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Malta: monitors welcome progress, but call for further systemic reforms to strengthen checks and balances, including profound reform of the Parliament

Malta, Parliament

Following a visit to Malta from 25 to 27 October, the co-rapporteurs of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for a “periodic review” of the country, George Loukaides (Cyprus, UEL) and Bernard Fournier (France, EPP/CD), have welcomed the reforms implemented by the authorities to strengthen judicial independence and the system of checks and balances in the country. If fully and consistently implemented, these reforms will constitute marked progress in addressing Venice Commission recommendations with regard to Malta’s system of checks and balances, they said.

At the same time, the co-rapporteurs emphasised that additional systemic reforms and changes are necessary to address the deficiencies and shortcomings highlighted by the Venice Commission and the Independent Public Inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. They noted the public inquiry’s conclusion that Malta had a culture of impunity and of tolerance for corruption and conflict of interest, which cannot be addressed by legislative changes only, but requires a change of attitude and behaviour on the part of all concerned.

The co-rapporteurs therefore called for a profound reform of the Maltese Parliament with the aim of considerably strengthening parliamentary oversight of the executive. A full-time parliament should be established with sufficient autonomous capacity to fulfil its legislative and oversight functions properly in an increasingly complex and interlinked society. The rapporteurs noted the custom of MPs holding secondary jobs and functions in state institutions and agencies that they are supposed to oversee - with the inherent risks of conflict of interest and corruption. They therefore urged the drawing up of a clear list of positions and functions that are incompatible with the position of MP.

In addition, the co-rapporteurs also expressed their concern that, despite reforms, the use of so-called ‘persons of trust’ in the Maltese civil service remains widespread, amounting to a system of patronage with the evident risks of conflict of interest and corruption. They urged additional reform that would limit such ‘persons of trust’ to a small number of clearly defined and regulated positions.

The co-rapporteurs expressed their concern at the deeply-rooted political and social polarisation which permeates nearly all aspects of Maltese society, and endangers the functioning of its democratic institutions. A considerable number of social and political activists that the co-rapporteurs met, irrespective of their political affiliation, as well as journalists had experienced harassment and trolling on social media, and had even received outright threats to themselves and their families, as a result of their work and opinions expressed. Such behaviour has no place in a democratic society, and should be addressed as a priority by the authorities.

In addition to the functioning of democratic and rule of law institutions, the co-rapporteurs also focused on women’s and reproductive rights, as well as the situation with regard to irregular migrants and refugees. With regard to women’s rights, the co-rapporteurs welcomed the planned reforms to increase women’s representation in parliament and called for a more inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders involved to ensure a holistic approach to women and reproductive rights in Malta.

On the second point, the co-rapporteurs noted that, despite considerable efforts by the authorities to address existing issues over irregular migrants and refugees, conditions in the reception and detention centres remain of concern. They urged the authorities to implement all recommendations made by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights following her recent visit to Malta. At the same time, the co-rapporteurs want to acknowledge that the number of refugees and irregular migrants reaching Maltese shores is extremely high in comparison to the country’s small size and population. As a result, these issues can therefore only be resolved with the solidarity and assistance of other EU member states, which they hope will be forthcoming.

The co-rapporteurs intend to prepare their report on the honouring of membership obligations by Malta early in 2022, with a view to presenting their report to the PACE plenary in April 2022.