How Malta’s rule of law reforms are seen in Brussels

The European Commission has issued its second annual Rule of Law report. In the words of the Commission the report “presents a synthesis of both the rule of law situation in the EU and an assessment of the situation in each Member State.” The general agreement was that Hungary and Poland were again singled out, and the two nations remain a cause of serious concern after a swathe of new rules curtailing the independence of courts and judges.

The report also raises concerns about Slovenia, arguing that “The situation of media freedom and pluralism has been deteriorating”. On Bulgaria, the report notes that “the promotion regime within the judiciary raises concerns as appointments of judges to higher positions have not been carried out as per the ordinary procedure”. In Croatia, an ongoing process for appointing a supreme court president “has given rise to controversy and to repeated disparaging public statements against judges.”

Ironically, the Maltese EPP members of the European Parliament, are not just oblivious to the worrying developments in these countries. Instead, they try to curry favour with their European political group by arguing that nothing of merit is happening in countries with EPP-affiliated governments, and instead claiming that Malta is a mafia state.

The Commission experts do not appear to be falling for this misrepresentation of facts. So much so that Politico reports that Malta is one of the few positive stories around the EU, with broad praise of recent reforms. For instance the Rule of Law Report concludes that “the reforms of 2020, in particular the reform of the system of judicial appointments and of judicial discipline, have contributed to strengthening the independence of the Maltese justice system”. In fact, this is backed by the finding that “the level of perceived judicial independence has improved and is now high”.

The reforms of 2020 have contributed to strengthening the independence of the Maltese justice system.

While Bulgaria’s judicial appointments are running amok, according to the Commission “in Malta, the 2020 reform of the procedure for dismissal of magistrates and judges provides for additional guarantees.” Instead of attacking the supposed mafia state of Malta for dismantling institutions, Commission experts laud the fact that “in Malta, the Attorney General has taken over the prosecution of specified serious crimes, including high-level corruption, and a task-force on complex financial crimes has been set up”. They also note that “investigative and prosecution bodies have improved their capacity to deal with corruption cases”.

While the Opposition argues that institutions in Malta are captured by criminals, Commission experts conclude that Malta has “introduced integrity and screening programmes or oversight entities in law enforcement bodies, which contribute to strengthening integrity in the police.” They also remark that “in Malta, a Constitutional reform strengthened the appointment, suspension and dismissal of the Ombudsperson”. They also note that Transparency International’s perception of corruption index shows that “this perception has significantly decreased over the past five years”.

While documenting the threats to media freedom across many EU countries, and the lack of support that many Governments showed during the pandemic, the Commission report notes that the Maltese Government “distributed a little over 1.2 million in funds… to assist media operators which employ at least four full-time journalists and which provide daily news services. Several major independent media houses have defended the scheme.”

The authors of the Commission’s report seem not to be that up-to-date with the latest assessments and suggestions of Repubblika. Nowhere does one, for instance, find any endorsement of the proposal that the current administration should resign and be replaced by a technocratic group of appointees. On the other hand, the Report notes the constitutional amendments that would empower authorities to a civil penalty, or administrative fine or sanctions. The inclusion of this note, and the emphasis that this was the suggested way forward of the Venice Commission, has important implications as to how justified was the Opposition in voting down the amendments.

The 2021 Rule of Law Report is a clear endorsement of the substantial governance reforms enacted in a short time, and during a pandemic, by this administration. The Report notes how the Maltese Government intends to invest even further in this area, dedicating a significant portion of the country’s Recovery and Resilience Funds.

Finally, Malta is getting the strong institutions that befit a modern European society.

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