BRUSSELS, Nov 14 (Reuters) - A top European Commission official defended Malta’s record on preventing money laundering in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday prompted by the murder of an investigative journalist, but a variety of EU lawmakers expressed scepticism.
Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told European Parliament lawmakers that the European Commission had carried out an analysis of Malta’s compliance with anti-money laundering laws and concluded that there were “no general concerns”.
He added however that “improvements could be made on various levels,” and said the commission was assessing new information provided by Malta on recent alleged cases of wrongdoing.
Timmermans’ assessment was however not shared by most lawmakers. Many called for closer oversight of Malta’s adherence to the rule of law, a process that could lead to heavy sanctions if wrongdoing was ascertained.
Esteban González Pons, Vice-Chairman of the conservative group, the largest of the EU assembly, denounced in Malta “the harassment of journalists, the blackmailing of independent media by banks connected with money laundering, the involvement of government officials in tax evasion.”
He said that police in Malta “remain silent” in the face of such activities.
Other lawmakers echoed Pons’s comments and raised other questions about Malta’s respect for the rule of law and money laundering rules. A smaller number of parliamentarians urged caution on accusations against Malta.
A resolution set to be voted on Wednesday openly questions the independence of the police on the island and raises “serious concerns about the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights” in Malta.
The parliament’s debate was triggered by the killing on Oct. 16 of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who had denounced high-profile corruption and accused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of wrongdoing.
The Parliament named the news room in its Strasbourg building after Caruana Galizia on Tuesday.
Timmermans did not make any direct comment on the rule of law in Malta, but he called again on the Maltese authorities to bring to justice the perpetrators of Caruana Galizia’s murder.
He said the investigation should proceed unhampered and stressed that the Maltese authorities had committed to do all in their power to pursue the culprits.
He also called on Malta to join the EU public prosecution office, a new body to prosecute crimes in the 28-country bloc, from which Malta has opted out. (Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Editing by William Maclean)