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MaltaToday 30 September 2020 MIDWEEK

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10 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 30 SEPTEMBER 2020 COMMERCIAL THEN again, however: if it IS about Moneyval… then Mon- eyval itself is not exactly about 'fighting financial crime', either. You can't, after all, have it both ways… But one step at a time. And the first step should surely be to determine whether there is any truth to recent press reports, in virtually all local papers, that Malta has just consented to sign a 'State of Forces Agreement' (SOFA) with the United States. If so, it would amount to argu- ably the single greatest U-turn ever performed by any Maltese government – Labour or Nation- alist - in our entire (and evidently quite brief) history as a sover- eign, independent nation. For 20 solid years, Malta has consistently resisted US diplo- matic pressure to enter into what is effectively a military agree- ment with a world superpower: something that is quite unequiv- ocally forbidden by Article 1.3 of the Constitution. Even without the implications for Malta's cherished neutrality/ non-alignment clause, howev- er… a SOFA agreement would still add up to the loss of na- tional jurisdiction over criminal offences committed on Maltese soil (in this case, by American military personnel). And that means there is more than just our Constitutional neutrality at stake: criminal jurisdiction is, after all, part of the very building-blocks of any country's national sover- eignty. Quite simply, you can't really have one without the other. This might explain why there has 'so far' (ahem) always been bi-partisan consensus on the is- sue: as attested by the opening paragraph of an article published in this newspaper way back in May 2011. "Government and Labour [in Opposition, back then] are seem- ingly on the same wavelength when it comes to protecting Malta's national interests with regards to visiting foreign ser- vicemen. Both Foreign Minister Tonio Borg and Labour's shad- ow minister for foreign affairs George Vella have reacted with a clear refusal to cede jurisdiction on crimes and offences commit- ted by visiting United States mil- itary personnel…" So for Prime Minister Robert Abela to so suddenly overturn that common position, and sim- ply hand over a sizeable chunk of Malta's sovereignty to a for- eign power, on a silver platter… I'd say that would, at minimum, warrant something of an expla- nation. Not just because it would con- stitute a colossal betrayal of the national interest, in and of itself; but also because it would have come from a Labour prime min- ister, no less; and – rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, and all that – 'Neutrality' just happens to be viewed (by La- bourites, at any rate) as one of that party's most iconic historical achievements… if not an intrin- sic component of Labour's entire political identity: alongside the Torca symbol, the red carna- tion, 'Gensna', and, of course, the mandatory compilation of Mary Spiteri's Greatest Hits. But these are all arguments that have already been made since the news broke last Tuesday; and in any case, they all still hinge on two all-important provisos. One, did it really happen? And two, is it really a case (as por- trayed in all media) of succumb- ing to American pressure, in or- der to avoid being 'grey-listed' by Moneyval in the coming weeks? According to Abela, the answer to both those questions is 'No' and 'No' respectively. And for the time being, I see no reason to withhold the benefit of the doubt: at least, regarding that first 'No' of his (if nothing else, because there was no significant seismic activity recorded over the last few days: which also means that Dom Mintoff can't be turning in his grave.) As for the second, however… I have my doubts. And Abela himself seemed to confirm them quite graphically, when he (cor- rectly) pointed out that: 'Malta has been discussing SOFA for 20 years… and there was never any talk of Moneyval until now' (or words to that effect, anyway). Erm… ye-e-es, but… isn't that precisely the point? In all those years of 'discussing the issue', Malta had never budged an inch from its consensual position of fiercely resisting any form of SO- FA agreement… 'until now'. Or in other words: until a time when 'consenting to this agree- ment' might be the only thing that spares our country's sorry ass from failing the impending Moneyval test: with all the finan- cially apocalyptic consequences such a catastrophe would inevi- tably entail. Because in case you missed it the first time: "While the Amer- ican government only has ob- server status at the Council of Europe's Moneyval monitoring body on compliance with inter- national standards on money laundering, it retains clout inside the international Financial Ac- tion Task Force (FATF), where the Moneyval assessment will be reviewed." What other reason could there possible be, then, for us to even consider the possibility of capit- ulation, on what was once such an unmovable, non-negotiable 'red line'? No, no: make no mistake, this is very much 'about Moneyval'. Very much indeed. And people are quite right to point out (as so many are doing) that… well, it is also exactly what all those anti-corruption protests (and in- ternational condemnation, etc.) were all along about in the first place. There is a price to be paid, for having so cavalierly disregarded all those previous warnings about 'financial probity', 'good govern- ance', 'checks and balances', 'the rule of law', and all the rest of it. And if those reports are true… it is a hefty price indeed: arguably worse than even the most dire economic consequences of Mon- eyval failure. For let's face it: the economy might always one day recover from the ensuing crisis: no mat- ter how severe the short-term (or even long-term) effects may be. But… will we ever get back even a tiny fraction of the sovereignty we choose to relinquish today? I somehow doubt it… At the same time, however: should that really be the price to pay, under the circumstances? And if so: what does it actually tell us about Moneyval itself… and how this international finan- cial watchdog – which describes itself as a "permanent monitor- ing body of the Council of Eu- rope, entrusted with the task of assessing compliance with the principal international standards to counter money laundering and the financing of terrorism" - actually carries out its anti-cor- ruption functions? Reason I ask is that… well, last I looked, the whole point of this Moneyval evaluation was to en- sure that Malta (along with all the other assessed countries) re- ally is compliant with the highest international standards in the fight against money laundering and terrorism…. and NOT just to ensure that US military per- sonnel get to avoid local justice for any crimes they happen to commit in other jurisdictions. Don't get me wrong, mind you: I can fully understand that the United States would have its own interest in that direction (just as Malta has an equally obvious in- terest in refusing to co-operate: ever, under any circumstance whatsoever). But… Money- val? The Financial Action Task Force? Or, for that matter, the European Council as a whole? What interest could those pos- sibly have, in upholding US for- eign policy for its own sake? And what on earth does SOFA even have to do with the current state of Malta's anti-corruption legis- lation, anyway? The short answer, I suppose, is 'nothing at all'. And yet, it clear- ly does have a lot to do with our actual chances of passing this dreaded 'test', once and for all. All we have to do, it seems, is 'suck up to the Americans', and… hey presto! All those fi- nancial crimes and misdemean- ours we've been accused of in recent years; all those rule of law transgressions; all the dodgy banks and their dodgy transac- tions; all the offshore companies; the kickbacks in the sale of pass- ports; the impunity enjoyed for so long by politically-exposed people… everything, in brief, that anti-corruption crusaders have (quite rightly, I might add) been protesting and complaining about for so long… .. suddenly, all of it (and much more beside) gets swept under the carpet, and our internation- al reputation wiped clean by a last-minute Moneyval reprieve… not because we actually ad- dressed any of the compliance issue sidentified in past Money- val reports, of course; but simply because we entered into a mili- tary agreement with the United States of America…. I don't know. Back in my Uni- versity days, we would have called that 'cheating'. Much worse, actually; for if it ever tran- spired that an examiner had al- lowed an undeserving student to pass an exam, purely on the basis of a personal 'favour' that had nothing to do with the subject at hand… it would actually be con- sidered a criminal offence, liable to a rather lengthy spell in jail. (And I need hardly add that the consequences would be much worse for a judge who acquitted a guilty defendant in similar cir- cumstances.) But the worst part of it is that: just as Prime Minister Robert Abela would undeniably be be- traying Malta's interests, by con- senting to such a deal…. Money- val, too, would be betraying its anti-corruption remit by allow- ing Malta's malfeasance to go so conspicuously unpunished… and, much more damningly, by allowing a country like the USA to subvert international financial assessment mechanisms, and turn them into a tool to serve its own foreign policy interests. All things considered, then: I'd much rather we failed this test, and face the consequences we so richly deserve… than pass it so dishonestly, and at such dispro- portionately higher cost. As always however… that's just me. If it's 'not about Moneyval'… then why are we even discussing it? Raphael Vassallo

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