'You are very impolite': MEP Alex Agius Saliba gets a telling off

News   |  26.05. 2021

A Maltese MEP has been reprimanded as “very impolite” after he alleged that a European Parliament committee was discussing Malta’s use of EU funds for politically motivated reasons. 

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba clashed with budgetary control committee chair Monika Hohlmeier as he lambasted the discussion as a “partisan attack” that was being pushed forward by the European People’s Party – the political grouping PN MEPs belong to. Committee chair Hohlmeier is also an EPP MEP. 

The committee, named CONT, is tasked with delving into issues concerning the management of the EU budget. Agius Saliba is not a member of the committee and was only allowed to speak after Hohlmeier decided that he should be allowed to do so. 

Among Tuesday's agenda items was a discussion about the administration of EU funds in Malta.

Agius Saliba had already spoken critically of that agenda item some weeks ago, accusing EPP secretary-general Simon Busuttil of having lobbied to put the item on the CONT agenda so as to try and link EU funding to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

A testy exchange

Speaking during Wednesday's committee meeting, Agius Saliba reiterated that point. 

“I cannot understand why there are attempts to try to link the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia to the misuse or corruption of EU funds in Malta,” Agius Saliba said.

"Today’s attempt by some political groups in this committee is another partisan attack – a diversion tactic – from the real misuse of EU funds," he continued before being interrupted by the committee chair.

“We are not discussing here what you are discussing here at the moment,” Hohlmeier said bemusedly.

“We are discussing possible systemic problems... we are not in the LIBE committee, we are not talking about the rule of law.” 

The LIBE committee is a separate parliamentary committee tasked with discussing civil liberties, justice and home affairs matters.

Agius Saliba continued his intervention but was stopped once again by Hohlmeier, who interjected to note that the Labour MEP was running out of time. 

As the two spoke over each other, Hohlmeier grew visibly irked. 

“You are being very impolite,” she told Agius Saliba as she gave him 30 seconds to wrap up his intervention.

Hohlmeier went on to lecture the Labour MEP.

“In this committee, we have the habit of looking at all member states, going beyond our parties. And so we ask factual questions. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia obviously has raised questions in CONT in respect of how national authorities are set up and if they can do their job independently,” she said.

“I only interrupted you after you had been speaking for four minutes,” she added. “I don’t think I was being rude.” 

Agius Saliba: 'Hohlmeier wants to play the bully'

The two MEPs had another testy exchange at the end of the committee session, with Agius Saliba arguing that he had only spoken about the Caruana Galizia murder because it was “the title of this debate” as well as the main line of argumentation made by an EPP MEP who spoke, Tomáš Zdechovský. 

That prompted Hohlmeier to point out that Agius Saliba was mistaken. 

“The headline of this debate is ‘administration of EU funds in shared management in Malta’,” she said. “There was no second title.” 

Agius Saliba later said on Facebook that the president of the Social and Democrats political grouping he belongs to, Iratxe Garcia Perez, would be filing an official complaint with the European Parliament president about how he had been treated by the CONT chair. 

“If Monika Hahlmeier wants to play the bully, she can find another role instead of using that of chair to do the shameful thing she did today,” Agius Saliba said.

PN: Labour MEPs have been shown up

In its own statement, the Nationalist Party said Agius Saliba had been shown up as clueless during the committee meeting. 

"Labour MEPs are unable to distinguish between technical discussions and political points," the PN said. "All they care about is reading out the speech they have prepared, regardless of the context." 

The party denied having anything to do with having the debate about Malta added to the CONT agenda, noting that the committee held discussions about all member states. 

OLAF: no links found between murder and EU funds

Agius Saliba's clash with the CONT committee chair overshadowed proceedings during the debate itself, which noted some shortcomings but flagged no major concerns about Malta’s use of EU funds. 

Ernesto Bianchi from EU anti-fraud agency OLAF told the committee that the agency had not come across any link between the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the misuse of EU funds. 
He also noted that Maltese authorities had followed up on recommendations made by the agency in other, unrelated cases and that relations between OLAF and local agencies were “positive”. 

“Cooperation with the Maltese authorities so far has been good and from what we can see control mechanisms in place seem to be working,” he said. 

OLAF currently has three investigations ongoing that concern Malta, Bianchi said. Two concern regional development funds while the third concerns maritime funds. All three are in their early stages. 

Rafael Lopez Sanchez from the European Commission’s regional and urban policy directorate, DG REGIO, said that the country’s implementation of EU funds was satisfactory overall and noted that Malta was a frontrunner in the use of a simplified method of using funds that reduced the risk of irregularities. 

Sanchez emphasised that Malta receives just 0.25% of all EU cohesion policy funds, and said that the audit effort made to oversee Maltese spending was proportional to that outlay. 

Malta’s minuscule size in EU terms was also noted by Christina Borchmann from the Commission’s agricultural directorate, DG AGRI. 

Borchmann said many fund disbursals to Malta fell below the €1 million minimum spend that triggered action by the directorate. 

While there were some shortcomings, these were mainly due to a lack of resources, rather than cases of fraud or conflict of interest, she said. 

Borchmann also played down a suggestion by the committee chair, Hahlmeier, that “systemic” problems in Malta were related to conflict of interest issues.

“It’s a completely different matter, it’s a question of whether the paying agency is functioning adequately and has the human resources needed to do its job properly. So it’s a systemic issue but not a systemic issue of the nature you may have been hinting at, Mrs chair,” Borchmann said.