VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — The head of the European Union’s mission to Malta on Tuesday expressed doubts about the government’s credibility after meeting with the embattled prime minister of the Mediterranean island nation.
With protesters shouting in the background, European lawmaker Sophia in ‘t Veld said outside the prime minister’s office that “it is difficult to see how credibility of the office can be upheld.”
The EU delegation launched the mission to the small EU nation after an investigation into the 2017 car bomb killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a leading investigative journalist, implicated Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff. Keith Schembri resigned from office and denies any involvement. After being briefly arrested and questioned in the case, Schembri was released from custody.
Police have arrested a prominent businessman as the suspected mastermind. Yorgen Fenech reportedly linked Schembri to the killing.
The delegation chief’s comments raised pressure on Muscat, whose pledge to resign in January has done little to placate thousands of protesters gathering in the capital each night to demand he step down immediately. The prime minister was escorted by four police officers to his office for the meeting, as a handful of protesters heckled him.
“In politics it is about trust. It is about the integrity of office. This is not about formalities,” in ‘t Veld, a Dutch lawmaker, said. “We have made it very clear that there is a problem. This is not just between the prime minister and the Maltese people. It is between Malta and the European Union.”
She said trust between the EU and Malta “has been very seriously damaged,” and that Muscat did little to allay concerns.
“I am not coming out of this meeting with more confidence, I have to say,” in ‘t Veld said.
A Maltese member of the delegation, Roberta Metsola, said that Muscat, when asked, said he felt betrayed by his former chief of staff.
But activists, who held a separate press conference outside of the police station, questioned how to square Muscat’s feeling of betrayal, given he had thanked Schembri when the latter resigned.
“Joseph Muscat is manifestly implicated in at least a cover-up, if not worse, and he cannot be in the office of the prime minister,” said activist Manwel Delia. Another protest was planned for Tuesday evening.
After meeting with police, in ‘t Veld told reporters that it was clear progress had been made in the investigation, and that due process must be respected in making arrests for such serious crimes. Still, when asked about Schembri’s release from custody, the Dutch lawmaker said that it’s a concern that someone “whose name pops up in so many different cases is free. I mean, that is very difficult to explain to people.”
The delegation will also meet during the 1 ½-day mission with the attorney general, journalists, Europol, civil society and family members of Caruana Galizia.
The 53-year-old journalist, who had built a strong following for her work investigating corruption at the highest levels of Malta politics and economy, was slain in a car bomb in October 2017.
While three men are being held pending a trial on charges of carrying out the attack, it took more than two years to identify anyone behind the killing.
Separately, the EU Commission vice president Vera Jourova has expressed her concern in a call with the Maltese justice minister on Monday.
“The vice president insisted that the investigation has to be brought to conclusion without any political interference,” EU spokesman Christian Wigand said in Brussels, adding that Jourova also underlined that “there is more work to be done” on justice reforms.
Also on Tuesday, Muscat denied interfering with the investigation as alleged in a case filed by the Caruana Galizia family. In a court filing, he asked the family to stop persisting with the allegation.
Raf Casert in Brussels, and Colleen Barry in Milan, contributed to this report.