Editorial | Sunday, 14 March 2010

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Blame it on the Commission

After the Ornis Committee took the predictable decision to establish dates for this year’s spring season (April 10 to 30), the spring hunting saga now appears to be heading for certain disaster.
Whether the season will open exactly as planned remains to be seen. But there can be little doubt that the government of Malta fully intends to honour its pre-accession promise to the hunting community... regardless of the potential cost to the country as a whole.
For however one interprets the ruling delivered by the European Court of Justice last year, Malta is currently unable to meet all the conditions necessary to justify a derogation according to Article 9 of the Birds Directive. In other words, infringement procedures will become inevitable should the government open a spring season in 2010. Not so much because the court ruling precludes it; but because the conditions for a derogation involve adequate supervision, as well as a guarantee that birds will be shot in ‘small numbers’: neither of which is realistically possible under the prevailing circumstances.
Malta now appears locked once more on a collision course with the European Commission; only this time, with a very real danger of facing fines by the European Court.
But it wasn’t meant to work out this way. In fact, what we are witnessing is the aftermath of an admittedly ingenious political strategy, which somehow – and despite the government’s carefully laid plans – managed to go horribly wrong.
The truth of the matter is that ever since EU accession in 2004, the Nationalist government has found itself facing an increasingly impossible and dangerous dilemma on account of hunting.
On the one hand, it was bound by its own pre-electoral promise to guarantee a future for spring hunting within the EU. On the other, it has faced a dramatic increase in environmental awareness among the population at large, which – combined with growing concerns among tourism stakeholders, as well as the constant pressure applied by a hostile international press – now serves as a counterweight pulling in the sheer opposite direction.
It was a dilemma forcefully aggravated by the fact that so many of the fledgling ‘anti-hunting lobby’ – which grew in part as a reaction to other environmental concerns, including over-construction – happened to come from areas known to be Nationalist strongholds. This in turn pitted individual PN candidates from rural and generally pro-hunting areas against their own counterparts from more urban and environmentally conscious districts; with the result that the Nationalist government now finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place.
This brings us to the clever part. With hindsight, it is now clear that Gonzi’s response was to shift the onus of responsibility for the spring hunting issue from his own shoulders, to those of the European Commission. This he did specifically by appearing to defy the Commission for four years running; thus deliberately incurring a European Court case, which Malta fought in such a way as to virtually guarantee its own defeat.
It was a stunningly simple idea, and if successful Lawrence Gonzi would arguably have strengthened his position on all fronts. The anti-hunting lobby would have been appeased once and for all; and in time it would have come to attribute the demise of spring hunting to EU accession – a Nationalist achievement if there ever was one. As for the hunters, their rage would no doubt have been boundless... but directed mainly at the Commission which imposed the infringement procedures in the first place; and not at the Maltese government which had after all fought so hard (or so it seemed) to retain spring hunting.
So much for how it was meant to work in theory. In practice, the entire plan can be seen to have backfired; largely because it failed to take into account the possibility that the European Court of Justice would deliver an altogether ambiguous and unsatisfactory court ruling, which has clearly thrown open the doors of possibility to a legal season this year.
Faced with this unexpected turn of events, Gonzi’s troubles have deepened considerably. He now risks alienating the anti-hunting lobby by opening the season against their wills. But he has no immediate legal justification not to accede to the hunters’ requests... and in any case, his government is committed to spring hunting by virtue of its 2003 pre-electoral promise.
It remains to be seen how the Prime Minister will play his hand from this point on. But initial indications suggest that his strategy will remain unchanged. That is to say, he will once again invite infringement procedures by opening the season without the necessary conditions in place. Then he will once again fight a court battle he hopes to lose, in order to finally turn to the hunters and admit defeat... reminding them that it was the European Court, and not his own government, that made a future spring hunting season impossible.
Clever strategy? Perhaps. But unless the Prime Minister has factored ECJ-imposed fines into the equation, it may also prove expensive.

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