The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
View E-Paper

What harming Malta looks like

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 19 May 2024, 08:37 Last update: about 26 days ago

“Justice does not mean political terrorism,” Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela warned  in his depressingly partisan press conference. Abela was still at it, waging all-out war against the judiciary.

Ignoring all voices of reason, even from his own party, Abela ploughed on, leaving devastation in his wake. He falsely accused the magistrate that “the inquiry was used to influence the political timeline and Labour’s electoral prospects”. “The way this inquiry was conducted shows that the objective was of paralysing the work of government,” he insisted.

His claims are as absurd as they are reckless.  He stated that the 2020 changes to the appointment and dismissal of members of the judiciary created a category of new gods that are not accountable to the people.  Abela abandoned all caution with wild accusations: “the timing of the inquiry’s conclusion was a decision taken strategically not only to influence the political timeline but also the result of 8 June”.

As news circulated in the international media, from Reuters, the Guardian, The London Times to Politico, that Malta’s former Prime Minister was charged over the hospitals sell-off scandal, Malta’s current Prime Minister was busy attacking the judiciary, not at a Labour party event, but at an official press conference from the Prime Minister’s office.  As the alleged “criminal organisation” operating from the former Prime Minister’s office was finally indicted, the current incumbent hurled mud at the judiciary from that same office.

The objective of his rhetoric is clear.  Abela seeks to consolidate his power by sowing public distrust of the judicial branch.  It’s a tried-and-tested autocratic formula: a democratically elected Prime Minister attacks constitutional institutions under the guise of a democratic mandate. 

Abela’s problem is that Malta is an EU member state and subject to democratic institutions outside of its borders.  Twenty years after Malta joined the EU, Labour and its leader continue to trample on EU values.

Abela is not the first European leader to wage war on the judiciary.  Poland’s Law and Justice party tried the same trick, passing a “muzzle” law aimed at controlling the judiciary.  That law allowed government to cut judges’ salaries or simply dismiss them for criticising the party’s legislation or for questioning the party’s political appointees to the bench. 

The EU took note of Poland’s attempts to bring the judiciary to heel.

The Law and Justice party showed utter contempt for judicial independence and the separation of powers.  It waged an ideological public-relations battle against the judiciary apart from its legislative assault.  That’s exactly what Abela is doing. He’s not only mounted a massive PR assault on the judiciary but is now threatening to curb its powers.

“Reforms are required,” he threatened, “time has come to seriously discuss reform of the magisterial inquiry”.

Poland’s government hired professional trolls to harass and discredit judges on social media.  Abela is doing it himself.  His own media organisation shamelessly published photos of the inquiring magistrate and vitriolic attacks against her.  Labour’s trolls quickly took the cue, denigrating and demonising her.

Poland should be a cautionary tale for Abela . The EU wrestled with Poland’s Law and Justice party’s assault on the judiciary.

The European Court of Justice’s succinct interpretation was that an independent judiciary “functions wholly autonomously without being subordinated to any other body and without taking orders or instructions from any source whatsoever and is protected against external interventions or pressure liable to impair the independent judgement of its members and to influence their decisions”.

It’s easy to see how Abela’s aggressive anti-democratic rhetoric contravenes these principles.

In 2016 the European commission issued recommendations to Poland to restore the rule of law, instructing it to withdraw reforms.  Poland ignored the commission. In 2017 the EU Council initiated more drastic measures under Artcile 7(1) of the Treaty on EU.  It determined that there is “a clear risk of serious breach of EU values by a member state”. 

Abela’s tactics clearly amount to serious breaches of EU values.  Abela’s not just Labour leader.  He’s the Prime Minister and head of the executive branch. That carries responsibilities. He can’t behave like a common Labour troll.

In early 2020 the European Court of Justice ordered Poland to suspend its anti-judiciary procedures which the court believed “may cause serious and irreparable harm with regard to the functioning of the EU legal order”.  The Law and Justice party changed course in response. If it hadn’t, the EU contemplated stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU council.

Other EU member states, particularly Denmark, advocated monetary sanctions against Poland insisting that EU funds should be linked to rule of law standards.

Member states refused to honour European arrest warrants from Poland on the grounds that “rule of law in Poland had been systematically damaged”.

Abela’s all-out war against the judiciary is far worse than Poland’s.  Abela is inciting the people against the judiciary. His threat that judges, like political actors, should be subject to democratic pressure to make the “right” decision is abhorrent.  His portrayal of magistrates as politically motivated actors working against the democratic will is, to borrow Abela’s words, disgusting.

Abela’s message is that magistrates are simply part of the establishment and constitute an impediment to, and not a protection of, the rule of law. They are in collusion with the PN establishment to provide them absolute protection while persecuting Labour.

That is just disgraceful. Abela should not be prime-minister of a European democracy. His anti-democratic crusade puts Malta at risk of being stripped of its voting rights or losing EU funding. Our European allies may stop extraditing suspected criminals to Malta.  That is what harming Malta is.

Abela should learn another important lesson from Poland. When the Law and Justice party turned on the judiciary, the nation dumped them, electing instead former European Council President Donald Tusk as prime-minister.  Robert beware.

  • don't miss