Excerpt from article published today 3/12/2019 in the Financial Times
So much for an easy start. Malta’s rule of law crisis poses an immediate test for new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
Over two years since the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, events in Malta have begun to move with lightning speed, embroiling the country’s political and business elite and forcing prime minister Joseph Muscat to announce his imminent resignation.
Muscat and his allies will be under EU scrutiny today when a group of MEPs arrive in the country for a fact-finding mission. On Sunday, the prime minister responded to mass protests by announcing he would leave office in January. His position became untenable after his chief of staff and one of his ministers came under scrutiny in the criminal investigation into Caruana Galizia’s death.
The escalating corruption scandal comes at an awkward time for the new commission, which has made clear that it wants to take a fresh approach to dealing with threats to the rule of law.
The last commission became embroiled in an EU disciplinary procedure, known as an “Article 7” process, with Poland. But von der Leyen has tried to distance herself from this approach, which many in Brussels argue is unwieldy and ultimately ineffective in bringing recalcitrant member states to heel.
The procedure against Poland and a similar one against Hungary became stuck as fellow member states split over how to handle the cases.
The Maltese situation will be an early test of von der Leyen’s resolve. Parts of the European Parliament are already calling for the commission to seriously investigate systemic threats to the rule of law in the country.
Vera Jourova, the commission’s vice-president for values, has left the door open to a sanctions process. She told yesterday’s FT ETNO summit that Malta’s failure to implement judicial reforms in line with recommendations from the Venice Commission could serve as grounds for triggering Article 7.
“We are watching Maltese developments because we have already recommended [Malta] put in place reforms of the prosecutor system so they can efficiently investigate and prosecute corruption cases. This has not been done yet,” Jourova warned.
Muscat’s departure is also causing some minor logistical headaches. A travel ban on all ministers has meant no members of his government can attend meetings in Brussels. Muscat himself is due to be in the Belgian capital for an EU27 leaders’ summit next Thursday. There is still no clarity on whether he will attend.
As for his potential successor, rumours are rife that centre-left MEP Miriam Dalli is in line to take up the party leadership next month and become prime minister. When asked, Dalli said any decision she takes over the leadership would be “in the national interest”.