Updated at 6.35pm

President George Vella traded blows with civil society NGO Repubblika on Friday, accusing the group of lacking credibility and distorting facts in its criticism of the Constitutional reform process he is leading.

Repubblika, in response, described the President's comments as "ill-informed, misleading, petulant" and "beneath the dignity of the highest office of the land". 

Both sides subsequently toned down their criticism when it emerged that the disagreement was the result of a misunderstanding.

The argument began when the NGO accused the President of ignoring submissions it had made - a claim President Vella denied as untrue. 

It later emerged that Repubblika was referring to a set of documents hand-delivered to the Office of the President, which President Vella said he had not been made aware of. 

He said he was happy to meet with Repubblika, prompting the NGO to welcome his commitment and offer to meet whenever the President could make time for them. 

Sequence of events

The NGO had, among other criticisms of a process it described as “extremely limited in scope”, claimed it had received no acknowledgement of its detailed submissions from Dr Vella or from his predecessor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.

However, in a statement on Friday, the Office of the President dismissed these claims as a “distortion of the truth”. 

The President’s Office said Dr Vella received the documents from Repubblika on March 15 and responded that same day. 

“Dr Vella answered by email to Ms Marion Pace Asciak, Repubblika President, acknowledging receipt of documents and saying that as he was still not in office, Dr Vella was not in a position to discuss the matter. 

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“He answered that he could only promise that once he was in office, he would be more than willing to meet and discuss the matter.
 
“On 18th March Ms Marion Pace Asciak thanked him for his ‘prompt response’ and said, ‘we very much look forward to meeting with you to discuss the matter once you are in office’. So much for credibility.”

The President’s Office said that Dr Vella would be willing to meet the NGO, as with other civil society representatives, once a formal request was made.

'Apalling on so many counts'

Dr Vella's statement drew an angry response from Repubblika, which described it as "appalling on so many counts". 

The NGO disputed the President's version of events: insisting that after he came to office, and after the group had received no response from the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform, it had hand-delivered a letter requesting a meeting to discuss its submissions. 

Ill-informed, misleading, petulant statement- Repubblika

This request, it said, had never been acknowledged. 

Repubblika said the President's statement was "undignified" and did nothing to ensure the Constitutional reform process would be transparent, inclusive and in citizens' interests. 

"In persisting in not addressing these fundamental issues, we are saddened to realise he indeed intends to do nothing of the sort," the NGO said.

"We are mortified to find yet another institution of the country captured by the partisan and personal interests of the members of the government and hostile to any attempt by civil society to act independently of partisan interests and to challenge the wielding of power in our country.

"President George Vella has, in his ill-informed, misleading, petulant statement of today, done much damage to the credibility of his office that, our Constitution demands, should be above partisan politics and a trusted figure by everyone in all matters of controversy.

"Instead the President has put up barriers against civil society which are only in his power and responsibility to remove.

Debono criticism

Dr Vella's statement was also criticised by lawyer and former MP Franco Debono, who on Facebook argued that it was unbefitting of the office of the president. 

"That is one of the thousand reasons why it should never have been the president to lead this (fantasy) constitutional reform," he added. 

Dr Debono had in 2013 been asked to lay the groundwork for a constitutional convention to reform the country's highest law. The PN Opposition had objected to that appointment, and the task was subsequently given to President Vella's predecessor, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca. 

A rapprochement 

President Vella later clarified that he had no knowledge of Repubblika's June 10 submissions and reiterated his willingness to meet the NGO and any other civil society groups. 

Responding, Repubblika said it seemed the President's "outburst" had been due to "some confusion within his office", and offered to meet with him as soon as he could make time for him. 

What Repubblika criticised

In its criticism of the reform process headed by Dr Vella, Repubblika insisted that without proper public participation, it stood firmly against any changes to the Constitution. 

"We would much rather continue to enjoy the protections given by our present imperfect Constitution than trust our fate to a future, unknown re-written constitution designed to protect instead the whims of the political parties who currently abuse those safeguards,” it said. 

The NGO said the current process was limited as the public was not aware of submissions by other individuals and entities. 

"The least we would expect is for the decision making process to be determined at the outset and to be made publicly known so that politicians would not be in a position to decide what to debate and approve in Parliament without first having made any public commitments on how they would ensure public awareness of and support for the changes they introduce," the NGO said.

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