Pope Francis has had his holy hands full over the past month. He has placed himself at the heart of the response to the crisis in Ukraine, forcefully condemning Russian atrocities and pledging to do ‘everything he can’ to help end the conflict. With a papal visit to Kyiv not yet feasible, Francis continues to honour a packed travel schedule with his latest destination being the picturesque Mediterranean island nation of Malta.
A devout country where 85% of the roughly half a million population professes the Catholic faith, his holiness was in no mood to pander to the audience over the weekend visit. Invariably influenced by the droves of innocent Ukrainian refugees forced out of their homes by war, Francis shone a light on a growing migration crisis in Malta – a key route for migrants who cross from Libya, on the tip of Africa, to Europe.
The Pope’s cautions did not stop here. Significantly, he called attention to another grave issue in Maltese society: that of corruption.
In the Pontiff’s first engagement during his visit, he met with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the Maltese capital of Valletta to hammer home the need for “honesty, justice, a sense of duty and transparency…as the essential pillars of a mature civil society”. His words appeared to sound the alarm for the island nation’s future. He added: “May you always cultivate legality and transparency which will enable the eradication of corruption and criminality, neither of which acts openly and in broad daylight.” Transparency, however, has been sorely lacking across the Maltese political system and its economy for many years.
Headlined by its dubious Golden visa scheme, Malta’s financial system is translucent at best, opaque at worst. Last year Malta became the first EU nation to be placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list, taking their place of shame alongside Syria and Zimbabwe.
FATF assessors are actually in Malta this week to decide whether to grant a removal from the list and government officials are hopeful they have enacted the necessary reforms. In reality, the FATF hoop-jumping exercise appears to be nothing more than a band aid solution.
Malta’s membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a multilateral initiative that secures concrete commitments from governments towards a more transparent way of working – was classified as ‘inactive’ as of last month. Since 2017, Malta has failed to implement fresh action plans to promote democratic values and civic engagement for three consecutive action plan cycles.
In June last year, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, along with several other Maltese NGOs, sent a letter to the government to express how “deeply concerned” they were over “Malta’s recent lack of engagement and commitment” to its obligations. If the country does not file transparency reports by March 2023 it will have its membership from the OGP revoked. Three strikes and you are out.
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation intervention also serves as a stark reminder of how little progress has been made in holding those responsible for the murdered journalist’s death to account.
While her murder in 2017 jolted the nation, the political environment that allowed it to happen has not changed one bit. The Degiorgio brothers, currently in jail for killing Caruana Galizia, have recently asked for their case to be reconsidered in a renewed bid for a pardon. In exchange, they are offering information on a cabinet minister they claim is implicated in the murder. In 2019, senior government figures including Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister, resigned over allegations of involvement in the assassination plot.
Contrary to the Pope’s words, corruption and criminality operate in broad Maltese daylight. The aforementioned golden passports scheme, granting EU citizenship to wealthy Russians for a hefty fee, has earned the country as much as €1 billion since 2014. Under pressure from the EU, Robert Abela’s Government has reluctantly halted the scheme for Russian and Belarusian nationals as a response to the war in Ukraine. This will not be a permanent move as Malta has rebuffed EU calls to eradicate the scheme which may lead to the case being taken to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Pope Francis has certainly made his point. Whether the current administration will listen, having just won a commanding majority on a ticket that rejected the need to reform, is another question.