In the final analysis, Malta’s current reform process came about because Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated. Daphne’s death cast a blinding light on profound weaknesses in Malta’s institutions, exposing a vicious circle of high-level corruption, impunity, and the impression that members of a political and business elite were above the law. The entire world became suddenly aware of what went on in the shadows.
Corruption and impunity are a persistent blight on Maltese public life. The government’s mission – which is no more than its democratic duty – should be to remove this blight, completely, once and for all. Its success or failure will be judged on concrete results, and by others, not itself.
I welcome the recent reforms, which are important steps, but they remain flawed and incomplete. Without more, they will not achieve the mission of restoring the rule of law, and with it Malta’s international reputation.
Constitutional reform is indeed an occasion of historical significance, with profound and lasting consequences for the whole country. High levels of transparency and public engagement are required to ensure true – not just formalistic – democratic legitimacy and popular acceptance. Unfortunately, neither requirement has been met.
No one outside the government and parliamentary opposition was consulted on these bills. Malta’s active civil society was kept entirely in the dark.
It seems that most MPs had not even seen the final texts when they were told to vote for them. This is not how things are done in European democracies. They should be done differently in future.
The bills that were enacted last week had been sent by the government to the Venice Commission for the opinion of its legal experts. By presenting the bills for enactment nonetheless, the government was either presuming that the Venice Commission would approve, or indifferent to its opinion. Neither attitude is correct, especially when the previous opinion concluded that “a full assessment can only be made when concrete texts are available”.
Until that assessment has been made, the government cannot claim Venice Commission approval. The government should maintain its current request for an opinion and be willing to amend the new laws if the Venice Commission so recommends.
It seems that the reforms are being rushed through parliament now because the Moneyval deadline for progress on anti-money laundering measures falls after the summer. The first Venice Commission opinion on rule of law reform came in December 2018. The former administration dawdled, manoeuvred, and made empty promises, but ultimately failed to act. Not until this spring was there a meaningful response. But the earlier procrastination cannot justify or excuse the opacity, confusion, and last-minute haste that we are seeing now.
The reforms are also incomplete. Allegations of high-level corruption disappear into the black hole of interminable magisterial inquiries. Why is the government ignoring the Venice Commission’s call to reform this ineffective process?
Europe expects concrete results on the corruption scandals that have rocked Maltese politics in recent years
The police, specialists in prevention and investigation of crime, are also obliged to prosecute in court. Why has the government still not implemented the Venice Commission’s recommendation that the attorney general has exclusive responsibility for prosecutions?
Parliament, with its underpaid, part-time MPs, many of them on the government’s generous payroll, is still ineffectual in its democratic role – as the abrupt and non-transparent passage of the recent reform bills demonstrates.
Why is the government ignoring the Venice Commission’s proposals to make parliament into an effective check and balance on executive power?
The reforms are welcome, but the systems of investigation, prosecution and parliamentary oversight will still be inadequate. These shortcomings are the reason why scandal-ridden politicians and officials could stay in power for so long and why the many allegations against them remain unresolved, years after they emerged. Failure to address these fundamental problems leaves gaping holes in the reform process.
Until these gaps are filled, European bodies like the Parliamentary Assembly, Moneyval and GRECO will remain unsatisfied; and this will have negative political and economic consequences for all of Malta. The government should complete the reforms and ensure that these consequences are avoided.
Reforms on paper, even changes in personnel, will not be enough. Europe expects concrete results on the corruption scandals that have rocked Maltese politics in recent years, and which are said to lie behind Daphne’s murder. True, senior politicians and officials have resigned in disgrace, and independent oversight bodies like the ombudsman and the auditor general have issued damning reports.
But until the criminal investigations reach credible conclusions and suspects are vigorously prosecuted, impunity will continue to reign in Malta. The clouds of suspicion that swirled around the last prime minister will continue to hang over his successor.
Which brings me back to the murder of Caruana Galizia. The international outrage at her death produced irresistible pressure for holistic institutional reform. But the murder itself remains unpunished. Charges have been brought but no-one has been convicted. The state failed to protect the crucial witness, without whose evidence the case against the accused mastermind could collapse.
The authorities must do more to expedite and secure these proceedings. For the international community, full justice for Daphne will be the ultimate acid test of Malta’s rule of law credentials.
Pieter Omtzigt, Council of Europe rapporteur on Malta’s rule of law