In three short months, the Labour government has managed to turn its cash-for-citizenship scheme into a veritable public relations disaster.
Last November, the government was forced to retract the confidentiality clause from the so-called Individual Investment Programme.
Just before Christmas, the government claimed constituted bodies were in agreement with another revision of the scheme, imposing the purchase of property and bonds in addition to a fee of €650,000. As the Christmas sparklers died down, it emerged that just a handful of the social partners were really on board.
In a joint statement on Wednesday night, the European Commission and the government said an applicant would now have to provide effective proof of a 12-month residency period to obtain a Maltese passport.
However, in a press conference held before the statement had been released, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told reporters that applicants “would not need to live in Malta for 365 days”.
Instead of admitting that the government had no choice but to introduce a residence requirement, Dr Muscat and his colleagues embarked on a media exercise to give the impression that the EU had consented to the original plan.
Economy of truth is a very dangerous game and should not be the remit of prime ministers.
If his words cut any ice here, they certainly failed to thaw the tough stance taken by the international media, which unanimously said Malta had given in to EU pressure. Or will the government argue that this reportage was also orchestrated by the PN?
The fundamental problem is that the government rushed through the scheme, even though it was mentioned nowhere in its electoral manifesto, and it arrogantly tried to ram it down people’s throats because, as we keep hearing, it obtained a 36,000 majority at the last election.
Yet, the protests were so loud that it had to amend it on three occasions, a clear sign that Labour is still finding it hard to govern and accept we are now part of a 28-nation bloc.
In the long run, the government is likely to be happy with the scheme, especially as the Opposition was insisting on a five-year residence requirement, because it has the potential to earn big money.
However, one problem is clear: this government is already giving indications that it will not be monitoring the residency requirement. What interpretation will it give to ‘residency’? What checks and balances will be put in place to make sure that those who apply would actually set foot on the island?
Should this government want to send a message to the EU that it is not just a money-grabber, it should introduce systems of granting citizenship to other (not rich) non-EU citizens who have paid taxes for years and contributed to the country’s development.
So where does the agreement leave the PN, which was right to object strongly to the programme?
The Nationalist Party cannot continue threatening to withdraw citizenship granted under this scheme now that it has been sanctioned by the European Commission. The most it can say is that it would amend it in future to include a longer residency requirement.
At the end of the day, this public relations disaster has taught us one thing: that the EU is ultimately the best shield for Maltese citizens.
After consistently ignoring the legitimate calls made by many Maltese citizens and by the Opposition, the government had no choice but to bow to the insistence of the EU. The least it could do now is be honest and admit it.