Opinion: Malta is a wake-up call

The details surrounding the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia sound almost as if they had been dreamed up by a screenwriter specialized in mafia flicks: There's a shadowy consigliere-type mafioso character who pulls all the strings in the tiny island state and knows of or holds responsibility for its dark machinations, unscrupulous businessmen, incredibly rich people from Russia and the Middle East, their yachts, cash-filled suitcases and casinos, dubious banks, hired assassins and a conspiracy to murder that is uncovered in the end.

Textbook takeover

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri staged a veritable takeover on the island state. They were hell-bent on attracting capital to Malta and did not care about its origins, no matter how murky.

The two established a gambling industry to launder money, and banks on the island turned a blind eye. The awarding of public contracts involved a slew of corrupt practices, and foreign oligarchs keen on acquiring EU citizenship just needed to pay a sizable sum to get a passport. These "businesspeople" have hundreds of yachts moored in Maltese ports – allowing them to discreetly slip in and out of EU territory as they wish.

The government used the money that came in to corrupt anyone holding any sort of office. It created well-paid positions for fellow party members, and generous scholarships for students. And as the political influence over the island's weak institutions is already considerable, it became easy for those pulling the strings to buy off and control the judiciary and police.

The result was that Malta evolved into a kind of mafia state, albeit one in which the illicit practices were hidden from plain sight. Even so, it was an all-encompassing system with control over all aspects of life, ranging from the issuing of taxi licenses to the construction of power plants.

A brave journalist

There is a glimmer of hope in this drama, though. The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia seems to have politicized the people of Malta, with an as yet inchoate civil society forming. Maltese of all ages have started gathering to protest as resistance grows against the island's deep-seated corruption. Their chants of "Mafia, mafia!" and "Murderers!" and calls for justice in front of the seat of government show that they now realize all too well the dire state their country is in.

Maltese wealth has come at a price, undermining morality and democracy. Let us not be naive, either: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat still has the support of all those whom he helped into cushy jobs or well-paid positions. They will continue to defend him and his system. And Muscat himself is still clinging to his office — possibly because he fears prosecution, or because he still needs to destroy or wipe incriminating documents, emails and hard drives.

But the family of the murdered journalist who reported on the criminal machinations in Malta will find some comfort in knowing that it was her who sparked the burgeoning protest wave, and that journalists elsewhere are trying to pick up where Galizia left off.

Wake-up call for the EU

The Maltese situation must serve as a stark warning to the EU. It illustrates just how fast a political group can corrupt a European country and that weak institutions can offer no protection against such corrupt power. And it also shows that such processes can happen almost undetected.

The case makes clear what significance the rule of law and the separation of powers has in the European project. They are not just nice to have — they are quintessential for liberal democracies to function. Alas, the EU for too long turned a blind eye to the situation in Malta, ignoring warning signs and reports on this state of affairs.

Read more: Reporters Without Borders honors journalists who fear for their lives

Deplorable party patronage system

There is an explanation why the EU has failed to act: Its system of party patronage means that for years, Social Democrats in Brussels shielded Joseph Muscat of the Malta Labour Party. Similarly, Christian Democrats in Brussels have protected Viktor Orban, even though he has worked tirelessly to destroy Hungary's democracy. This system of party patronage ruins the bloc's political order and tarnishes its credibility. It is simply despicable and destructive.

The new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen's leadership could seize this opportunity to put the fight for the rule of law at the top of its agenda. And the European Parliament must stop protecting corrupt, undemocratic leaders. For the things that have happened in Malta are partly the fault of Europe for having once more failed to intervene in time.

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.