Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 27 September 2009

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Requiem for a dream

What a disappointment the European Union is turning out to be. And how fast the dream ended, too. Malta has only been a member for a measly five years – less than a quarter of the time the PN has been in power, by the way – and already around 90% of what many of us expected has evaporated in the cold light of day.

Let’s start with hunting: an automatic bone of contention, in a country where the number of police officers assigned to control this controversial activity – as well as monitor the entire countryside for other things, too – represents less than 0.002% of the total hunting population.

Well, many moons ago, an ideal compromise appeared to be in sight. In private home visits before the 2003 referendum – and then again before the election a month later – one Nationalist candidate after another came knocking at our doors, parachuting onto our rooftops, and slipping their leaflets into our letter-boxes... all repeating the same general message: that with Malta “safely anchored in the European port” (to resuscitate one of the more popular mantras at the time) everything would slowly fall into place.
In the case of hunting in particular, the argument was spectacularly convincing: how else to control the situation, in a country where a mere 1,000 votes can swing an election... and which is also home to 14,000 hunters?
“Let the EU decide for us,” they whispered in an “entre-nous” kind of way. You mark our words... it will all work out for the best in the end.

Ho, ha hum. Of course, the same PN candidates were simultaneously promising the hunters the very opposite; they told them that the EU respected national traditions like hunting and trapping; that exceptions could always be made, like they were made in other departments; and – in an example of precisely the sort of political philistinism the EU was supposed to excise once and for all – they hinted that an “arrangement” of some kind would always be possible.
Then came the EU Commissioners, like the Three Wise Men (and occasionally Women) from those vastly superior civilisations to our North: Neelie Krose, to blind us all with her flowery dresses; Romano Prodi, to mollify us with his teddy-bear expression; Gunther Verheugen, to mesmerise us all with his unfeasibly inflated lips. Down they floated, one by one, from the stratosphere above, gracing us lesser mortals with their urbane and benevolent wisdom, and allowing us the brief thrill of bathing in their glowing munificence, before vanishing back to the Promised Land with their spectacular visions of “standards” and “excellence”, and other such tripe.

Well, we now know it was all hogwash in the end... but do you know what? I for one believed it. Not so much out of unswerving faith in the intrinsic honesty of Maltese politicians, or the undying wisdom of EU Commissioners... but because – for reasons which I admit escape me today – I assumed (foolishly) that the Europe Union would indeed turn out to be the serious institution it was always painted out to be.
Certainly I thought it would help solve the political impasse that hunting had come to represent - i.e., that, where neither of the two political parties ever had the courage to say “enough is enough”, the Commission would step in and sort things out once and for all.
But even then, I was troubled by a doubt... a doubt which intensified in direct proportion to the details that slowly started to emerge from the celebrated “pakkett”, as one chapter after another of the Accession Treaty was finally issued by the Malta EU Information Centre.

It was clear from even a cursory glance at those leaflets that for all their fine talk about “progress” and “softening the impact of membership”, all our chief negotiators were really interested in was maintaining the status quo. In fact, they performed astonishing feats of contortionism in their efforts to withhold from Maltese citizens any of the actual material benefits of membership. On the environmental front alone, Malta applied for (and very often obtained) exceptions and derogations from all manner of European Directives: all supposedly there to safeguard our health and well-being. And even now, five years into the great European adventure, this sort of reverse negotiation continues unabated. We are still begging to be absolved of all our environmental obligations... including air pollution, which is where we lag the furthest behind.
And guess what? Instead of politely informing the Maltese government where it could insert its precious request... what was the EU’s response? Why, yes Malta, certainly! After all, who in Brussels cares if a bunch of ‘Christianised Arabs’ – who live south of Tunis anyway – die of lung cancer, or have the world’s highest rate of asthma among adolescents? Here, take your derogation and pump as much filth into the atmosphere as you please. While you’re at it, here’s another nice little derogation for you to enjoy: this time from our Fireworks Safety directive. You never know, maybe a few more of your lunatic pyromaniacs will do us all a favour, blow themselves up and rid the world of their mindless superstition once and for all.

But back to hunting. As you may or may not remember, two years ago the European Commission made a whole song and dance about our spring hunting season. Contrary to what had previously been reported in those MiC leaflets, it appeared for a while that spring hunting was not actually permissible within the ‘European port’; and for a while it did seem as though things were heading in the promised direction.
And, oh! The posing and the posturing, as the Commission slapped “interim measures” upon us all, and threatened fire and brimstone if the government so much as dreamt about declaring the spring season open in 2008. Then they dragged us kicking and screaming to court... giving us the impression that the whispering campaign was actually true, and that everything would really fall into place in the end.

But, true to its established credentials as an environmentally delinquent administration, the government of Gonzi (composed chiefly of lawyers, in case no one’s noticed) moved with lightning speed and dazzling efficiency to subvert this impression, and once again withhold from Maltese citizens all the promised benefits of EU membership.
So never mind, if on other environmentally sensitive cases (like, um, the good old Charles Azzopardi “reflagging” incident last year) the Attorney General needs the occasional gentle prod to take any action. In this instance, he sprang into action like a juggernaut, and put up such a heroic fight on behalf of Malta’s right to shoot birds in the breeding season, that... tah dah! The European Court of Justice delivered a ruling last week which – while ostensibly ‘condemning’ Malta for illegally permitting spring hinting in 2004, 20005, 2006 and 2007 – also paved the way towards a permanent future of spring hunting in Malta... just like the good old days, when we were still languishing outside the ‘European port’, and ‘arrangements’ could always be made.

You know what? It’s starting to look like we never sailed into that port at all. And judging by the most recent developments on the European environment front, I’m not even sure if I still want to.

You see, it’s not just a case of Malta using its twisted legal genius to secure a handful of nasty concessions that the European Union should never, ever have granted. Oh no. It’s that the EU itself is fast turning out to be just as grubby, just as dirty, just as slovenly and just as greedy as the worst we have ever experienced in Maltese politics.
How else are we to explain this week’s shameful decision not to support a ban on Bluefin tuna, when the same tuna is currently being systematically fished out of existence? How do we account for the fact that – yet again, after initially signalling its intention to protect this species from almost certain extinction – Europe has predictably caved in to the demands of an immensely wealthy and unscrupulous industry lobby?
OK, admittedly, there is a slender chance of a reprieve, if the Council of (Environment) Ministers agrees to support the ban next month. But how likely is this eventuality?

My guess is that Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg, with the help of Maltese industry consultants and a few other twisted legal minds, will carry on doing what Maltese politicians have always done best. He will somehow find a way to ‘arrange’ things for the benefit of his friends in the local fisheries sector; while creating the semblance of a ‘compromise’ designed to ‘protect jobs’.

The upshot? A fish as noble and spectacular as the Bluefin tuna will have vanished forever in the space of little more than a decade... and with it the livelihoods of all the Mediterranean’s fishermen in one fell swoop. And all for what, you might be asking? Who stands to gain? Who reaps the benefits of the hard work of a Commissioner whose salary and pension are paid for out of European taxpayers’ hard-earned cash?
Why, what a silly question. The close friends of certain EU member state’s fisheries minister, of course. Who else? And for what other purpose, except for these same close friends to carry on making a few more millions of euros while the breeding stock lasts... to add to the hundreds of millions they have already invested in Southeast Asia, so they can diversify their interests when there is no more tuna to exploit?
I don’t know. Is there a single institution in the entire world that will not prove a complete and utter disillusionment? No, I didn’t think so, either.


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