Euro­pean Com­mis­sion turns a blind eye, claims Mizzi’s Panama com­pany is only a national is­sue

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - David Lind­say and Kevin Schem­bri Or­land

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is turn­ing a blind eye to Min­is­ter with­out Port­fo­lio Konrad Mizzi’s pres­ence in Brus­sels on of­fi­cial vis­its fol­low­ing the Panama Pa­pers rev­e­la­tions that he had a com­pany in the se­cre­tive ju­ris­dic­tion of Panama.

The most re­cent of meet­ings took place just this week, when Dr Mizzi trav­elled to Brus­sels with the ma­jor­ity of Cabi­net, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat, on an of­fi­cial visit prior to Malta tak­ing over the EU Pres­i­dency.

He even formed part of the group photo with many EU Com­mis­sion­ers and Pres­i­dent of the EU Com­mis­sion Jean Claude Juncker.

Ear­lier this year, af­ter Dr Mizzi was stripped of his En­ergy and Health port­fo­lios, the min­is­ter also held meet­ings with Maroš Še­fčovič, Vice-Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in charge of the En­ergy Union, as listed on the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s agenda for 19 Septem­ber.

The Malta In­de­pen­dent on Sunday asked Mr Juncker why the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is send­ing a sig­nal that a pub­lic of­fi­cial with se­cret com­pa­nies in Panama can eas­ily hold of­fice within the EU frame­work, given that Dr Mizzi posed for a photo with Euro­pean Com­mis­sion­ers, and whether the EC Pres­i­dent had raised any con­cerns about the min­is­ter’s pres­ence prior to the event.

A spokesper­son for Mr Junker said the photo op­por­tu­nity took place in the con­text of the of­fi­cial visit of the Mal­tese government to the Com­mis­sion prior to Malta tak­ing over the ro­tat­ing EU Pres­i­dency: “Konrad Mizzi is a Min­is­ter in the Mal­tese government and as part of the ap­pointed Mal­tese del­e­ga­tion was re­ceived as such.”

The spokesper­son also said that “in prin­ci­ple, the Com­mis­sion does not com­ment on al­le­ga­tions tak­ing place in the national con­text”.

The Panama Pa­pers scan­dal, how­ever, can­not rea­son­ably be de­scribed as a ‘national is­sue’, so much so that the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment has be­gun its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter.

Asked whether Pres­i­dent Juncker be­lieves that the Mal­tese government ought to ask this par­tic­u­lar min­is­ter to step down prior to Malta as­sum­ing the EU Pres­i­dency, the spokesper­son in­sisted that the Com­mis­sion does not in­ter­vene in the com­po­si­tion of national govern­ments.

Dr Mizzi, how­ever, is cur­rently a min­is­ter in the Mal­tese Cabi­net and since Malta will hold the EU Pres­i­dency, the mat­ter, come Jan­uary, will no longer be solely a national is­sue.

Tak­ing such a stance also in­di­cates that the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion would pre­sum­ably have no com­ment to make if min­is­ters in other EU coun­tries opened com­pa­nies in se­cre­tive ju­ris­dic­tions.

But when this news­room pointed out that by tak­ing such a stance the Com­mis­sion seems to be go­ing against the PANA in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­ing un­der­taken by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, the spokesper­son for Mr Junker said, “If the Panama Pa­pers were to re­veal that EU laws have been bro­ken or were to point to loop­holes or weak­nesses in our leg­is­la­tion, the Com­mis­sion would of course take ac­tion, pro­vided this falls un­der its com­pe­tence.”

This isn’t the first time the Com­mis­sion dodged tak­ing a po­si­tion on the is­sue con­cern­ing the Konrad Mizzi predica­ment, given that he is cur­rently the only serv­ing EU min­is­ter to have di­rectly had a com­pany re­vealed in the Panama Pa­pers.

Back in April, a set of ques­tions were sent to EU Health Com­mis­sioner Vyte­nis An­driukaitis ask­ing whether he feels com­fort­able with an EU min­is­ter be­ing men­tioned in the Panama Pa­pers and whether he felt Dr Mizzi should re­sign.

In re­sponse, a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion spokesper­son for Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices and Cap­i­tal Mar­kets Union, Tax­a­tion and Cus­toms at the time said that with re­gard to the spe­cific case, it is still “too early for us to com­ment. If th­ese leaks re­veal that EU laws have been bro­ken or point to loop­holes or weak­nesses in our leg­is­la­tion, the Com­mis­sion will of course take ac­tion, pro­vided this falls un­der its com­pe­tence.”

In another in­stance, EU Com­mis­sion First Vice-Pres­i­dent Frans Tim­mer­mans had told this news­room dur­ing an in­ter­view: “I’m aware of the Panama Pa­pers, but I’m not aware of any spe­cific is­sue per­tain­ing to spe­cific min­is­ters or politi­cians in mem­ber states.”

This news­room has also sent ques­tions to the Of­fice of the Prime Min­is­ter ask­ing what, ex­actly, Dr Mizzi’s role will be dur­ing Malta’s six-month term of the EU Pres­i­dency. No an­swers were forth­com­ing as of yes­ter­day.

Dr Mizzi is also likely to be called be­fore the Money Laun­der­ing, Tax Avoid­ance and Tax Eva­sion Com­mit­tee (Pana), which is look­ing into the Panama Pa­pers. How­ever it is still un­clear how Dr Mizzi will be ques­tioned, Euro­pean Par­lia­ment sources this week told The Malta In­de­pen­dent on Sunday.

The sources ex­plained that talks are un­der­way about an MEP del­e­ga­tion com­ing to Malta and con­duct­ing it here, while also look­ing into Malta’s tax­a­tion regime, while oth­ers be­lieve they should call Dr Mizzi to Brus­sels to ap­pear be­fore the com­mit­tee.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent was also asked whether the fam­ily pho­to­graph with the in­clu­sion of Dr Mizzi could put the EC at odds with the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, given the Com­mit­tee is look­ing into the Panama Pa­pers.

“On the con­trary,” Mr Juncker’s spokesper­son ex­plained, “the Com­mis­sion is co­op­er­at­ing fully with the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s Panama Pa­pers in­quiry com­mit­tee. We are all work­ing to­wards the same goals. Our view con­tin­ues to be that all of the EU in­sti­tu­tions, to­gether with the mem­ber states and our in­ter­na­tional part­ners, need to do more to­gether and work faster to tackle ef­fec­tively the prob­lem of tax avoid­ance and harm­ful tax prac­tices.

“Tax avoid­ance is an is­sue of global sig­nif­i­cance, and we look for­ward to pur­su­ing our far­reach­ing strat­egy to­wards fair tax­a­tion and greater trans­parency to­gether with all our part­ners, in­clud­ing the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. This Com­mis­sion is pur­su­ing a far-reach­ing strat­egy to­wards fair tax­a­tion and greater trans­parency and we have al­ready made big progress.”

Dr Mizzi was asked by this news­pa­per back in Au­gust whether he would ap­pear be­fore such a com­mit­tee if in­vited, but did not give a clear an­swer. He had said that if he re­ceives such cor­re­spon­dence, he would re­ply ac­cord­ingly.

Dr Mizzi had said last Fe­bru­ary, backed by the Prime Min­is­ter, that an au­dit com­pany would be au­dit­ing Dr Mizzi, how­ever the find­ings have not yet been re­leased to the pub­lic, and in­deed, the name of the au­dit com­pany is not even known.

Fol­low­ing the Panama Pa­pers rev­e­la­tions, Span­ish politi­cian José Manuel So­ria re­signed from both his par­lia­men­tary seat and his post as min­is­ter of in­dus­try, en­ergy and tourism in Spain’s care­taker government in April. Ac­cord­ing to the Fi­nan­cial Times, his name emerged as a direc­tor of a Panama-based shell com­pany, al­beit briefly and more than two decades ago.

In a res­ig­na­tion let­ter Mr So­ria said he had taken his de­ci­sion to quit “con­sid­er­ing the ob­vi­ous dam­age that this sit­u­a­tion is caus­ing the government of Spain, the Pop­u­lar Party, my fel­low ac­tivists and vot­ers”. The ar­ti­cle also re­ported Span­ish Fi­nance Min­is­ter Cristóbal Mon­toro as stat­ing: “No one who’s oper­ated in tax havens can be in the government.”

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