An EU mission dispatched to Malta to scrutinise the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia said on Tuesday that the prime minister should step down immediately, ramping up pressure on the island’s embattled government.
Joseph Muscat announced on Sunday that he intends to resign as head of the ruling Labour Party next month and then step aside as prime minister a few days later.
But Sophie in’t Veld, the Dutch MEP leading the two-day mission to Malta, said he had made “serious errors of judgement” that made his position no longer tenable.
"I think everybody recognises, including the prime minister himself, that he has made some serious errors of judgment and I would say that staying on longer than necessary is another error of judgement," she said.
"In politics it is about trust. It is about the integrity of office. We have made it very clear that there is a problem. This is not just between the prime minister and the Maltese people. It is between Malta and the European Union," the MEP said.
After an encounter with Mr Muscat and Owen Bonnici, the justice minister, she said: "I am not coming out of this meeting with more confidence, I have to say.”
The slow pace of the investigation into the murder of the journalist, who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017, has led to serious questions about the rule of law and the independence of the police and judiciary in Malta.
Three men were arrested and charged with planting the bomb a few weeks after the contract killing, but they have still not been put on trial.
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Mr Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested last week after his name cropped up during the questioning of another suspect, millionaire businessman Yorgen Fenech.
That brought the murder inquiry into the heart of the prime minister’s inner circle.
Mr Schembri was subsequently released without charge, with police saying they no longer had a reason to detain him.
He denies any involvement in the killing.
Mr Fenech, the businessman, was charged at the weekend with complicity in the car bombing, an accusation he denies.
On Tuesday, the Times of Malta produced a handwritten letter which, it claimed, offers further evidence of the links between Mr Fenech and Mr Schembri. The letter, which cites both men, was written by Melvin Theuma, the alleged middleman in the murder plot, who has been given a presidential pardon in return for divulging information to investigators.
Protesters have staged rowdy demonstrations in Valletta, the capital, almost every night, hurling eggs at parliament, chanting “mafia” and “assassins” at MPs and using loud speakers to blare out ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” in a dig at alleged corruption.