TINY Malta, the would-be island paradise in the western Mediterranean that served as a living set for filming Game of Thrones, is back in the news – but not in a good way. In October 2017, the respected Maltese investigative journalist and prolific blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in a car bomb explosion close to her home on the north side of the island. There have been numerous bombings in Malta – mostly unreported in the British media – as a result of Italian Mafia turf wars over people smuggling from Libya. But why call public attention by murdering a journalist?

The National: Daphne Caruana Galizia

Daphne, 53, was no ordinary journalist but the central critic and thorn in the flesh of Malta’s crooked political and financial establishment. Her regular blog – forensically exposing local corruption – was read by over 400,000 people, which represents practically the entire Maltese adult population. As a result, she was subject to constant intimidation to get her to shut up. Much of the harassment was petty but obviously deeply distressing – her front door was set on fire and a string of family dogs variously poisoned, stabbed or shot.

What was Daphne Caruana Galizia bent on uncovering that so irked her enemies and led to her murder? You can still read her entire blog – Running Commentary – online. It meticulously and (from a cowering British perspective) outrageously delineates the corruption, lies, sexual trafficking, bribery and international money laundering of the Maltese elite. The extent of this naked corruption is difficult to explain to a British audience because the Maltese villains have such tight control over the island’s political, judicial and legal system that they think themselves invulnerable – so they virtual flaunt their corrupt and illegal excesses. It is not that Daphne Caruana Galizia was a particularly gifted investigative reporter. It is more that she was the only one brave enough on the island to talk truth to power. So, they murdered her in front of her children.

To understand the society that Daphne was exposing, we need to look at Malta’s crony politics. Outwardly, the former British colony is a democracy based on proportional representation. However, in the 1970s the two main establishment parties – the right-wing Nationalists and left-wing, now Blairite, Labour Party – changed the constitution to impose a massive 17% vote threshold on other parties gaining representation in the Maltese Parliament. Result: for half a century, the island’s politics have been a cosy, incestuous duopoly.

Down till the 1950s, the usually dominant, reactionary National Party was in favour of unification with Italy – which got its leaders exiled to Uganda during WWII (so much for the myth of the George Cross island). Post-war, with Mussolini gone, the Nats reversed ferret and did a deal with the Brits for a soft form of independence in 1964. This gave the party power at last but left the British military still in charge of Malta’s dock yard economy (a lesson for the SNP). Which then allowed the Labour Party, under firebrand demagogue Dom Mintoff, to claim the mantle of Maltese freedom.

The National: The makings of Malta

Mintoff won the 1971 election, threw out the Brits and declared Malta a republic. He then nationalised everything and made overtures to the Soviet bloc (incurring CIA displeasure). Thereafter, the Labour elite got rich while opponents were subject to increasing violence. True, Mintoff delivered better welfare and pensions but the tiny Maltese economy stagnated. Popular discontent and US subversion led to the return to power of the Nationalist Party in 1987. With only a brief wobble, the Nats stayed in (lucrative) power till 2013.

Malta joined the EU in 2003. Membership was a godsend as it opened up new sources of influence to peddle. In 2010, senior Nationalist politician John Dalli was appointed to the European Commission in charge of health. Only two years into the Brussels job, the European Anti-fraud Office accused a close associate of Dalli of demanding €60 million from Swedish Match, in return for Dalli’s help in watering down European regulations on snuff. Commission President Barroso instantly fired Dalli.

After virtually 26 years in power, the corrupt Nats were turfed out in 2013. Labour returned to office led by thrusting Joseph Muscat, a Maltese re-incarnation of Tony Blair. Muscat promised clean government and economic growth. What Malta got was a heavy dose of neoliberal economics. Muscat and his cronies opened the door to dubious international money and equally dubious foreign oligarchs looking for a friendly marina to park their yachts. A sudden doubling of tourism numbers turned the beautiful island of Malta into a forest of cranes, shoddy high-rise developments and endless hotels – funded from God knows where.

Daphne was in her element charting this epic flow of corrupt cash flowing into Malta and (some of it) into the sticky fingers of Maltese politicians. In 2016, she found a rich seam of evidence in the so-called Panama Papers, a leaked database of private documents from the infamous law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in managing secret offshore accounts. In particular, Daphne made allegations about Joseph Muscat’s wife and two of his closest aides – chief of staff Keith Schembri and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi – involving a mysterious shell company in Panama.

READ MORE: Death of Maltese journalist reveals failed democratic norms

Needless to say, everyone involved still claims to be innocent. Yet Daphne died for a reason. Crucially, the Maltese authorities dragged their feet regarding the murder. True, with a few weeks, three petty hoodlums were arrested for the murder in a blaze of orchestrated publicity. Yet two years passed before they were actually charged this July, and no one expects a trial anytime soon. Such blatant stonewalling provoked international criticism – including from the Council of Europe and Pope Francis.

Last month, leading Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested while attempting to flee on his boat. This weekend Fenech was charged with being the Mr Big behind the assassination plot. Not only is he heir to Malta’s largest gambling and property empire, Fenech is a known associate of Schembri and Mizzi, both of whom resigned last week. Ex-chief of staff Schembri was subsequently arrested. Can Muscat be far behind?

The tragedy of this affair is not just the pointless murder of a brilliant journalist. Rather, the horror is that this occurred in Europe. How could the perpetrators of this foul attack on European human rights and democracy possibly imagine they could get away with it? The answer is both elementary and appalling: because the institutions of the European Union and the former colonial power both happily turned a blind eye to the corruption that has held Malta in its grip for decades.

I believe Brexit is the battering ram being used by right wing forces to promote racism and dismantle human and workers’ rights. But that does not make me a fan of the EU as it presently operates. If Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murderers prove to be among the highest in the land, then the EU must suspend Malta from membership until it can prove its democratic credentials. Equally, we need to reform EU governance and create a genuine People’s Europe, not a charter for neoliberal free market economics. If that’s not on offer, then a pro-European, independent Scotland might be better off inside Efta.