BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament on Thursday agreed to send a mission to Malta to probe its respect for the rule of law after the prime minister’s former chief of staff was arrested as part of an investigation into the murder of a journalist.
Police said on Wednesday that Keith Schembri, a close friend of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, was arrested after being named by businessman Yorgen Fenech as a “person of interest” in the investigation into the killing two years ago of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Schembri resigned as chief of staff on Tuesday.
Following his arrest, the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament decided to send “an urgent mission” to the island to assess the rule of law in the European Union member state, the Greens party said in a statement.
An EU Parliament official confirmed a “fact-finding” mission would go to the island as soon as possible.
Malta’s Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi also announced his resignation on Tuesday and Economy Minister Christian Cardona said the same day he was suspending himself from his duties until the murder investigation was concluded.
“The situation in Malta has consequences for the entire European project,” the head of the largest group in the parliament, conservative Manfred Weber, told lawmakers during a sitting in Strasbourg.
“Clear political links must have clear political consequences,” he added.
The leader of the socialist grouping in the EU Parliament, Iratxe Garcia Perez, said the Parliament should be careful not to interfere with judicial probes in member states.
The Parliament’s probe will assess the independence of the judiciary from political interference, after the European Commission and other international bodies repeatedly raised concerns about the rule of law in the EU’s smallest country.
The Parliament has the power to launch disciplinary proceedings against EU states accused of violating fundamental rights. It has done so against Hungary last year over media and judicial reforms put forward by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“Questions around the independence of the judicial system and severe allegations of corruption at the highest levels means that a European Parliament mission to Malta is now essential,” said Greens lawmaker Sven Giegold.
The Parliament has also decided to discuss recent developments in Malta at its next plenary sitting in mid-December.
The Council of Europe, Europe’s chief human rights watchdog, said in a report in May that Malta’s rule of law was undermined by weak checks and balances on power and said more must be done to strengthen judicial independence and bolster law enforcement.
Muscat, leader of Malta’s ruling Labour Party, told state television in May that the report was “totally biased”.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio, Editing by William Maclean