Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Europe has a big Malta problem that could shake the Union up
At the time of her death, she was tracking at least three stories that showed massive corruption in Malta with the needle of suspicion pointing straight at Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s office and his durbar. (Photo: Reuters)
At the time of her death, she was tracking at least three stories that showed massive corruption in Malta with the needle of suspicion pointing straight at Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s office and his durbar. (Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | Europe has a big Malta problem that could shake the Union up

The murder of a Maltese journalist has put the spotlight on top-level corruption and a web of dubious links across the European Union

Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, was blown up in her car a little more than two years ago outside her home. At the time of her death, she was tracking at least three stories that showed massive corruption in Malta with the needle of suspicion pointing straight at Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s office and his durbar. Her big question then was this: Had Malta become the European Union’s (EU) laundrette for black money, a playground for the corrupt and the ruthless? If so, what was her country’s future?

These are the very questions that Europe’s top leaders ask themselves everyday at a time when the continent is at a crossroads, shaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (Nato) loosening grip over issues military and strategic, trade wars and lacklustre leadership. France and Germany want to stand up to US President Donald Trump, who appears to think Nato is a use-and-throw tool. On the other side is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is going about his business as usual. This is geopolitics, voters are told.

The question that must be answered is this. How can the EU rise to the challenge posed by questions within Nato, especially those coming from the US, when it is not able to handle Malta, one of its smallest members that is dragging every European institution down with it? What is the meaning of European democracy if Muscat refuses to step aside so that an independent enquiry can begin into Caruana Galizia’s murder?

Must he step down? Consider this. The mounting burden of evidence around him has prompted him to do the strangest of things. He has locked up some 100 journalists briefly in a room after a press conference, accused Caruana Galizia’s family of running a campaign against him, ignored the thousands of Maltese who pour out into the streets of the capital city Valetta night after night asking him to go, barricaded himself and his cabinet very visibly and cordoned off the government building. On Monday, he called out the Maltese army after locking peaceful protesters in the same building that houses him and his cabinet. Is the EU defending what is called its Southern Gas Corridor (gas from Azerbaijan, money from China), with Malta doing the dirty work?

Before she was killed, Galizia’s blog, “Running Commentary" had alleged that people close to the prime minister were linked to kickbacks, illegal and even dirty banking, offshore accounts in Panama, easy sale of passports and a whole slew of activities that made the Italian Mafia look like fumbling amateurs. “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate," were her last sentences.

“Over two years ago, we gave the name of the prime minister’s right hand man and a dense diagram of his corrupt web to criminal investigators," Andrew Caruana Galizia, one of the slain journalist’s sons, tweeted. “Today, journalists are writing openly about his role in my mother’s assassination and the threats he continues to make to cover it up," he pointed out. A former diplomat who served in Berlin and New Delhi, Andrew Caruana Galizia, his brothers Matthew (a Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist) and Paul, also a journalist and their father, have spared no effort in search of justice. Hundreds or reporters have travelled in and out of Malta in recent weeks, bolstering evidence that Daphne Caruana Galizia was right.

Names such as Yorgen Fenech, Keith Schembri, Conrad Mizzi, and Chris Cordona mean nothing to people outside of Malta. Suffice to say that they are all the prime minister’s men, have been questioned by the police, and in a cross between Chinese checkers and snakes and ladders, they are implicating themselves and by extension, the top office. All seemed slow and sluggish till recently, when a sniffer dog smelt cash at the airport in the bags of a man bound for Istanbul. The incident led to the arrest of a taxi driver, Melvin Theuma, who confessed to playing an intermediary role in Caruana Galzia’s contract killing. He would speak, he said, but asked that he be defended by the family’s lawyers. The Guardian posted this explainer.

It should have been a home run then, for those seeking justice, but Muscat dug in. He has stepped down, but not resigned, saying there will be a change in January 2020. The EU, after expressing dismay, shock, and concern, has set in motion a probe even as Muscat taunts it.

“[Muscat’s] continued tenure as prime minister is intolerable to anyone who cares about justice. His role in the investigation into our wife and mother’s assassination is unlawful," the Caruana Galizia family wrote in a recent public statement. “Until he resigns, we will use all legal remedies to ensure Muscat has no further involvement in the investigation and criminal proceedings, other than as a possible suspect," it said. Journalism was Caruana Galizia’s life, as her family said in a 2018 interview .

Malta now faces its worst political and social crisis since it became an independent country in 1964. Brussels can withdraw voting rights of any EU member if it threatens the independence of the judiciary in its country, as happened with Hungary and Poland. So, why are EU officials protecting Muscat? If the EU continues to tiptoe around him, all that talk about building a strong, just, fair and transparent Europe capable of taking on geopolitical problems will be just that—talk.

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author

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