Democracy in crisis on a microscale – the case of Malta

18.01.2018 – Wojciech Pawlus

The European Union has had a few busy years, first dealing with economic crises, which in recent months transformed into a giant systemic crisis of democracy across a number of member states. This involves larger countries like Poland, Hungary, Austria and Spain, which came into spotlight with their different problems. With so many issues appearing in the media on the daily basis, it is easy to miss out on what’s happening in the Union’s tiniest member – Malta. And the outlook is not very remote from what happening on the continent. It is actually quite bad.

The Republic of Malta is based on an archipelago off the southern coast of Sicily, consisting mainly of the island of Malta and Gozo. With a population of under 450 thousand inhabitants it joined the EU in 2004 together with another island nation Cyprus, as well as 8 former Eastern bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary. With the latter, Malta shares little history, but surprisingly huge cultural similarities, while being a relatively closed, overwhelmingly Catholic and conservative society. For example, it has the most restrictive abortion policy in Europe, prohibiting the practice entirely. Democracy in Malta, ever since its independence from Britain in 1964, has been traditionally bipartisan with the Nationalist Party and Labour Party alternating in government. Currently the Labour under Joseph Muscat is at the helm and has secured a second term in 2017 winning 37 seats in a 67-seat unicameral parliament.

In the new 2018 report by the Washington-based Freedom House Malta has spectacularly fallen from being the 17th most free country to being 33rd. Among the general global retreat from liberal values, it continuous to score highly with a 92% aggregate. Nonetheless, a society as small as Malta usually experiences significant events and changes when its rating drops in overall terms.

One such spectacular event in 2017, which galvanized the public attention in Europe, was the murder of a prominent investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. It came as a shock that such a violent attack against press freedom would occur in a tiny state with a reputation for being a tourist escape in the Mediterranean. Even more so, since cases like that had not popped up in much larger EU countries for some time and would generally echo dealings in the ex-Soviet world, Turkey or the Western Balkans. The governing Maltese elite, including the PM, was quickly accused of protectionism and shady corruption plots carefully hidden away from the public eye. Even though the direct assailants are now expecting trial, there is a sense of anger in the Maltese commentaries that the real instigators of the crime will never be identified and sentenced, because they are too powerful.

The assassination of Galizia was certainly the most vivid example that the insular republic has issues. They quickly resurfaced once again and hence are reflected in reports analysing the quality of democratic institutions. But they have been there for a number of years. One controversy singled out by Freedom House is the practice of selling passports as a form of bond investment for rich foreign citizens. Not only because it undervalues the rights of common Maltese citizens but also because it constitutes backdoor access to EU citizenship, freedom of movement, work and business. The Individual Investment Programme was, incidentally, launched at the beginning of Joseph Muscat’s tenure as Prime Minister and requires the interested applicants to pay in 1,15m EUR into a sophisticated multi-layered fund. There is evidence that the scheme mainly attracts wealthy Russian and Middle-Eastern businessmen and the Maltese government is not shy about it.

The above really reaffirms the old reputation of the country as a well-guarded tax-haven and leads many to believe that it is systemically corrupt. With a small and hermetic political elite backing it, such situation may thrive easily. But it does not go unnoticed. Malta dropped 10 places in the Transparency International corruption perceptions index between 2015 and 2016. It remains among the top most corrupted countries in the EU and this draws a lot of criticism against Joseph Muscat’s government, which is unable to enforce appropriate anti-corruption solutions.

The real tragedy is that, with Malta rarely making global headlines and the life on the archipelago seemingly going on peacefully, there is little chance of radical developments for the better. The geopolitical context is not helping either, as the democratic decline is present in most countries. In this light it seems that business and tourism will continue to operate as usual, as “a little corruption” will not form a discrepancy prominent enough to launch a meaningful reaction from the side of other Western capitals – many of which are struggling with the same predicaments as Valletta.

Further reading: