Small steps forward, giant strides back

The trapping precedent shows us how government achieves this aim, too: as a rule, by delegating responsibility to a supposedly independent authoritative committee, and hijacking that committee to ensure that its eventual decision tallies with the one already taken for it by government.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

For a government which came to power on the strength of a ‘progressive’ agenda, the Muscat administration’s efforts on the environmental front effectively taken us all back to pre-EU accession levels. The most recent initiative – a recommendation by the Ornis committee to re-introduce finch trapping after this had already been phased out as a result of EU membership – literally turns back to the clock a full five years.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat may well feel cushioned by a comfortable parliamentary majority – and also by the now evident weakness of the opposition party – into thinking that his own administration is unassailable. But by advocating an autumn trapping season for seven species of songbird, he is also testing the limits of his seemingly absolute power. He may also, wittingly or unwittingly, be plotting a direct collision course with the European Commission.

Unlike the issue with spring hunting, where there is an ambiguous European Court ruling which has been given different interpretations by all parties concerned, the ban on finch trapping is incontrovertible. It is specifically banned under the Wild birds Directive. In Malta’s case, one of the conditions stipulated in the accession treaty is precisely that finch trapping was to be phased out by 2009.

No exemptions were stipulated in the treaty; there is no ECJ ruling to prop up any derogation from this rule. And already there are indications that the European Commission may be considering action: a spokesman for Environment Commissioner Jan Potocnik was reported as confirming that trapping was banned in principle and that “Brussels had already informed Malta about this”.

At the same time, government also knows that the timing for such action is inauspicious for the European Commission, which is currently poised to be replaced in a few months’ time: i.e., before the next autumn trapping season will open. From this perspective, it would seem the Muscat administration is trying to squeeze as much as it can out of the situation before a new Commission is in place. If so, this is a high-risk strategy, and the cost of failure may yet have to be borne by the taxpayer.

Joseph Muscat may well have made his own political calculations, and concluded that the risk of being overruled at a later stage by the Commission is outweighed by the short-term political benefits to be gained from placating the hunting community by adopting a tough position in defence of trapping. But this is short-termism at best.

Aside from the possibility of incurring fines through court action, there is also a danger that Malta may cultivate a reputation as a member state that is only interested in circumventing the rules to its advantage. It cements the impression that Malta joined the EU simply to wrest as much funding as it can, while simultaneously ducking out of all the responsibilities of membership.

Even without this consideration, the proposal to undo five years of conservation policy is in itself extremely unwise. Trapping was not phased out upon accession only for the protection of migratory birds, or for reasons of animal rights. There are other environmental consequences that leave a much bigger footprint than hunting.

Traditional Maltese trapping sites involve clearing away the landscape to make space for clap-nets. This practice, which has already scarred and pockmarked the natural landscape, tends to take place on garigue: a type of terrain which is itself protected at law, as are the many specimens of flora and fauna that will have to make way for nets.

Moreover, the seven species of finches concerned are all easy to breed in captivity, and there are already large local collections of captive-bred birds. There is simply no reason to permit taking more birds from the wild, when this (unlike a trade in captive-bred specimens) only depletes the wild stocks without replenishment.

From a bird conservation angle – ironically, the one angle that was ignored altogether by the Ornis committee – there is no justification whatsoever to reintroduce finch trapping, and many good reasons not to. From a political angle, the picture changes considerably; but this only places its finger on the very root of the problem.

Ultimately, this wholesale regression to pre-EU environmental standards is indicative of a retrograde approach to politics which takes us back to a time when government was all-powerful and unassailable, leaving ordinary citizens with no protection from injustice. If, in the case of trapping, the Maltese government can openly defy international law to serve its own short-term political interest, then there is nothing to prevent the same government from disregarding other laws and principles in pursuit of its own selfish goals.

The trapping precedent shows us how government achieves this aim, too: as a rule, by delegating responsibility to a supposedly independent authoritative committee, and hijacking that committee to ensure that its eventual decision tallies with the one already taken for it by government.

Apart from nullifying any claims to ‘meritocracy’, this approach is depressingly reminiscent of precisely the same old bad habits the new Labour government had promised to eradicate under Joseph Muscat. We may have taken a few small steps forward since then, but we have also taken giant strides back.

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