Updated 2.40pm with Graffitti statement
Prime Minister Robert Abela has defended the government from criticism about plans to sign a military agreement with the US, after Times of Malta revealed that ministers had agreed in July to back the pact.
Speaking to reporters outside his office at Castille, Abela denied any link between plans to sign a Security of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US and Malta’s upcoming Moneyval anti-money laundering assessment, saying the two were “distinct”.
He, however, went on to argue that the government was being attacked for doing the very thing its critics wanted.
“There’s a push – which I agree with – for us to do everything to pass the Moneyval test and battle money laundering. But then on the other hand, there is resistance against us making a move,” Abela said.
The prime minister likened the situation to criticism the government had faced about implementing rule of law reforms.
“First we were criticised for doing nothing, and now it seems people aren't happy with what we've done. Let's be consistent,” he said.
Criticism of plans
Cabinet agreed in July to back a Security of Forces Agreement with the US, in the hope of securing Washington’s backing ahead of a crucial Moneyval assessment in October.
Times of Malta broke news of that agreement on Tuesday, five months after it had first reported that the US had a “wish list” which it wanted to be satisfied in exchange for backing Malta during October’s Moneyval assessment.
The report prompted criticism that the deal would nullify Malta’s constitutional neutrality. Activist group Moviment Graffitti condemned the plans as "humiliating and unconstitutional" and said the president was "legally and morally bound to reject this agreement due to its evident unconstitutionality".
But Abela on Tuesday said that any agreement signed would respect constitutional requirements.
In a statement later in the day, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that "no such agreement exists, and Malta is no closer to signing an agreement with the United States of America or NATO than over the past years."
An eventual deal is likely to have to obtain a two-thirds majority in parliament before it can become law. In a statement, the opposition PN said that it had not been consulted about the deal, but stopped short of saying it would vote against it in parliament.
The Maltese government has never confirmed or denied SOFA negotiations with the US. On Tuesday, Abela stuck to that line and said that information about “any eventual agreement which may be signed” would be given in due course.
Asked whether that meant no SOFA deal would be signed, Abela was categorical.
“I never said that,” he told a reporter.
A SOFA deal would grant the US a measure of jurisdictional autonomy within Maltese territory, although the specific terms of the deal presented to ministers remain unknown.
Similar deals which the US has with other countries establish the rights and privileges of US personnel, including the military, in the host country.
Sources within the government have told Times of Malta that the deal would also give the US greater freedom to police Hurd’s Bank, an offshore area often used by smugglers to move illicit goods, out of sight of Maltese enforcement agencies.
The US embassy has declined to comment about negotiations and directed questions to the Maltese government.
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