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Editorial | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Stop hiding behind EU directives

The Prime Minister last week passed up an opportunity to clear the air on the contentious issue of spring hunting, currently the subject of court proceedings in Europe.
To the vast majority of non-hunters in Malta – whose only contact with either birdlife or hunters is limited to occasional encounters while out on picnics or country strolls – this may appear a distant and irrelevant issue. But it is a matter of grave concern to Malta’s estimated 16,000 hunters; and for the birds themselves, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.
Evidently the European Commission takes the latter view, for unlike other cases initiated against Malta – like the excessive deficit infringements proceedings, which were dropped last month – not only has the spring hunting controversy ended up in the European Court, but the same court also issued “interim measures” to ensure that last year’s season did not open as planned.
The threat was repeated this year, with greater urgency as the court is expected to reach a final decision in May. For better or for worse, the future of Malta’s spring hunting season now rests with Europe, and not with Malta at all: and from this perspective, Lawrence Gonzi’s announcement last week suggests that the government which vowed to defend the “tradition” of hunting in spring, is evidently having a change of heart.
Gonzi’s position is that, once ‘nothing has changed’ since the ECJ issued interim measures in 2008, he could not afford to defy the European Commission by opening the season in 2009. But the hunters’ federation (FKNK) reacted by issuing a strongly worded press release to correct the Prime Minister on his assertion that ‘nothing changed’ – unlike last year, the European commission is now in possession of all the documents relevant to Maltese hunters’ carnet de chasse – and accusing his government of abdicating from his responsibilities to safeguard the results of Malta’s pre-accession negotiations.
Ironically, both sides are correct. The Prime Minister cannot announce opening dates for the spring season without openly inviting punitive measures by the European Court. Likewise, the hunters are correct to expect the government to fight their case for them in Europe: this is after all what the Nationalist Party repeatedly pledged to do before the 2003 elections, and even earlier.
But it is an ill wind that is blowing nobody any good. Fact of the matter is that the government – even if willing to fight on behalf of the hunters – simply has no further bargaining chips to use up with the European Union, on an issue which has militated heavily against Malta’s interests over the past 20 years at least.
More to the point, it is increasingly evident that this is one fight the government has no stomach for... but rather than turn to the hunters and inform them as much, it is perfectly content to keep the hunters guessing all the way until the issue draws to its predictable close next May.
This is not the way such matters should be handled. Whatever one’s opinions on the hunting issue, its practitioners are owed a direct explanation of the precise state of affairs. As the FKNK’s campaign graphically illustrates, hunters were led to believe the spring season would continue opening even with Malta in the EU; and for their part trappers were never informed that their pastime would become history in 2009 – indeed they were told the opposite.
Now, both these promises appear to have fizzled into nothing. But still the hunters are being given the impression that the European Court of Justice may yet decide in their favour. Needless to add this can only come about if the government decides to bite the bullet and fight tooth and nail on the hunters’ behalf: but it is clear from the Prime Minister’s announcement last week – and also because of the great majority which would be incensed by any reversal of the status quo – that no such fight is really on the cards.
In a sense, the hunting lobby has fallen victim to Malta’s political cynicism. The days of Labour and Nationalist parties competing for the hunters’ vote now seem far away, in a context when it is actually Europe – and neither Labour nor PN – that really calls the shots. The extent of the hunters’ influence on politics can further be gauged from the results of last year’s general elections, and more cogently from the European elections in June 2004: when FKNK secretary Lino Farrugia obtained little over 1,000 votes.
From this perspective it is almost cruel to build up hunters’ expectations any further. The battle for spring hunting is over, and the hunters have lost. It would be better for all concerned if the government simply came clean about this state of affairs once and for all, and stopped leading the hunting community up the garden path with promises it knows it can’t keep.


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