On December 4, 2019, Birgit Sippel, a Socialist MEP speaking in Valletta, told journalists that Malta’s Socialist prime minister needed to leave office immediately because, she said, “trust has been completely destroyed”.
That was the nadir of Malta’s credibility on the world stage, the furthest we’ve been from the day when somebody else’s king gifted us a medal for our flag. The tumble to that bottom was deep. Two years earlier, when Daphne Caruana Galizia had been killed, Joseph Muscat was the darling of the European Socialists with friends across the political divide. He charmed older men and manipulated younger ones.
For months and years, people across European politics assumed that Muscat’s critics envied him his power and influence. They assumed that allegations of corruption and of unbearable proximity to Caruana Galizia’s killers were, as he told them, crafted by his enemies.
By December 2019, MEPs from across the political spectrum were openly saying they suspected that while Muscat remained in office, evidence that could convict Daphne’s killers could be, would be, destroyed. It had come to that. Within days, Muscat promised to resign. Within weeks he left Castille.
His successor was, for these European observers, an unknown quantity with a knack for saying the right things. He placed distance between himself and the appointment of the new police chief. He involved the opposition when choosing the new chief justice. He stopped the daily suppression of the Daphne protest memorial in Valletta. He called all that “reforms”.
Robert Abela would, he promised, work to regain the trust that Muscat had “completely destroyed”.
Abela is coming up on 40 months in office. He is a veteran of a general election free of Muscat. He enjoys a strong parliamentary majority, an undoubted popular mandate and a task list of reforms drawn up for him variously by the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and others. He has the power to implement reforms, even mildly unpopular ones, without owing any explanations to anyone.
This is where the nearly irrepressible power of a Maltese prime minister commanding a single party majority in parliament would have come in handy. Forty months would have been more than enough to transform this country into a model of good governance, a trusted partner for all those international interlocutors who had branded us pariahs a month before Abela took office.
And, yet, here we are.
Just a few days ago, Abela received European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. This would have been a good time to put on an impressive show.
In a few weeks, the commission will be publishing its yearly rule of law reports for all member states, including Malta. This one is significant because it will be the second time the report will include recommendations on what the subject state needs to do to align the state of the rule of law within its territory with European norms and standards.
That means the next report is the first-ever to include a score sheet, a check on whether and to what extent previous recommendations have been implemented.
Forty months would have been more than enough to transform this country into a model of good governance- Manuel Delia
In other words, Abela’s meeting with Reynders was the right opportunity to run through last year’s report and make sure the commissioner understands just how much progress we’ve made and how entitled we are to enjoy his trust and everybody else’s.
We know Abela told Reynders that Malta “learnt its lessons” and the reforms it is introducing are “game-changing”. But has it? Are they?
I can’t presume to know what the European Commission will say when its report is out. But last year’s report is public and I’m living in this country so I can check for myself what progress we’ve made. I could take you through the itemised list, though some of it you might find too esoteric for Sunday morning.
Together with several other activists from NGOs of all persuasions, I went through the list with Commissioner Reynders, though I should say he did not appear shocked when we told him Malta has not made an inch of progress. None at all.
I take you back to December 4, 2019 and remind you why the most senior non-Labour Party Socialist in the country that day said that Muscat had destroyed trust altogether.
It was because Caruana Galizia had been killed and it didn’t look like the Maltese state wanted to undergo what should have been the inevitable consequences of that bare fact.
Instead, nearly six years since Daphne was killed, nearly two years since a public inquiry made a list of things to fix Malta’s flawed democracy where a journalist has been, and more could be, killed, the Maltese government hasn’t even begun to implement any significant changes.
Sure, the government has said a lot in the last three years. They have proposed parliamentary bills and then froze them or withdrew them. They made proposals and then forgot about them. They increased resources to departments, depriving them of the authority to execute their basic functions.
Malta’s media law is barely different to the one in place when Daphne was killed. It’s still not illegal to form or join a mafia. Ministers can obstruct justice and abuse their power if they do those things to make sure they’re not caught committing the crime they’re covering up.
Inquiries that were ongoing when Daphne was alive are still ongoing, long after she wasn’t. Prosecutions that started since are going nowhere, by all accounts by design.
And the people who continue to insist this is not right are still identified as objects of hate by the ruling party and the media it owns or controls.
No trust is regained in this atmosphere when Malta had lost it the way it did by December 2019.
Abela has had nearly 40 months to turn the tide. It’s looking like it might swamp him.