The European Parliament called on the EU to open a formal rule-of-law dialogue with Malta, as scrutiny grows over the potential role of high-ranking officials in the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The resolution — adopted by a large majority — raises pressure on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, stating there is a threat to the credibility of ongoing investigations as long as he remains in post. Caruana Galizia, a prominent journalist and blogger who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017, investigated corruption in the highest echelons of Maltese government and society.
The Parliament “is deeply concerned about the integrity and credibility of the investigations into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia” and “notes the widespread negative perceptions of the government’s actions in this regard, as well as the declining trust and credibility in the institutions,” MEPs wrote in the resolution passed Wednesday.
Parliament “stresses that any risk of compromising the investigations, whether perceived or real, must be excluded by all means,” adding that “this risk persists for as long as the Prime Minister remains in office.”
MEPs backed the resolution by 581 votes in favor to 26 against.
“The sheer size of the majority is a very, very strong signal,” Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, who has been one of the most vocal members of Parliament on the matter, told POLITICO.
“Starting a dialogue is really the very minimum,” in ‘t Veld said. “What we expect is to put pressure not just on the Maltese government, but on the Commission and the Council to start moving.”
Pressure on the Maltese government escalated last month after a prominent local businessman was arrested and charged with complicity in the murder. Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and a government minister have stepped down.
Some MEPs see Wednesday’s vote as the first stage in a process that could ultimately lead to the triggering of Article 7 — the EU’s sanctioning mechanism for countries considered to breach the bloc’s core values. Poland and Hungary are currently facing Article 7 proceedings over rule-of-law concerns.
“Our vote today shows that the European Parliament is standing up for all the people of Malta in defending their right to live in a European country based on the rule of law,” said Green MEP Sven Giegold in a statement.
“The newly elected Commission must begin dialogue with the Maltese government on the rule of law with a view to commencing Article 7 proceedings, if no immediate progress is made from the Maltese side,” he added.
According to Parliament’s resolution, “developments in Malta in recent years have led to serious and persistent threats to the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.”
The debate in Parliament has put the Socialists & Democrats group in a difficult spot — since it counts Muscat’s own Labour Party as a member. During a debate in plenary on Tuesday, many members of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group avoided calling for Muscat to step down.
An S&D spokesperson said Wednesday that with the exception of the Maltese MEPs, the group’s members supported the resolution. The group had insisted that no wording be included explicitly calling for Muscat to leave his post.
The resignation of a prime minister “is not for the European Parliament to ask for,” the spokesperson said.
Some members of other groups also said it would have been inappropriate for Parliament to call for an EU leader’s resignation.
Elsewhere, Wednesday’s resolution was openly interpreted as a call for Muscat to resign.