Editor’s Note: As much of Europe battles a rising tide of populist and nationalist sentiment, the murder of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia offers a lesson into the future of “European values.” This adapted excerpt of The Fabulists: The World’s New Rulers, Their Myths and the Struggle Against Them, published in Britain by Oneworld Publications, looks back at her killing.
The commuters poured up from their morning ferries and buses into the old heart of Valletta, shirtsleeves and summer dresses still the order of the day in the southern European autumn sun. Most streamed downtown past the Auberge de Castille, an imposing baroque building that now serves as the prime minister’s office in the Maltese capital. It used to be the lodgings of the Knights of Saint John, who centuries ago made the city their stronghold and fed a sense of historically layered mysteries that lingers in the Mediterranean island-state today.
I took a taxi and headed north, along quiet roads where prickly pear cactuses tumbled over crumbling, dry stone walls. We passed the ancient hilltop settlement of Mdina, the old capital known as the “silent city” because cars are all but forbidden within its fortified walls, where few people now live. Founded by the Phoenicians more than two and a half millennia ago, it had been under Roman, Arab, French, and British occupation. Like the climate and the Maltese language, Mdina was a reminder of how the European Union’s smallest state is a cultural entrepôt that lies at a more southerly latitude than Tunis and only a few hundred kilometers from Tripoli.
A police officer standing in the road stopped us as we neared our destination. When I explained that I had an appointment, he let me walk on to a nearby house with a driveway. A young man arrived at the gate to greet me and warn me not to walk in the ruts made by the car wheels, for fear of disturbing potential evidence. We moved silently in single file along the center of the gravel track, into a home in the grip of terrible mourning.
Less than 48 hours before, my host, Matthew Caruana Galizia, had rushed down the very same drive after the house was shaken by a large explosion nearby. His mother, the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, had left in her car moments before. Matthew sprinted down the road and saw Daphne’s white Peugeot ablaze in a field by the side of the road. It would quickly become clear that she had been killed by a bomb.
I had covered political murders during years spent reporting from many venal and autocratic states. But I hadn’t expected that my first big assignment on returning to the EU in late 2017 after a long absence would be to write about the killing of a columnist and blogger whose family was convinced she had been targeted because of her work. It would be only a matter of months before the Malta murder was followed by the killing of another journalist in an EU country: Ján Kuciak along with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, in Slovakia. Days before the first anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s murder, the Bulgarian television presenter Viktoria Marinova was found dead in a park in the northern town of Ruse, having been raped and murdered, according to authorities. Like Kuciak, she had reported on corruption, including alleged fraud related to EU funds. In April, a 21-year-old Bulgarian was jailed for 30 years for Marinova’s rape and murder, though authorities insisted the crime was unconnected to her work. And a Slovak businessman has been charged with ordering the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová, while four other suspects are awaiting trial for allegedly carrying out the crime.
The journalist murders and the suspicions around them brutally exposed a wider cause for alarm: the deterioration of the rule of law in the EU. The bloc spent a lot of time proclaiming its supposed values on human rights and democracy and urging others around the world to follow them. But what if the 28-member European club had rotted from within?
The EU’s troubles were growing. People in many countries in all parts of Europe were more and more drawn to demagogues who fueled and thrived on hostility to outsiders. Some of these European leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, were former dissidents who had fought totalitarian states. Their rise had, along with a broader slide into lawlessness, changed the face of Europe—or, perhaps, it had simply torn away the mask.
There were serious problems across the union. The rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania had rightly sparked criticism in Brussels and beyond. In Budapest, Orbán boasted of creating an “illiberal democracy” as his government condemned immigration, demonized the financier George Soros, and undermined the independence of the courts and the media. Warsaw ousted (and then reinstated) two dozen Supreme Court justices as part of a sweeping judicial overhaul it claimed was needed to break the link with its repressive Communist past. Both Poland and Hungary faced disciplinary proceedings in front of fellow member states for allegedly breaching fundamental EU values—but each could count on the other to stop any move toward serious sanctions, such as by suspending their voting rights at bloc meetings.
Humbug, too, came from the EU’s longer-standing Western European member states. They were complicit in—and in some cases driving forces of—the bloc’s harsh approach to migration. They were also rarely inclined to look too closely at their own problems with corruption, whether it was the action of British, French, or German companies overseas, or the conflicts of interest that plagued politicians such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
Then there was the problem of history. Western Europe’s lectures on governance and ethics have long looked preachy and hypocritical to both their neighbors and the wider world, particularly the parts of it that suffered through imperial occupation by powers such as Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. Just as the British often overlook their own history to present themselves as exemplars of certain desirable qualities, so other influential EU countries had their own flattering self-mythology. At a conference in Brussels, a French attendee told me she was glad to be a European, because only Europeans had the right values to project onto the world. The remark seemed particularly perverse, because we had just been talking about Liberia—a country surrounded by states formerly occupied by European powers, including the ex–French colonies of Guinea and Ivory Coast.
EU enlargement has brought many of these old tensions to the surface. The conflicts are especially obvious in the smaller countries, where the problems are concentrated and easier to see. One is Malta, with its electorate of just a few hundred thousand voters perched on the EU’s southern frontier.
Inside Daphne Caruana Galizia’s house, Matthew and his two brothers, Andrew and Paul, sat down with me around a large coffee table to talk about their mother. The house had been beautifully decorated by Daphne. One of her last acts had been to buy saplings for her already abundant garden.
Matthew, red-eyed and periodically tearful, explained why he and his siblings had agreed to speak. They appreciated the intent of the politicians and others around Europe who had denounced their mother’s murder and branded it an attack on freedom of expression. But they also found the statements odd. For the brothers, those proclaiming their shock had been far too slow to realize the growing danger in Malta—and elsewhere—to those who challenged powerful vested interests. Matthew returned to the metaphor of conflict.
“It’s as if you are in the middle of a war zone, some soldier gets shot dead, and you say: ‘This is an attack on democracy,’” he said. “The war was already there. It started a long time ago.”
To many outsiders who didn’t look too closely, all seemed well on these sun-blessed holiday islands sandwiched between Sicily and the Libyan coast. Malta joined the EU in 2004 as part of the jumbo enlargement that took the bloc from 15 to 25 members. The economy grew fast, albeit partly on the shaky foundations of a property boom, foreign-investor tax breaks, flags of convenience for the shipping industry, and a “nationality for sale” scheme. Valletta won plaudits for social liberalization in areas such as same-sex marriage and gender identity: quite a departure for a nation that didn’t even allow divorce until 2011.
As in other societies in miniature, Maltese politics had long featured what is often euphemistically called patronage but is sometimes simply corruption. It underpinned the near-unbroken quarter century of Nationalist Party rule that ended in 2013. Then the Labour Party came to power and, according to its opponents, began to make up for lost time.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Running Commentary blog had drawn a wide audience with postings that ranged from waspish political observations to tales of alleged high-level corruption. Her lawyer says he was defending her in at least 40 libel cases, including 19 filed by a single businessman, when she was killed at age 53.
She stepped up her coverage in 2017, the year of her murder. Building on material from the Panama Papers—the trove of documents leaked from the Mossack Fonseca law firm—she alleged that officials in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s office and the premier’s wife had received unexplained Azerbaijan-linked money through companies they owned in Panama. All those allegedly involved denied any wrongdoing. An official investigation cleared them in 2018. Muscat’s government held a “back us or sack us” election in June 2017 following the original claims—and won handsomely. After the ballot, Caruana Galizia found a fresh target: Adrian Delia, the opposition Nationalists’ new leader. At the time of her murder, he had five libel suits outstanding against her. The month before she was killed, she blogged about receiving threats from supporters of Delia, including one urging her to “take a cyanide pill.” Delia said he had known nothing about the harassment, which he admitted didn’t look good.
Until the thunderbolt of Brexit, the narrative of the EU had been one of relentless expansion and improvement. The bloc began with six countries in 1958 (as the European Economic Community), grew to nine during the 1970s, and to 15 during the ’90s. Many former Eastern Bloc states came in along with Malta in 2004. Even as Britain negotiated its exit, the European Commission was working closely with six western Balkan states that wanted to join. Once countries are members, the EU has few effective checks on behavior.
The European Commission had raised concerns about Malta before. A 2014 corruption report highlighted the risk posed by “executive discretion” to the independence of official investigations on the islands. The commission has since said that no more such reports would be published. The move has drawn criticism. It was a reflection of Brussels’ “unilateral disarmament” of its arsenal to deal with rule of law violations in member states, the EUobserver, an online newspaper, argued after the Caruana Galizia murder.
The EU’s governance problems were in part a hangover from post-Soviet complacency about the triumph of the Western model. For a young European like me entering adulthood in comfortable circumstances in the 1990s, those years were as cosseted as any in human history before or since. But, even in my ignorance and naïveté, I always sensed that something was not right. I felt the inequalities of opportunity when I held a student supermarket job. I felt it in the homelessness I saw when I moved to London, and I felt it in the anxiety I saw on reporting trips such as to the Halewood car plant on Merseyside, where people’s jobs were under threat.
Those sentiments deepened when I began to travel outside Europe and the United States for the first time. Three years living in Nigeria during the early 2000s proved a formative experience. Here was a country where the aphorism “No condition is permanent” had been coined as an emblem of the perpetual promise of improvement. But it had another meaning, too, about the precarity of daily life in a country chafed by conflict and mass deprivation amid the riches of oil. When people asked me what the main lessons were from my time in Nigeria, my reply inevitably included some version of the “fragility of all things.” That sense of living on the edge has spread wider in many European countries as jobs have become more insecure, wages have stagnated, and social services have been pared back.
These are among the forces that have allowed schemers to rise to power on the back of their supposed populism. The fight against the false remedies they tout has been hampered by the lofty denunciations made by some members of shocked elites. This dismissiveness harms progressive causes and alienates further the very people they need to persuade.
The damage done by establishment demonization of populism—as distinct from deserved criticism of the opportunists and racists that harness it—struck me hard when I lived in Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled two-time prime minister, had for years been disparaged by his old-money enemies for his populist policies. These included rice subsidies, cheap health care, and microcredit schemes for small businesses. Unsurprisingly, these won him millions of votes in large rural areas long neglected by Bangkok. The frequent attacks on these policies as morally bad (as opposed to, for example, poorly managed, badly targeted, or prone to corruption) backfired. They revealed more about his enemies’ disdain for those they dismissed as ignorant rural voters than it did about Thaksin, for all his serious flaws.
A similar social fracturing can be seen in the post-2008 narrative in the West. The cruelties and hypocrisies exposed in the postwar liberal model have given cover to politicians who appeal brazenly to people’s worst instincts, and offered a new avenue for manipulation by established interests who realize that the populist pose is helpful as a means to discredit opponents—and to distract attention from allegations of venal behavior.
In Malta, three suspects were arrested in December 2017 and charged with Caruana Galizia’s murder. They pleaded not guilty. Details of the case against them, including their alleged motivations, remain unclear. Caruana Galizia’s sons have called for a public inquiry independent of Malta’s police, government, and politicians to provide a “full and complete picture” of their mother’s death. They said the probe should examine whether the government breached her right to life under European law. In June, the parliamentary assembly of the 47-member Council of Europe (of which Malta is a member) also called for an independent inquiry and denounced a “climate of impunity” over suspected corruption in Malta. Maltese authorities have said they are willing to hold such an inquiry, but they want to ensure that it doesn’t prejudice the case against those accused of Caruana Galizia’s killing.
The EU’s internal divisions over how its members governed themselves were deepening. As states sparred with one another, it appeared that so-called European values were neither universally shared nor, indeed, what people had fantasized they were. After years of reporting from autocratic states of various stripes around the world, I felt that many people in Europe, including in a Britain convulsed by Brexit, still underestimated the danger of the moment—and how far and how fast apparently stable countries could slip.