The Malta Independent 18 September 2021, Saturday

European Commission turns a blind eye, claims Mizzi’s Panama company is only a national issue

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 20 November 2016, 09:30 Last update: about 6 years ago

The European Commission is turning a blind eye to Minister without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi’s presence in Brussels on official visits following the Panama Papers revelations that he had a company in the secretive jurisdiction of Panama.

The most recent of meetings took place just this week, when Dr Mizzi travelled to Brussels with the majority of Cabinet, including Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, on an official visit prior to Malta taking over the EU Presidency.

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He even formed part of the group photo with many EU Commissioners and President of the EU Commission Jean Claude Juncker.

Earlier this year, after Dr Mizzi was stripped of his Energy and Health portfolios, the minister also held meetings with Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union, as listed on the European Commission’s agenda for 19 September.

The Malta Independent on Sunday asked Mr Juncker why the European Commission is sending a signal that a public official with secret companies in Panama can easily hold office within the EU framework, given that Dr Mizzi posed for a photo with European Commissioners, and whether the EC President had raised any concerns about the minister’s presence prior to the event.

A spokesperson for Mr Junker said the photo opportunity took place in the context of the official visit of the Maltese government to the Commission prior to Malta taking over the rotating EU Presidency: “Konrad Mizzi is a Minister in the Maltese government and as part of the appointed Maltese delegation was received as such.”

The spokesperson also said that “in principle, the Commission does not comment on allegations taking place in the national context”.

The Panama Papers scandal, however, cannot reasonably be described as a ‘national issue’, so much so that the European Parliament has begun its own investigation into the matter.

Asked whether President Juncker believes that the Maltese government ought to ask this particular minister to step down prior to Malta assuming the EU Presidency, the spokesperson insisted that the Commission does not intervene in the composition of national governments.

Dr Mizzi, however, is currently a minister in the Maltese Cabinet and since Malta will hold the EU Presidency, the matter, come January, will no longer be solely a national issue.

Taking such a stance also indicates that the European Commission would presumably have no comment to make if ministers in other EU countries opened companies in secretive jurisdictions.

But when this newsroom pointed out that by taking such a stance the Commission seems to be going against the PANA investigation being undertaken by the European Parliament, the spokesperson for Mr Junker said, “If the Panama Papers were to reveal that EU laws have been broken or were to point to loopholes or weaknesses in our legislation, the Commission would of course take action, provided this falls under its competence.”

This isn’t the first time the Commission dodged taking a position on the issue concerning the Konrad Mizzi predicament, given that he is currently the only serving EU minister to have directly had a company revealed in the Panama Papers.

Back in April, a set of questions were sent to EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis asking whether he feels comfortable with an EU minister being mentioned in the Panama Papers and whether he felt Dr Mizzi should resign.

In response, a European Commission spokesperson for Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, Taxation and Customs at the time said that with regard to the specific case, it is still “too early for us to comment. If these leaks reveal that EU laws have been broken or point to loopholes or weaknesses in our legislation, the Commission will of course take action, provided this falls under its competence.”

In another instance, EU Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans had told this newsroom during an interview: “I’m aware of the Panama Papers, but I’m not aware of any specific issue pertaining to specific ministers or politicians in member states.”

This newsroom has also sent questions to the Office of the Prime Minister asking what, exactly, Dr Mizzi’s role will be during Malta’s six-month term of the EU Presidency. No answers were forthcoming as of yesterday. 

Dr Mizzi is also likely to be called before the Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion Committee (Pana), which is looking into the Panama Papers. However it is still unclear how Dr Mizzi will be questioned, European Parliament sources this week told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

The sources explained that talks are underway about an MEP delegation coming to Malta and conducting it here, while also looking into Malta’s taxation regime, while others believe they should call Dr Mizzi to Brussels to appear before the committee. 

The European Commission President was also asked whether the family photograph with the inclusion of Dr Mizzi could put the EC at odds with the European Parliament, given the Committee is looking into the Panama Papers.

“On the contrary,” Mr Juncker’s spokesperson explained, “the Commission is cooperating fully with the European Parliament's Panama Papers inquiry committee. We are all working towards the same goals. Our view continues to be that all of the EU institutions, together with the member states and our international partners, need to do more together and work faster to tackle effectively the problem of tax avoidance and harmful tax practices.

“Tax avoidance is an issue of global significance, and we look forward to pursuing our far-reaching strategy towards fair taxation and greater transparency together with all our partners, including the European Parliament. This Commission is pursuing a far-reaching strategy towards fair taxation and greater transparency and we have already made big progress.

Dr Mizzi was asked by this newspaper back in August whether he would appear before such a committee if invited, but did not give a clear answer. He had said that if he receives such correspondence, he would reply accordingly. 

Dr Mizzi had said last February, backed by the Prime Minister, that an audit company would be auditing Dr Mizzi, however the findings have not yet been released to the public, and indeed, the name of the audit company is not even known.

Following the Panama Papers revelations, Spanish politician José Manuel Soria resigned from both his parliamentary seat and his post as minister of industry, energy and tourism in Spain’s caretaker government in April. According to the Financial Times, his name emerged as a director of a Panama-based shell company, albeit briefly and more than two decades ago.

In a resignation letter Mr Soria said he had taken his decision to quit “considering the obvious damage that this situation is causing the government of Spain, the Popular Party, my fellow activists and voters”. The article also reported that Spanish Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro stating: “No one who’s operated in tax havens can be in the government.”

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