The European parliament is sending an “urgent mission” to Malta after police investigating the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia questioned key figures in Joseph Muscat’s government.
With the police investigation now reaching deep into the government, the European parliament agreed on Thursday to task a “fact-finding” delegation of MEPs with examining the state of the rule of law. The Maltese president, George Vella, has postponed this week’s planned visit to the UK to deal with the crisis.
In a 3am press conference on Friday, Muscat announced he would stay in the job until the investigation into the murder was complete, and said his cabinet had decided against a presidential pardon for businessman Yorgen Fenech, who had requested one in return for providing information on other alleged conspirators.
Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri was arrested this week as a person of interest over the death of the investigative journalist, who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. He was released by police on Thursday night. Schembri’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
The tourism minister, Konrad Mizzi, announced his resignation on Tuesday stating he had “done nothing wrong from a criminal point of view”.
The incoming EU commissioner responsible for overseeing the rule of law, Vera Jourova, has asked the Maltese government for an urgent meeting.
A commission spokesman said: “We do not comment on ongoing national investigations. Having said that, the European commission has consistently stated that we expect an independent and thorough investigation and that the persons responsible for this crime must be brought to justice.
“We need to send a clear signal to all journalists: it is safe to work in Europe. If journalists are silenced, so is democracy. Media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists are at the very base of a free and democratic society.”
Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest party in the European parliament, the centre-right European people’s party, suggested that Muscat should consider his position as prime minister.
Speaking in the European parliament in Strasbourg, Weber said: “The EU cannot be silent as to what is going on in the current days in Malta on the investigation in the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and certainly not this parliament whose press room has this name.
“This week, two ministers and chief of staff of Prime Minister Muscat resigned over recent shocking developments. All these people appeared in the investigation of Daphne before she was killed. Nevertheless Prime Minister Muscat has protected them all this time and defended them again and again while attacking those who wanted to expose them.”
Weber said the behaviour of the prime minister and the apparent lack of political accountability posed a problem for the “entire European project” no less than the erosion of the independent judiciaries in Hungary and Poland.
He said: “I think this parliament needs to point out now more than ever to the Maltese authorities that the assassination of a journalist with clear political links must have clear political consequences.
“I have always seen this parliament raising its voice very high to claim the respect of the rule of law and freedom of the press to several governments in Europe. Today it is time in the case of Malta. Let’s raise our voice together.”
Sven Giegold, a Green MEP who took part in the previous European parliament mission to Malta, said: “The priority of the parliament mission must be to investigate all potential links to the prime minister who has protected and defended these ministers for so long. Malta must adhere to the rule of law and European values so that there can be justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family.”
The developments in Malta have raised questions about continued cooperation by other member states with the authorities there. The Dutch parliament has written to Malta’s minister of foreign affairs, asking for assurances that it is safe for the Netherlands to continue to share confidential information with the government of Malta and its secret services given the revelations about those in Muscat’s administration.
The letter, from the Dutch parliament’s standing committee on European affairs, asks for action from the government and the EU over what MPs describe as the “rule of law crisis” in Malta. It asks for a response within 24 hours.
“We need Europe to make Muscat leave ASAP,” said the opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, who acts for the journalist’s family.
In a reference to the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his elected successor, Ursula von der Leyen, Azzopardi said: “They need to speak up. Joseph Muscat sits at the European council with other prime ministers while his chief of staff has been [accused of] being one of the masterminds.”
If Muscat refuses to resign, Malta’s opposition is calling for the EU to launch its biggest possible sanction: the invoking of article 7.
The measure can be used to withdraw privileges such as voting rights from member states that persistently breach the EU’s founding values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.