The European Commission panel monitoring Valletta 2018 has demanded clarification over recent high-profile dismissals which it said appeared to be politically motivated and “compromise seriously” the V18 project.

In a letter to Culture Minister Owen Bonnici and V18 Foundation chairman Jason Micallef, seen by the Times of Malta, the European Capital of Culture monitoring panel said it had received “very concerning news about unexpected yet critical changes in the team and structure of Valletta 2018” – just six months before the start of events.

Karsten Xuereb. Photo: Valletta 2018 FoundationKarsten Xuereb. Photo: Valletta 2018 Foundation

“The sudden departures of the executive director [Karsten Xuereb] and an important part of the artistic team… are very risky steps at this stage,” panel chairman Ulrich Fuchs wrote.

The letter, dated June 29, also said the panel had received information that the “dismissals” may have political reasons and may be consequences of the recent general election.

“It seems decisions that led to these changes have been taken without the usual legal requirements, due transparency and communication, notably among all members of the Board of the Foundation,” the panel said.

“Such profound structural changes in Valletta 2018 team only a few months before the opening compromises seriously the prestige and success of the European Capitals of Culture initiative in 2018 in Malta.

“We ask you urgently to please clarify the situation, informing the panel as soon as ever possible on what is your strategy and further plans to bring the ECOC into the right path.”

MaltaToday has reported that V18 executive director Karsten Xuereb, programme coordinator Margerita Pulé and visual arts curator Maren Richter had all been dismissed from their posts.

The V18 Foundation has not confirmed or denied the report, and Mr Xuereb and Ms Pulé both declined to comment when contacted.

But sources within V18 told this newspaper that Mr Xuereb had been transferred to another department, with a new executive director to be announced shortly, while Ms Pulé had been placed on leave.

Both were among the most senior members of the team and had been with the project since day one.

The Culture Ministry and the Valletta 2018 Foundation refused to answer questions yesterday on their reaction to the monitoring panel’s pointed criticism and the reasons behind the changes.

In a brief joint reply, they described media reports of dismissals as “incorrect” but said they would clarify further in a statement to be released today.

While the reasons behind the dismissals remain unknown, sources said the mood within the foundation had grown increasingly toxic recently, with Mr Micallef calling all staff to an exceptional clear-the-air meeting last week.

Later, in an e-mail to V18 staff sent around 1am, Mr Micallef said Mr Xuereb and Ms Pulé had lost his “personal confidence” and that staff were no longer to take instructions from them.

The e-mail, seen by this newspaper, warned that anyone who disregarded the order would be “personally defying [his] authority”.

On June 26, Mr Micallef was quoted in The Malta Independent as saying: “It would be madness if we had to change the chair or the leadership of the foundation now that we are on the eve of the official opening.”

He did not respond to questions yesterday on what motivated his change of heart.

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