‘Tienes que pagarme… oh, oh-oh-oh-oh…’

Even without any incriminating transcripts, it has been patently obvious for over a decade that the Maltese tuna industry exerts a profound, pervasive power over Maltese governments and regulatory bodies

To ask at least one of these questions somewhat bluntly myself: do the suspected ‘bribes’ stop only at the level of Malta’s fisheries directorate? Or is there an entire chain of money changing hands, going much further up the ladder of power that we can see so far?
To ask at least one of these questions somewhat bluntly myself: do the suspected ‘bribes’ stop only at the level of Malta’s fisheries directorate? Or is there an entire chain of money changing hands, going much further up the ladder of power that we can see so far?

I’ll admit my Spanish is a little rusty these days… but that transcript of a phone-call between Malta’s director of fisheries and a Spanish tuna magnate reminded me of a song – actually, at least two songs – by 1980s Spanish/Italian electro-pop duo, Righeira.

With only a little poetic licence, you could almost sing it verbatim to the tune of ‘Vamos A La Playa’. Just remember to add a quick electric drum solo (tata-tana-tana-tatta-TA!) in between each line:

“Te llamo por decirte… que estoy en Bulgarì…. para arreglar las cosas…  solo para ti…” Everyone join in the chorus now: “Tienes que pagarme! Oh, oh-oh-oh-oh!’ (Repeat to fade).

At a stretch, you could also throw in the refrain from that other (somewhat pertinent) hit of theirs: ‘No Tengo Dinero’. And there you have it: Righeira’s entire discography, summed up neatly in one sentence from a recorded conversation…

Nor, it must be said, is that the only thing encompassed by that single, fleeting sentence. It also manages to condense some 20 years of standard government practice into just three words.

‘Solo para ti’. Taken out of context, those also lend themselves spectacularly well to the lyrics of a love song. I can almost already hear them sung by Julio Iglesias: ‘Solo para ti… para ti, por siempre… Oh, Fuentes, mi amor…!” But then again, it is slightly difficult to take them out of a context that’s about as gushingly romantic as a pile of rotting fish entrails…

OK, let’s take a small step back. That phone-call took place at a time when Malta’s (now-suspended) Director of Fisheries, Andreina Fenech Farrugia, was supposed to be “representing Malta in meetings of the fishing sector that were taking place in Sofia”. Yet in her own words, the only reason she was there was for the benefit of a certain Jose Fuentes (presumably one of the ‘hijos’ in ‘Ricardo Fuentes Y Hijos’: a Spanish tuna penning giant, also present in Malta in the form of ‘Mare Blu’).  

Before even turning to the awkward implications of a government regulator who apparently doubles up as a paid lobbyist for the very industry she is supposed to be ‘regulating’… the words ‘solo para ti’ have resonance that carries far, far beyond the specifics of the tuna trade.

Fisheries is not exactly the only department where State regulators end up acting like free agents for industry. There are echoes of the same basic attitude in a Planning Authority that sometimes doubles up as an extension of the Malta Developers’ Association; a ‘Wild Birds Regulatory Unit’ that seems only ever interested in maximising the number of wild birds that can be hunted or trapped; a Parliamentary Secretariat for Animal Rights, which boasts about finding ‘loopholes’ through which animal rights can be restricted even more than they already are… so from that angle, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Malta’s Directorate of Fisheries would be more concerned with ensuring that industrial fishing giants get what they want, than with the sustainability or otherwise of Malta’s fisheries.

It is pretty much the standard way in which Malta’s regulatory authorities operate – and have always operated – in all other areas, too.
There are, however, occasional minor variations in this theme. I mentioned ‘hunting and trapping’, for instance; but while we can all see that political decisions have been taken to favour (or at least placate) the hunting lobby over the decades… I seriously doubt whether there was ever any talk of money changing hands.

No, the currency underpinning the hunting issue in Malta is clearly not money. It is politics (or, to be more specific still, a passion that translates directly into losable votes). Whether that makes it any more or less justifiable is ultimately a subjective question; either way, the effect is still broadly the same. It still translates into a regulatory body that represents (directly or indirectly) the interests of only one side of the issue at hand; it still means that decisions affecting how that issue is regulated are going to be, at best, lopsided.

Narrow the focus down to only the tuna export/re-export trade… and to be honest, we almost didn’t need any leaked recordings to understand that something has been decidedly fishy about the whole thing for years.

When I wrote a number of articles questioning Malta’s re-export figures in 2007, the Fisheries Directorate (under different management) responded exactly as if its entire raison d’etre was simply to defend the industry at all costs. And when people started suspecting that the ‘white slime’ polluting our beaches was somehow associated with Malta’s tuna penning industry, the Fisheries Ministry went into denial overdrive, and resisted even investigating the matter for years. (Eventually an investigation was held, and, my, what a surprise: aerial photos showed a clear white trail leading directly to the tuna pens…)

Even without any incriminating transcripts, it has been patently obvious for over a decade that this industry exerts a profound, pervasive power over Maltese governments and regulatory bodies.  And it should also be fairly obvious that the source of all this power, in this particular context, cannot realistically be ‘politics’ (still less ‘passion’). Unlike the hunting community, the aquaculture lobby does not potentially translate into a multitude of lost votes. And, also unlike the hunters… it pumps millions of euros into the Maltese economy each year.

It is from this perspective that those leaks do indeed add a fresh insight. For it’s not just the local government and institutions that have consistently turned a blind eye to suspected foul play in this business; the international tuna regulator, ICCAT, has also consistently set bluefin tuna quotas much higher than scientific recommendations (in 2007, they set them at nine times the advised figure).

Meanwhile, the European Commission acts as sole representative to ICCAT, on behalf of all 28 member states; and by an interesting coincidence, the Commission has consistently used its position on ICCAT to argue for higher… and higher… and higher quotas. (Note: by an even more interesting coincidence, the last two Fisheries Commissioners were both Maltese.)

It can be seen, then, that the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fisheries in general – Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Malta, etc. – likewise exerts enough political clout to pretty much dictate the European Commission’s approach to regulating the entire industry.  In other words, there is a level at which the European Commission itself also doubles up as an agent representing only the industry’s interests: as if it existed only to defend the profit-margins of giant corporations, instead of… um… whatever the European Commission is actually meant to exist for.
And while (obviously) these latest leaks still need to be properly investigated, and all that… they do seem to at least make part of this process visible to everyone.

The English translation for the sentence I joked about earlier is: “I’m in Bulgaria just for you, you have to pay me, because there’s a meeting and I’m with the [director] general of Brussels.” The same article goes on say that “The Spanish investigators have alleged that Fenech Farrugia used her influence to regularize the catches so that they could be exported to lucrative markets in Japan, Spain and the US. Fenech Farrugia is being accused of taking bribes.”

If so, this would certainly explain why Malta’s director of fisheries chose to represent only Fuentes’s interests, at a meeting where she was supposed to be representing Malta’s official position. But it doesn’t quite explain why she exerts so much influence over the European decision-making process in the first place.

How could Dr Fenech Farrugia assure Fuentes that she could, in practice, ‘use her influence to regularize catches’? What made her so certain, a priori, that the European DG Peche would consent to regularise those catches, just because she asked them to?

Placed in the context of around 10 years of the European DG Peche doing precisely that – i.e., regulating dubious catches, at the request of lobbyists – it can only raise questions about how the industry is being regulated at European level. To ask at least one of these questions somewhat bluntly myself: do the suspected ‘bribes’ stop only at the level of Malta’s fisheries directorate? Or is there an entire chain of money changing hands, going much further up the ladder of power that we can see so far?

But then again: at a certain level, it doesn’t even really matter all that much. Whether or not the corruption stops at the lower rungs, or (like the proverbial Maltese rotten fish) spirals all the way to very top… decisions taken at the highest European levels are still heavily lopsided in favour of this particular industry.

And as far as I am aware, that level of possible corruption has never been investigated at all.

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