens.
It will be decades before we can hope for a rebalancing of the judicial branch.
The damage to the perception of independence and in a handful of cases the impact on the quality of judgements handed down by appointees who are clearly not qualified for the job except as a reward for past and potentially future services to the Labour Party cannot be rubbed off with a 50-word amendment to the Constitution.
These warped appointments will have to be diluted by the attrition of time and retirement. Joseph Muscat’s legacy will sit on the lungs of our court system for a long time yet.
Surely what matters is results. The manner of appointing judges is the tip of the iceberg. We’ll know we’ve dug deep enough and scraped out enough rot in this wheezing behemoth, when someone, anyone, is convicted of crimes like abuse of power, corruption, bribery, laundering of proceeds from corruption, and the commission of crimes a public official was in duty bound to prevent.
To get there our law and enforcement infrastructure needs to be modernised, procedures shortened and strengthened, safeguards improved, competence enhanced, resources replenished.
How can we even hope to achieve that when you think that the best people Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela found to run the justice department were and are Owen Bonnici and Edward Zammit Lewis, two people so far out of their depth they’ve lost sight of their own toes?
The closest the present administration has got to judicial reform is crawling behind their former Deputy Leader Joe Brincat whose pronouncements on the rule of law are as useful as a dragon’s advice on fire safety.
I make it sound like achieving the conviction of corrupt politicians and their criminal associates would be worthy of praise. The fact that this has not happened yet and no one is too optimistic it is going to happen soon, means that this country is still unable or unwilling to function like a proper democracy under the rule of law.
And that should be a problem for the European Commission.
Privately, no doubt, it is.
It seems they have not learned yet that our ministers are never pushed to action by private reprimands and whispered admonitions. That sort of pressure does not get our ministers to change routes they know full well lead to their re-election.
The only thing that made the government take any steps towards reform was the fear of public embarrassment, of a very public condemnation by the European Court of Justice, say. The meaningful achievements of the last four years would not have been possible without clear and very public action.
We speak today of the findings of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry, forgetting, it seems, that we would never have had any of that had the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe not voted on a resolution forcing the government to do it, over the shrill protestations by Rosianne Cutajar and a handful of Azerbaijani allies she managed to dragoon.
President von der Leyen was absolutely right when she said that “the protection of the rule of law is not just an aim, but daily hard work and improvement.”
Protecting the rule of law is a distant dream for us here. We still have to achieve the rule of law in the first place.