EU accession triggered broad liberalization
Malta’s 2004 accession to the European Union (EU) acted as a catalyst for social, economic and political transformation. The EU’s liberal ethos propelled the 2011 introduction of divorce to one of the last bastions of catholic zealotry. Since 2013, the Maltese government has fueled this liberal current. Malta has considerably relaxed its censorship laws and extended rights to people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations, including civil marriage. Recent legislation on domestic violence and reproductive rights have given practical expression to women’s right. The right to employment for disabled persons has also been codified, with employers penalized with fines for ignoring equality of opportunity laws. Since accession, Malta has extended maternity benefits and provided free child-care centers, enhanced pension rights and increased assistance for the elderly, upgraded health services, and embarked on a €50 million social housing project.
Migrant integration taking strides forward
The government is implementing recommendations on migrant integration by introducing reception centers, allowing migrants to register for work and setting up an integration program. In the 2018 and 2019 budgets, the government included increases in pensions and other social benefits with the aim of redressing social inequalities.
Shift to surplus from significant deficits
Malta’s economy continues to thrive, recording growth rates of up to 6% annually – among the highest in the EU – and obtaining generally positive ratings from credit agencies. The result is an economy that has shifted from a significant public deficit to one of consecutive surpluses; the debt-to-GDP ratio continues to be meaningfully reduced. Malta is experiencing an unprecedented upsurge in tourism and has finally succeeded in attracting significant numbers of visitors during the “shoulder” months. Despite implementing a hefty reduction in tariffs, the government has not only turned around the fortunes of the country’s sole energy provider, Enemalta, but enabled it to make a profit. Enemalta has transitioned to use of a gas-fired power station, and has increased the use of solar energy technologies.
Newly diverse population creates challenges
Socioeconomic and political developments have transformed the Maltese landscape. Rising economic wealth is impacting population and class structures, with imported labor and refugee flows creating a more diverse population. This has led to the expansion of the middle class and of a new underclass whose members command little social capital. Malta now attracts unprecedented levels of local and international investment; hence, the dangers of clientelism and patronage have also become internationalized. In its attempt to address these new dangers, the government has launched a national assessment procedure and has prepared a national anti-money-laundering and terrorist-financing strategy, complete with supporting action plan. Construction, the industry that traditionally drives the Maltese economy, has long been a nexus of corrupt practices; however, the economic boom and soaring population have increased the demand for real estate, exacerbating the problem.
a key concern
a key concern
Instead of helping, the division of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) into two authorities has drawn enormous criticism. Environmental groups are concerned that the reform will threaten what remains of Malta’s “green lungs.” A drive to render key service providers (e.g., in energy and health care) sustainable has facilitated a government program of privatization. While many stakeholders have been consulted, the privatization process has been criticized for its lack of public consultation, transparency and accountability. The National Audit Office (NAO) is currently investigating the entire process, while the opposition has launched a court case seeking to reverse the privatization.
Party system beginning
Beginning in 2017, we have also witnessed what may be the beginning of fragmentation in the party system. Two parliamentarians left the government party, were reelected on the opposition-party ticket and now sit in parliament under the newly constituted Democratic Party (PD). For the first time in 30 years, three parties are represented in parliament. The opposition party is seriously divided, with the prospect of having to conduct a new leadership contest just one year after the last providing opportunities for the PD to make further inroads into its support base. Following the departure of two of its MPs to form the PD. the governing party today appears more united. However, the prime minister’s 2017 declaration that he will not be continuing in office after the 2022 elections may eventually lead to some divisions.
Corruption concerns remain outstanding
In 2018, investigations continued into allegations of corruption involving a minister and the prime minister’s chief of staff, focusing on the creation of secret Panama-based accounts, and suspicions of having received kickbacks from government contracts. However, an inquiry into allegations that a third secret Panama-based account belonged to the wife of the Prime Minister was concluded. The findings confirmed that there was no evidence to support the allegations, and that documents supporting the allegations had been falsified.
Journalist killed after exposing scandal
The journalist who had largely helped expose the Maltese links to the Panama scandal, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed in a car bombing in October 2017. As of the time of writing, the accused perpetrators were undergoing trial; however, the investigation seeking the identities of those who commissioned the crime to justice was still ongoing. The journalist’s murder, the Panama affair and various allegations made against a number of institutions have contributed to further polarization within the Maltese political system even though early elections in June 2017 returned the governing party to power with the largest majority since independence. The results were a sign of public confidence in the government’s economic and social policies, as well as of an increasingly liberal ethos.
Oversight mechanisms strengthened
A number of developments have also facilitated good governance practices. EU membership has meant the adoption of multi-level governance – a power shift weakening the national executive, but strengthening oversight mechanisms and civil society. New measures have also been introduced to enhance accountability and transparency. Demands under the Freedom of Information Act have multiplied, and the Ombuds Office has been granted new areas of competence. These measures have effectively ensured greater scrutiny of the government. For its part, the National Audit Office has become more proactive. Legislation intended to regulate and improve the transparency of political-party funding has been enacted. Ministers and members of parliament accused of breaching existing codes of ethics will become accountable to a Public Standards Office under the direction of an officer appointed by a vote of the entire parliament. This individual has been selected, and the office is now operational.
Judicial reforms aim at boosting efficiency
One of the first acts of the current government was to remove statutes of limitations in cases of alleged corruption by politicians and senior officials. In addition, legislation designed to increase judicial-system efficiency has been introduced, and the minister overseeing this area has said that further reform will take place that will result in the selection of the judiciary by a body independent of the executive. Heads of regulatory bodies and politically appointed representatives abroad will now have to be scrutinized by a new consultative parliamentary committee before taking office.
Demands for constitutional reform persist
However demands continue from the president, judiciary, ombudsperson and opposition for the government to honor its pledge to begin a process of constitutional reform. Malta has also faced pressure from various European Parliament committees. In response to its critics, the government has supported the Venice Commission’s review of Malta’s governing institutions. Indeed, the recommendations made in the 2018 Venice Report reflect the discussions and suggestions put forward locally. Constitutional review is long overdue, with decades having passed since the last overhaul of the constitution. As a result it continues in large part to express an outmoded variation of the Westminster model, but with substantive departures deriving from EU membership. A new committee tasked with overseeing constitutional reform has been established, chaired by the president and consisting of parliamentarians from the two major parties. However, there are calls to make the process more inclusive by integrating figures from the small parties and from civil society.