‘Friends of friends’ networks are an inevitable way of life in a small society like Malta’s, MEP Alfred Sant told The Sunday Times of Malta in an interview.

During his time as Opposition leader, Dr Sant would frequently criticise PN governments for cronyism and political patronage in what he termed the ‘friends of friends’ networks.

Questioned if the ‘friends of friends’ style of government had been eliminated by Labour, Dr Sant said an island like Malta functions on the basis of such networks.

“It is not a good idea, but that is how it works. I do not like it. But that is how it works”, Dr Sant said.

The MEP, who served as Opposition leader from 1992 to 1996 and from 1998 to 2008, and Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998, countered that these networks had not come about overnight and he had spent many years deploring such practices.

Sometimes, these ‘friends of friends’ did deliver good investment opportunities, he added.

“For instance, back in the 1960s ‘friends of friends’ of George Borg Olivier and Dom Mintoff came back to Malta, set up tourism systems and factories that are still delivering now.”

The MEP said it was worth bearing in mind that ‘friends of friends’ networks existed all over the world.

He said they were evident in the European Parliament, where certain individuals were intent on pushing forward their own agenda on the basis of such networks.

Dr Sant accused the PN of using the European Parliament to resurrect and keep certain issues going.

He dismissed the hearings last week by the Libe (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) and Tax3 (Financial Crimes, Tax Evasion and Tax Avoidance) committees of the European Parliament as “more of the same”.

Dr Sant said that during his time in Opposition he had never sought to project local corruption scandals, of which there were many, onto the international stage.

It is not a good idea, but that is how it works. I do not like it

He had campaigned against corruption and when in office had proposed the setting up of a judge equipped to investigate such acts. Such proposals were resisted by both the then Opposition and the judiciary, he said.

He noted that these proposals were now being put forward by PN exponents like Jason Azzopardi.

The former prime minister said the recent Lux Leaks and Panama Papers leaks had been used by certain big countries to build a narrative in favour of harmonising financial and taxation policies.

Asked why the government did not nip the Panama Papers narrative in the bud by getting rid of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, Dr Sant said that was a polemical question that had nothing to do with economic policy.

“This was used to attack Malta in terms of reputation risk. I look at facts. The fact is that the economy did not suffer due to these reputational attacks”.

Questioned what he would have done as prime minister, Dr Sant said he had already expressed himself on the matter in the past.

When the Panama Papers scandal broke in 2016, Dr Sant had joined Education Minister Evarist Bartolo in calling for Dr Mizzi’s resignation.

On the tax harmonisation front, Dr Sant warned that the drive towards harmonisation by the OECD was actually moving faster than the EU’s, which was something Malta had to be aware of.

Countries like Malta had to show they were in favour of tax transparency while standing firm against tax harmonisation, he said.

On the economy, Dr Sant dismissed concerns that Malta’s record economic growth was being driven by passport sales, a construction boom and cheap labour.

While acknowledging the role of construction, Dr Sant said the boom was being sustained by tourism, financial services and the gaming sector.

Dr Sant said that prior to 2013, the government’s main concern was implementing eurozone rules without thinking outside of the box. The Labour government had managed to unleash creative forces by still accepting eurozone rules while expanding in other areas.

Failure to do so would have meant sticking to the previous PN policy of stability and containment, he said.  

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