Malta: Challenges for the new Prime Minister

Malta: Challenges for the new Prime Minister

Malta elected a new prime minister in January, Robert Abela of the Labour Party, and he has a daunting task ahead in trying to unify the country and uphold the rule of law.

The election came after Joseph Muscat, the former prime minister, resigned over his handling and possible interference into the investigation of the murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in 2017. Malta has been rocked by street protests and public displays of anger since then. Namely, over questions related to the rule of law and any role that any government official, including those close to Muscat, may have played in Caruana Galizia’s death. In his victory speech, Abela promised to work to strengthen the rule of law in the country and to restore confidence in the government. Caruana Galizia’s son has described Abela as the “continuity candidate” with only days to prove himself as a successor capable of real reform.

Impact of Caruana Galizia’s death

The dramatic car bomb which killed Caruana Galizia in October 2017 was a shocking incident to take place in a wealthy EU member state. Caruana Galizia’s last post on Malta before her death read:

“there are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

Respect for the rule of law and good governance are critical tenets for any EU member state. Still, as recent events in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Malta have shown, there has been a remarkable degree of democratic backsliding in the last few years. Malta has not fallen victim to the populist politics of many EU member states, and its corruption of late has come from economic malfeasance, mainly due to its status as a tax haven and offshore financial centre prone to money laundering. One of the main concerns for the new government will be a guarantee of the separation of powers, a move advocated by the activist group Republika and a legislative priority that would likely unite a wide swath of Malta’s electorate.

That this has to be actively addressed in an EU member state is more than just a reflection on Malta but also a reflection on the broader terms of EU accession enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria, the mechanism which determines whether a state is eligible to join the EU. The European Parliament embarked upon a rule of law mission in Malta and reported that there was little to no progress related to investigations into those responsible for Caruana Galizia’s murder. Abela will likely face immediate pressure from MEP’s and EU officials to reverse the course of his predecessor and allow for a full, impartial investigation.

Malta’s Role in the EU

As Abela takes over as prime minister, Malta will face a critical test as to what its future role will be within the EU. At the moment, it risks becoming a peripheral player in a similar vein as Cyprus – a distinctly Mediterranean state that enjoys the benefits of EU membership while maintaining close ties to Russia using an opaque financial system that can be manipulated by a wide range of actors. Malta also has leverage over Brussels as one of the first points of entry alongside Italy for refugees travelling across the Mediterranean from Libya. Given the volatile security situation in Libya, the EU will likely be keen to maintain a constructive relationship with both Malta and Italy over immigration policy and processing should another influx of refugees arrive on its shores.

Malta is one of the EU’s critical nodes and gateways with its wider neighbourhood in the Middle East and North Africa. Abela has considerable power in making sure Malta remains a positive force on the frontlines of one of the EU’s most pressing policy challenges.

Abela’s success will likely hinge on whether he can reform the cycle of corruption Caruana Galizia uncovered in her reporting. And, whether he can reclaim the rule of law and promote a justice system that is capable of protecting all Maltese citizens and not just those who may wield access to positions of power. This will likely involve some unpopular economic concessions and moves towards transparency in finance that could rile a diverse group including Russian oligarchs and multinational corporations. Already in his first few days in office, Abela has removed two ministers who have featured prominently in the scandal surrounding Caruana Galizia’s death. This democratisation of justice and sense of the rule of law enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria will likely be the key to Malta’s political success and help make it a prominent and constructive member of the EU instead of a target of its ire.

The departure of Muscat will likely mark a critical juncture in this reform effort, and Muscat believes he has paid “the highest price for a dark episode.” The true test for Caruana Galizia’s supporters will likely be whether Abela pays the highest political price by instituting dramatic and unpopular ref,orms that will fundamentally reshape Malta’s relationship with its judiciary.  Abela has already shown a willingness to do this but the real test will be whether the cycle of accountability and transparency can continue at its current pace. Abela will likely make a diverse group of political enemies, but as long as Malta remains in good standing with the EU, the long-term forecast will likely outweigh any short-term difficulties. 

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.