Editorial | Sunday, 13 September 2009
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Making the same mistake twice

Can Malta afford to make the same mistake twice? Judging by the most recent developments on the hunting and trapping front, the answer appears to be: yes.
This much was clear from the verdict reached last Thursday by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, in the case brought against Malta by the Commission regarding spring hunting.
Confirming a point this newspaper has repeatedly been making for the past five years, the ECJ ruled that Malta was actually in breach of EU law, when it permitted spring hunting to take place each year between 2004 and 2007.
The European Court also reiterated what should by now be common knowledge to one and all: i.e., that it is illegal to hunt birds during the breeding season according to the European Wild Birds Directive; and that if any exceptions are possible, these can only be implemented under very strict conditions, and even then, only after submitting exhaustive justification and informing the EC of the derogation, under Article 9 (which application would have to be made individually for each season).
Above all, the ECJ ruling observed that Malta took the initiative to open the season without correctly applying the derogation: namely, by failing to submit the necessary scientific data relevant to the two species concerned (turtledove and quail).
From this alone it can easily be inferred that the government never really had any intention of applying the derogation in the first place. Instead, it went ahead and knowingly breached EU law by opening the season without meeting the official criteria – possibly banking on widespread ignorance of the actual procedures among the population at large; and also on the fact that this form of infringement does not entail financial penalties.
In a sense – and if one closes an eye at the clinical ruthlessness with which the hunting community was cheated in the process – one can almost appreciate the sheer ingeniousness of the political strategy. Without ever really lifting a finger in defence of spring hunting, the party in government nonetheless created the impression that it had fought tooth and nail on behalf of the hunters, and would do so again if necessary.
In so doing, it also spared itself a repeat performance of the fracas of March 2007, when a protest by hunters and trappers in Valletta turned violent.
But this is a shortsighted appraisal of the current situation. For though Malta may not have been fined for its obstinate insistence on breaking European law, the credibility of its government has nonetheless suffered an axe-blow to the roots.
And now, an almost identical scenario is about to unfold all over again. Even as infringement procedures went ahead in Luxembourg, Malta was busy trying to fulfil the criteria for another derogation, this time concerning trapping. But with a significant difference: for the two new trapping seasons announced this week by the Ornis Committee are not for the traditional seven species of finch (now protected under European law); but rather, for four species of game bird – turtledove, quail, song thrush and golden plover – that do not constitute the main quarry of the traditional Maltese trapper in the first place. Ostensibly, this can only create the risk of trappers using this loophole to continue finch-trapping, albeit illegally.
And yet, trappers have been urged to apply for licenses to trap these four species; and also to supply information for a register of local trapping sites. What the trappers have not been told, however, is that along with a captive breeding programme, the trapping site register was part of the country’s obligations to secure a four-year transitional period in order to phase out trapping in Malta... and that this transitional period has already elapsed, having come to a close in December 2008.
It seems therefore that the government of Malta is trying to pull off the same trick twice – giving trappers the false impression (not to mention false hope) that it will be fighting their case in Europe, when all it is really doing is wasting precious time and resources trying to apply a derogation that it knows it cannot possibly obtain.
It remains to be seen whether trappers will take the bait on this occasion, too... and above all, whether Malta will be subjected to the indignity of yet more infringement procedures on account of an administration which seems immune to any shame.
Either way, however, the long-term casualty will almost certainly be our country’s reputation within the EU.


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