Joining too soon? When the EU should be wary

, by Andrew Micallef

Joining too soon? When the EU should be wary
Did Malta join the EU before it was ready? Photo credit: Berit Watkin

In an interview with The New Federalist, Maltese journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia, whose mother Daphne was murdered while investigating government corruption, told us that Malta’s adhesion to the European Union was premature. He said the Mediterranean archipelago did not have a sufficiently strong democracy prior to joining, and its weak checks and balances made for a “disaster” once access to huge financial markets had been granted through EU membership. This made Malta “fertile ground” for corruption.

In this article, Andrew Micallef, a Maltese citizen and activist with JEF Malta, looks into the issue in more detail.

The question of becoming a member of the European Union is a contentious issue with frequent disagreements between existing and potential member states. With ever more issues related to rule of law and corruption arising in various EU countries, especially those that have joined the Union during the past 20 years, many are calling for a revision of the accession process. Most notable has been French President Emmanuel Macron, who said that the membership process is flawed and does not ensure that candidates are committed to the rule of law, offering no remedies when it comes to any backsliding.

While the argument is nearly always focused on member state candidates and on the enlargement process itself, Maltese investigative journalist and son of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Matthew Caruana Galizia, told The New Federalist that it was actually EU membership which helped make Malta ripe for corruption. This observation is not without its merits. Malta can be viewed as a rather unique European Union member state. Perched in a unique geographic location, between Sicily and North Africa, it has been colonised and ruled by foreign powers for most of its history. When Malta gained independence from Britain in 1964, its new constitution bestowed the country with a Westminster parliamentary system with a single house of parliament. The structure of executive government and the public service in Malta is also based on the British model.

A target for the corrupt

Although Malta is a liberal democracy on paper, the various corruption scandals and rule of law and human rights breaches throughout the years have put some dictatorships to shame. In its 2019 report, Transparency International said that corruption was “undermining the rule of law” and “weakening democracy” in Malta. It referred to several scandals, such as the golden passports scheme, where citizenship is sold to wealthy foreign investors, the Panama Papers, where politicians and high ranking officials were exposed as owners of secret foreign companies, as well as the closure of a Malta-based bank by the European Central Bank.

One might question the link to the European Union of the above issues. However, it is through EU membership that Malta became part of a continental bloc which pursues the free movement of persons, of goods, capital and services, but Malta’s weak legislation and lack of serious checks and balances have made it a target for the corrupt, who use it as a back door to other EU member states. It is perhaps now that many are realising what is at stake when a new state is in the process of becoming a member of the EU. It is exactly for this reason why President Macron had reservations when it came to Albania and North Macedonia joining the Union.

The EU should therefore be vigilant when it comes to the accession of new states into the Union. To become a member of the EU, a state must respect and actively promote the values referred to in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. These values include the rule of law and human rights as well as the protection of minorities among others. Other notable requirements, as stated in the Copenhagen Criteria (the package of accession requirements), include having a functional market economy, as well as the capacity to cope with competition and the internal market. Becoming a member state means being capable of taking on the obligations of membership and adhering to the initial membership criteria. Although these criteria look good on paper, the reality is that the actual membership process and the follow-up on recently joined member states leaves much to be desired.

In a promising development, the European Commission has heeded President Macron’s arguments and has proposed to strengthen and improve the accession process, making it more credible, dynamic and predictable and with a stronger political steer. Still, much more must be done.

Albania and North Macedonia are now firmly on the road towards EU membership with negotiations being formally opened by the European Council in March of this year. While some doubts remain, it’s a positive sign for those who want to see the European Union continue to grow.

Europe’s tools – or lack of them

I would argue that, other than issues above, the problem is that the European Union has failed to effectively deal with states after they become members, especially when it comes to good governance issues and with ensuring that the proper checks and balances are in place. Although Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union is meant to target any member state which breaches the EU’s founding values, in practise it is not always effectively utilised. This could be seen most recently in the case of Poland and Hungary, where the Council failed to make effective use of Article 7 and where both countries continue to undermine common European values, mutual trust and the credibility of the EU as a whole.

The EU has also failed to effectively target cross-border corruption between member states and with other third countries. The EU cannot afford to turn a blind eye to states which are accused of being corrupt, because at the end of the day, the whole Union is affected. As cliché as it sounds, we are really as strong as the weakest link. To target corruption, the EU at the very least has to start by giving powers to the toothless “Europol” or European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, which as of now, cannot prosecute or arrest anyone or conduct its own investigations, thus holding member states to account. Europol therefore does not have any executive powers, and can only act with the prior approval of member states.

It seems that every week, we hear of a new scandal relating to one member state or another, either relating to a corruption scandal or else to breaches of our shared European values. The EU needs to act quickly and effectively or else risk being constantly undermined and lose credibility with the citizens of Europe. The solution is simple: adapt or perish. If it does not reform its internal structures and processes to meet the realities and the demands by citizens today, the European project is doomed to fail.

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