The European Commissioner responsible for justice, Didier Reynders, is in Malta for a couple of days. He’s mostly seeing ministers who are, judging by reports of the parts of his meetings that were held in public, telling him how Malta ‘learnt its lessons’ about good governance and now everything is working fine.
He’s holding a meeting with NGOs this morning and I’m planning to tell him why I think he’s being given the wrong impression. But who’s little me when compared to the prime minister?
Times of Malta quote four reasons the prime minister gave to convince Commissioner Reynders that the law rules in Malta, ok.
First: Malta has been taken off the grey list. That has followed changes in the regulation of the financial services sector that needed to be made. We’ve made the changes, so we’re ok. There’s also been some people charged for money laundering and a raft of heavy fines to service providers for not complying with strict rules on customer oversight.
Has there been a material impact of those changes? Some. Smaller operators who wouldn’t or couldn’t keep up with all the red tape and the enormous liability of paying gigantic fines for any infraction have been pushed out of the financial services business. Fine. That’s reduced risk.
But the small operators are not the ones that landed us into trouble, are they? They’re not the reason why we got into the grey list in the first place. We got into the grey-list because of the ministers on the Panama Papers, because of the shocking scandals at Electrogas and the hospitals concession, because of Pilatus Bank and the license and protection it got from the authorities. None of those scandals were handled by the self-employed serial director and corporate services provider who has now had to quit because of all the bureaucracy
The big shot criminals continue to enjoy impunity. Many of them – think Electrogas – continue to profit from their swindles. Inquiries that started five years ago or more have no end in sight and the one that did close (Pilatus) has been ignored or suppressed by the state institutions.
In an area that concerns the entire continent, Commissioner Reynders did raise an eyebrow. How is that Malta only seized less than a quarter of a million dollars in assets held here by Russian oligarchs? He could have pointed out that due to Malta’s passport-selling scheme which is, I should add, still in place, some 1,000 friends of Vladimir Putin born in Russia hold Maltese passports. Did they just have $200,000 between them here?
The unwillingness of the Maltese authorities to enforce the law on rich people is astounding. Commissioner Reynders should have asked the Maltese authorities what is being held in Malta’s so-called asset recovery bureau, what wealth has been seized from criminals of any original nationality, not just Russian. The answer would have been nearly fuck all.
For this is how we got out of the grey list, not by seizing assets from crooks but by drawing up a law that says we would.
Final score: it looks like things got better but they didn’t.
Second: The prime minister recalled how we changed the way we hire the police chief, the chief justice, and judges after the Venice Commission report.
That’s only partly true. Here’s which part.
There’s a process now to hire the police commissioner. Before, the choice would be the prime minister’s alone. Now the decision has been formally assigned to people handpicked by the prime minister. In practice there is no difference and the results show. Angelo Gafà has proven as determined to protect criminals with political connections as any of his predecessors.
They did change the way the chief justice is hired. Before, the choice would be the prime minister’s alone. Now the prime minister must seek agreement with the leader of opposition before the choice is made. That still makes the choice political and it is still a chip on the independence of the judiciary from the other branches of government. But there’s another lesson here.
Learning from how they clawed back on the requirement for cross party consensus to appoint a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life we know exactly what will happen the first time the prime minister wants to appoint a chief justice the opposition doesn’t like. They will change the law to make the choice alone, reverting to where we’ve always been.
The way judges are appointed has changed. For the better. By any judgement, irrevocably so. That’s an improvement but let the government not claim credit for that. They ignored the Venice Commission and made partisan appointments to the judiciary until Repubblika challenged them in court and took the matter to the European Court of Justice. It is only for fear of what the ECJ might rule that they relented and made the change having first fought with all their might even against our right to challenge them.
Final score: things are a bit better but not as good as they claim and what has improved is no thanks to them.
Third: they are introducing a one-year limit on the compilation of evidence stage in serious criminal trials. That comes out of a white paper they published a few days ago that in theory is still open for public consultation. Clearly, Robert Abela has decided to do this before the consultation even started.
It wouldn’t matter if it was a good idea. I can’t tell you much for now but I can share that Repubblika is studying the government’s proposal and will be making its views known. Hint: the proposal is crap. If this is the limit of the government’s imagination the fundamental problem we have will not materially change. What’s the fundamental problem? That it takes way more than is acceptable to get a conviction for people accused of serious crimes. This measure won’t change that.
And we have a greater problem the government is not touching. We have a barely competent attorney general’s office which is blundering its way to disastrous outcomes in the few prosecutions they started to impress the evaluators of the FATF. The measure of success is not that they started prosecutions. The only measure that counts is the outcome: conviction of the guilty. Good luck with that.
Final score: this is a half-baked not-even-a-month-old idea that hasn’t even made it to Parliament yet let alone anywhere near implementation. It is not evidence of improvement of governance at all.
Fourth: the prime minister hailed “game changing” legislation to guarantee press freedom. I’m sorry, what? What did I miss? Was I in a coma?
It turns out the prime minister is referring to the draft legislation they published last September which the committee the government itself appointed found to be spectacularly short of any change that could make even the slightest difference. The government was forced to shelf the drafts pending consultation, which it hasn’t even started yet.
Game changing my foot. The fact is the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry was published nearly two years ago and none of its recommendations has been implemented yet. Meantime threats to journalists and activists continue unabated, sometimes the scale forcing a chilling recollection of what she was made to suffer before she was blown up in her car.
Robert Abela plastered my face on his billboard campaign in the last general election, exactly the same game his party played in the lead up to Daphne’s execution.
But it’s not about billboards, is it? Freedom of information is still observed in the breach. The government still spends on advertising at its discretion without any oversight or rules on fairness. Access to ministers is still controlled and forbidden to media perceived as unfriendly. The prime minister still refuses to sit for interviews with anyone he does not employ. The police have withdrawn all measures of protection for journalists. Journalists are still subjected to vexatious libel suits. There are still no measures to protect us from SLAPPs and the measures they propose are a far cry from the minimum standards recommended by the European Commission.
Final score: the prime minister’s claim on improving the conditions for journalists in the country is complete and utter bullshit.
This is where we really are. The European Commission will be tempted to behave exactly as it did in the months and years before Daphne was killed. They will prefer the more comforting reports prepared for them by the government to tell them all is rosy in Malta and this little island they should not waste any time on is a success story of the European project. They might well do that, until some other fire temporarily shocks them into realising a government is not the ideal reporting source for the quality of its behaviour. Again.