Minister without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi emerged from the European Parliament building relatively unscathed, but some MEPs remain concerned about the Maltese government’s good governance credentials, writes Bertrand Borg.
Finance Minister Edward Scicluna had to parry several attacks. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici faced a flurry of criticism. Even Education Minister Evarist Bartolo got an earful about corruption.
But when MEPs in Brussels met the most compromised Maltese Cabinet member of them all this week, they let him off with barely a word of disapproval.
The irony of Konrad Mizzi making it out of Brussels with fewer political bruises than some of his ministerial colleagues will not have been lost on the Opposition, though Nationalist Party MEPs insisted things had gone to plan.
“Disappointed? What I’m disappointed by is the way Konrad Mizzi replied,” Roberta Metsola said. “He came, read a speech that was obviously prepared for him and tried to brush [Panama Papers] concerns off by saying that it was a local issue.”
Her colleague David Casa was equally combative. “Three out of the eight questions put to him were about his financial affairs. You can’t say MEPs ignored them,” he insisted.
Two of those three questions, however, came from himself and Dr Metsola.
“Yes, but look at meetings held with other ministers. Concerns were raised at each of the other major committees. I can assure you this isn’t a normal state of affairs.”
Dr Metsola made a similar observation. “Everywhere I went there was discussion related to the Panama Papers. And questions were not asked by myself or other Maltese MEPs.”
Maltese ministers meeting with MEPs were, for the most part, peppered with questions about their respective policy brief. But though there may not have been any pitchforks brandished at Dr Mizzi’s meeting, the government’s pro-European rhetoric clearly doesn’t wash with some parliamentarians.
Czech MEP Martina Dlabajová is a case in point. “Your ministers say they will work with the European Parliament, but it’s hard to believe them after the way the Maltese government acted on the Leo Brincat vote,” she told The Sunday Times of Malta.
Mr Brincat’s nomination to the European Court of Auditors was roundly rejected by MEPs last September, only for the government to ignore parliamentarians and steamroll Mr Brincat into the position anyway.
Disappointed? What I’m disappointed by is the way Konrad Mizzi replied
“It was not a close vote. It was an overwhelming majority, but the government still ignored it. I have no problem with Mr Brincat himself, but the way the whole thing unfolded left me very uncomfortable.”
Ms Dlabajová, who forms part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, said that her concerns were echoed by many MEPs in her political grouping.
“ALDE’s number one priority is transparency, so of course we are concerned,” she said. Her ALDE colleague Petr Jezek reflected some of those concerns when he told Finance Minister Edward Scicluna “the EU’s image is also judged by the presidency country. It should lead by example.”
Swedish MEP Gunnar Hokmark is another sceptic. An EPP member with a long history in Nordic politics, Mr Hokmark clashed with Prof. Scicluna this week after the minister suggested the Maltese presidency would like to “bend the rules” to ensure flexibility around the EU’s stability and growth pact.
“Rules are there to be followed, not bent,” a cross Mr Hokmark told the minister. Prof. Scicluna quickly retracted the line and rephrased himself. But while Mr Hokmark said he was satisfied with the retraction, he said broader concerns remained.
“It’s a bad omen to start with,” he told The Sunday Times of Malta, “and using those words is a function of some sort of thinking. I presume Prof. Scicluna will ensure the pact will be respected, but that remains to be seen.”
Did Mr Hokmark share the broader governance concerns of his Maltese EPP colleagues?
“There are concerns,” he acknowledged. “But Maltese EPP members are much better at voicing them than I am.”
For Labour MEP Miriam Dalli, Dr Mizzi’s showing at the committee for industry, research and energy (ITRE) meeting was proof that the PN was overplaying the Panama card.
“I’m not justifying it, but the PN has been building up the Panama issue for its own partisan gain,” Dr Dalli said, noting that neither Dr Metsola nor Mr Casa usually attended ITRE committee meetings.
“If their claims that everyone is talking about Panama were true, couldn’t they have found two members of their political group to ask questions of Dr Mizzi, instead of doing it themselves?”
Dr Metsola insisted that the EPP group she and Mr Casa form part of was in their corner. “We were also representing the EPP. We had a full mandate to raise those issues,” she said.
Mr Casa reckoned many MEPs were saving their ammunition for Dr Mizzi’s eventual appearance before a special Panama Papers committee, which is due to visit Malta on February 20.
“Other groupings spoke with us and assured us that they won’t be pulling any punches during PANA committee hearings,” he said.
That prediction left Dr Dalli nonplussed. “Dr Mizzi was right there, sitting before MEPs. If they wanted to ask him questions, they had a chance to do so. And they chose to ask about energy poverty, renewable energy and energy security.”
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