The political futures of European commissioner nominee-in-waiting Chris Fearne and central bank governor Edward Scicluna are hanging by a thread after they were served criminal charges on Monday, in the wake of the Vitals inquiry. They are to face charges of fraud, misappropriation and fraudulent gain in connection with the hospitals' deal.

Fearne, Malta’s deputy prime minister and EU funds minister, was earmarked to succeed Helena Dalli as Malta’s next European commissioner.

Meanwhile, Scicluna, a former finance minister, has been at the helm of Malta’s central bank since early 2021, automatically giving him a seat on the European Central Bank’s governing council, alongside central bank governors from around Europe.

But the tumultuous events over the past week could change all that, despite Robert Abela’s assurances to the contrary.

Edward Scicluna

Scicluna’s seat on the ECB’s governing council means that he has “a special responsibility to maintain the integrity and reputation of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB) and the European Central Bank (ECB)”, according to the ECB’s code of conduct.

The code of conduct makes no mention of what should happen to members facing criminal charges, although having a charge hanging over his head may appear to run counter to Scicluna’s special responsibility to uphold the institution’s reputation.

But, much to the ECB’s embarrassment, Scicluna wouldn’t be the only member of its governing council to be in legal hot water.

Peter Kazimir, governor of Slovakia’s central bank, vowed to remain in office when faced with bribery and corruption charges back in 2021. The charges related to crimes allegedly committed when Kazimir was the country’s finance minister. Kazimir denies any wrongdoing.

Three years on, Kazimir remains in charge of Slovakia’s central bank and has held on to his spot on the ECB’s governing council, despite currently standing trial and facing a potential five-year prison sentence.

This week’s developments mean that two out of the 26-strong ECB governing council are fighting criminal charges.

Kazimir’s story pales in comparison to that of Latvian central bank head, Ilmārs Rimšēvičs who was caught trying to solicit a €250,000 bribe in 2018. Rimšēvičs was barred from office by the Latvian government, effectively leaving the country without a representative on the ECB’s governing council, in a move that was later deemed unlawful by the European Court of Justice.

Rimšēvičs’s joy was short-lived. Late last year, he was found guilty of bribery by the Latvian courts and sentenced to a six-year jail term.

Questions sent to the Central Bank of Malta asking whether Scicluna plans to step down from his post remain unanswered at the time of publication.

Meanwhile, Nationalist MEP David Casa called for Scicluna’s resignation yesterday, saying that his continued tenure “will irreparably damage the reputation of our country as a financial centre”.

Chris Fearne

Like Scicluna, Fearne’s eventual post as a European commissioner would mean that he is bound by the commission’s code of conduct.

The prospect of criminal charges doesn’t feature in the code but members are instructed not to act in a way “which adversely affects the public perception of their independence, their integrity or the dignity of their office”.

Fearne’s nomination would feature the added complication of having to be approved by EU heads of government in the European Council, before facing a grilling first by an EP committee responsible for their portfolio and later by the European Parliament itself.

The prospect of a nominee facing criminal charges overcoming these hurdles appears to be slim.

France’s nominee during the current legislature, Sylvie Goulard, was turned down by a EP committee, partly over suspicions that she misused EU funds by using parliamentary assistants for her domestic political work.

Although she was not facing formal charges at the time, the allegations were enough for the EP to reject Goulard’s nomination citing ethical concerns, with the European People’s Party particularly vocal in their criticism.

Goulard was later placed under formal investigation but the case was eventually dropped. By then, it was too late for Goulard, whose place was taken by European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton.

Like Goulard, Romanian nominee Rovana Plumb was rejected by an EP committee over a series of problematic loans that raised suspicions of corruption.

Plumb had failed to declare two loans amounting to almost €1m, leading MEPs to question Plumb’s suitability for the role.

At the same time, Hungarian nominee Laszlo Trocsanyi was also rejected over concerns about contracts won by a law firm he co-founded, among other things.

Although Fearne is believed to have garnered widespread respect, particularly over his handling of the pandemic, history suggests that he would face an uphill struggle to have his nomination confirmed while under the cloud of criminal proceedings.

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