Malta’s score on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has been getting worse for several years, reflecting serious corruption challenges that afflict the Mediterranean island nation. With a score of 53 out of 100 on the 2020 CPI, Malta hits an all-time low, well below the Western European average. Two questions arise: why is the country still intrinsically embroiled in corruption, and what should its government do about it?
The country at a crossroad
The issue of how the country envisions itself, its future and its place on the global stage and especially within the EU, which it joined in 2004, will determine the next crucial steps in the process of reversing the patterns of corruption that pervade Malta. Is the country truly willing to uphold its transnational reputation as a Mediterranean tax haven, a golden-ticket-to-Europe dispenser, a remote gambling hub and a nation which has categorically failed to unequivocally protect those who endeavour to exercise their right to free speech, particularly in the name of public interest?
The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the prolific investigative journalist who sought to uncover high-level corruption amongst Malta’s wealthy and political elite, and its connection to high-level politicians exposed by a long-awaited public inquiry, illustrates a deep chasm in the state’s current priorities and responsibilities toward its citizens. Two root issues that hold Malta back still prevail: the weak rule of law and the commodification of corrupt practices as a cornerstone of the economy.
Recent judicial reforms send mixed signals
In essence, the criminal justice system does not sufficiently deter nor penalise corruption.
The Maltese justice system is weighed down by pressures on judicial independence and hindered by extremely lengthy judicial proceedings - the average length of first-instance money-laundering proceedings in Malta is over 2,000 days. However, recent judicial reforms have tried to address these issues.
The reforms of July 2020 are a step in the right direction with regard to the checks and balances of Parliament and the independence of the judiciary, but still fall short of full independence from the legislative and executive branches. Legislative changes to the process of appointing judges, for instance, endeavour to minimise the Prime Minister’s and Parliament’s role in the decision making process. In a contradictory manner, these reforms require for the appointment of the Chief Justice the support of two thirds of the members of Parliament, without any involvement of the judiciary or the Judicial Appointments Committee.
Not only does this not depoliticise the system, it actively politicises it. It is clear that these late reforms do not address the structural roots of the problem, namely the state’s lack of will to step away from dubious and often corruptible activities from which its officials may potentially benefit. The way these reforms are implemented will test whether they are merely superficial acts to appease the Venice Commission and other international institutions that are applying pressure to the Maltese state to reform its institutional setup.
An economy dependent on corruption
Institutionally, Malta’s reliance on nurturing an ecosystem in which corruption can thrive is largely undealt with. This is perhaps best epitomised by the golden visa scheme that Malta has capitalised upon. Malta has cloaked itself as the night manager of the EU’s back door, who if you drop them some hundreds of thousands of euros, will let you sneak in with little scrutiny.
Malta must make it a priority to find viable, economic alternatives to sustain a free market economy, rather than a back-alley one drawing in foreign investment through passport and visa sales schemes.
Whilst a sovereign state enjoys the right to determine the parameters of its citizenship, Malta’s joining the EU - and its physical and jurisdictional borders - means it has obligations towards its fellow member states. As Didier Reynders, EU Commissioner for Justice, has pointed out, the passport scheme “undermine[s] the essence of EU citizenship. European values are not for sale,” a sentiment further echoed by Commission President Ursula Van Der Leyen.
Malta is at a crossroads, apparently split over its national identity - as if the nation simultaneously wants to be part of the EU, without respecting the EU’s communalism and core values. The path it chooses will determine whether corruption continues to flourish unchecked to the detriment of its own people and its European neighbours.