If you’ve been distracted by Simon Busuttil’s totally random call for a new train between Malta and Gozo, you may have missed the most important news of the day: the fact that Malta has once again been given the finger by the European Parliament on an important political nomination. If you’re not sure what to make of that, read on. Here’s everything you should know about what happened and why it matters.
1. Firstly, why should I care?
This is the third* time this year that a high profile individual has been rejected at EU level after being nominated by the Government led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. There is a pattern here and we need to pay attention, not least because of how this ties into the Panama scandal and the image of Malta as a reputable EU country that depends on its financial services sector.
2. So who exactly is Leo Brincat?
Leo Brincat is a veteran Labour Party politician who once served as Malta’s Finance Minister. Most recently, he served as Environment Minister in Joseph Muscat’s Cabinet. He had to resign earlier this year to take the EU role first offered to Toni Abela (blokka l-bajda guy) who was rejected six months ago.
3. What post was he rejected from?
Malta’s representative on the EU’s Court of Auditors. According to the actual, official tagline of this organisation, these guys are “the Guardians of the EU Finances”. If that seems important, it’s because it is. This court decides huge matters of financial significance so the role requires experience in financial matters and leading large organisations/companies. Crucially, though, their moral compass must be untainted.
4. Who voted against Leo Brincat?
Leo Brincat was rejected by the European Parliament, which voted as follows: 381 against, 229 in favour and 58 abstentions. This was the second out of three steps to being approved. He had just scraped through the first part of the vote, the Budgetary Control Committee, which accepted him by 11 votes in favour, nine against and one abstention. Six months ago, Toni Abela was rejected at Budget Control Committee level by 17 votes against and nine in favour.
5. Why did they reject him?
The vote is a secret vote and doesn’t come with any explanations. But some explanations were forthcoming nonetheless, most importantly from the European People’s Party (that’s basically PN at EU level) which issued a statement yesterday saying some damning words, Panama included. Here’s the full statement:
“The EPP Group thinks that the Maltese government has a heavy baggage and the least it could have done is to nominate an independent and competent candidate, not a former minister. The fact that the Maltese government chose to sell Maltese / EU citizenship, in a non-transparent way, raises big question marks. The way this government handled the Panama Papers scandal continues to cement our strong-held beliefs that this government is on the wrong track. These two episodes are doing untold damage to Malta’s reputation and we cannot in our wildest dreams accept Mr Brincat as member of the European Court of Auditors, out of all institutions, as he was until recently part and parcel of this government. For the sake of Malta’s interests we implore Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to see sense and nominate an independent and competent candidate.”
6. What did Leo Brincat have to do with Panama?
Nothing, really. The Panama scandal was centred around former Energy (but still) Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri. But Leo Brincat was part of the Cabinet that accepted to keep Dr Mizzi and Mr Schembri in the fold. When asked why, this was his reply:
“I considered resigning but it didn’t make sense because that would only make you a voice in the wilderness. It could make you a hero for a day, and be despised by others… but ultimately it only renders you without a voice. But, by continuing to work within the structures, you are in a position to exert influence internally.”
7. Was this whole thing instigated by the Nationalist Party?
No. The EPP (again, EU’s PN) has 215 members in Parliament, which leaves 166 MEPs voting against who are not from that group. It’s likely that even some Socialist MEPs voted to reject Leo Brincat. And that’s where shit gets even more interesting, and worrying. The truth is that PN’s lobbying alone would not have secured this resounding ‘no’ against Leo Brincat. It seems Panama remains a big problem at EU level and the EP is not willing to let Dr Muscat off the hook on it.
8. What happens next?
The Government has decided to “plough ahead” with Leo Brincat’s nomination. It’s now up to the Council of Ministers to decide on his future. The Council is a different animal to Parliament and the two institutions often clash, especially on matters that have to do with member state rights. That’s because the Council is made up of direct government representatives of each country. Since the Maltese Government chose to move ahead with the nomination, it must have some reason to believe the Council will override Parliament’s stamp of disapproval. Or, the Government can use up some of its bargaining chips to persuade member states to dig in their heels and vote to keep Leo Brincat.
9. What’s the big deal if he can still go through?
Sure, Leo Brincat can still become a member of the European Court of Auditors, but the European Parliament’s vote will remain on record and he will be held to closer scrutiny. More importantly, though, this episode is another reminder of how Malta is being perceived by EU institutions. It also means the Government should brace itself for an even tougher time when the European Parliament discusses Panama Papers officially later this month.
10. What happens if Leo Brincat gets rejected again?
Then it’s back to the drawing board for the Government. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat would have to find another candidate who has experience of finances, administration of a large company/organisation and no political baggage, which includes Panama. The pool of potential candidates is certainly limited.
11. And what if he gets approved?
We would then need to ask ourselves this question: What bargaining chips did the Government use to get its way on this nomination, and was it worth Malta’s while?
*We’re including Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri who failed the European Court Justice’s screening in March.