EU Court told to end finch trapping in Malta due to breach of Birds Directive

Unequivocal opinion by the ECJ’s Advocate General recommends that the EU court should find that Malta’s derogation from European law, to allow the trapping of finches, breaches the Birds Directive

Finch trapping is carried out in Malta on the basis of a disputed derogation from the Birds Directive, which bans trapping
Finch trapping is carried out in Malta on the basis of a disputed derogation from the Birds Directive, which bans trapping

An unequivocal opinion by the European Court of Justice’s Advocate-General delivered today in Luxembourg has recommended that the EU court should find that Malta’s derogation from European law, to allow the trapping of finches, breaches the Birds Directive.

A hotly contested issue that pitches Malta’s environmentalists against a hunting lobby that is backed by both the Labour government and the opposition Nationalist Party, the ECJ was told by its AG, Tamara Ćapeta, that by derogating from the ban on finch trapping and allowing the live-capture of seven species of wild finches, Malta was breaking the law.

The consequences could mean both the end of the derogation and ordering the Republic of Malta to bear its own costs and pay those incurred by the European Commission.

Malta derogated yet again from the ban on finch trapping, by claiming it was allowing it for ‘scientific research’.

But BirdLife Malta said the AG’s recommendation to the ECJ, which might follow suit on the advice, sends a clear message that Malta should end the trapping of songbirds.

“It’s a cruel practice that allows songbirds to be trapped until they perish,” a BirdLife Malta spokesperson said. “We are now eager to see that Malta complies in this regard as soon as possible.”

BirdLife said the AG opinion shows that its call to the Ornis committee, the stakeholder advisory group on hunting and trapping seasons, not to derogate from the ban had been purposely rejected for political gain.

“Once again it should now be clear to present and future governments that political gain does not justify any derogations from the European Birds Directive and that science and respect to nature should be the basis of all future decisions,” BirdLife said. “It should now pave the way for the ECJ to rule against Malta’s smokescreen finch ‘scientific research’ derogation, once and for all.”

The final judgement could be delivered before the summer recess of the European Court of Justice.

“In view of today’s developments, we also call on the Government not to open another trapping season this year, before the ECJ delivers its final ruling since it is now clear that applying this derogation in the past years was in breach of European law,” BirdLife said.

But the governmnent, through the minister for Gozo Clint Camilleri, unsder whose remit hunting policy falls, said the Advocate-General’s opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice. “Advocates-General provide independent legal solutions to the cases they handle, and their opinions serve as a recommendation to the Court. The final judgment from the Court of Justice of the European Union will be delivered at a later date,” Camilleri said.

Camilleri said the government was disappointed with the AG opinion, saying it remained “committed to the cause and ready to re-open proceedings before the Court of Justice to continue defending the research derogation and the interests of hunters and trappers. The Government of Malta is convinced with the argument that it presented to the Court of Justice, and it is still possible that the Court will rule in Malta’s favour.”

The case has so far taken three since new infringement proceedings against Malta on finch trapping were opened by Brussels in December 2020, following the government’s attempt to disguise the practice as a research project.

A landmark 2018 judgement found Malta guilty on all main counts of failing to fulfil its obligations under EU law, ordering a complete ban on finch trapping in the Maltese Islands.

In spite of the clear verdict, in 2020 and yet again in 2021, 2022 and 2023, the government opened a trapping season for finches with the excuse that trappers would be carrying out a scientific study, and with trappers expected to release the birds soon after they catch them, after recording details of birds carrying a ring and submitting the information to the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU).

But with the reopening of the season in 2020, the European Commission immediately kickstarted fresh legal action against Malta on finch trapping just a couple of months after. It finally took Malta to court in 2021.

Despite the final stage in the infringement case landing Malta yet again at the ECJ, the government still persisted in ignoring the EC’s warnings and opened yet another finch trapping season in 2022 and 2023.

BirdLife’s findings have estimated that just in the 2023 season, around 51,400 finches were taken from the wild as a result of the derogation.

“Today’s AG Opinion, less than two weeks away from the European Parliament elections, should also send a message to those who during the ongoing electoral campaign have opted to be populist by not only defending such derogations, but even promising further similar derogations if they are elected,” BirdLife said.

“Today the ECJ has sent a clear message to populist politicians like Alex Agius Saliba and Peter Agius who in order to attract votes from the hunting lobby continue promising activities that breach the European Birds Directive. It is clear that these promises are only short-term to attract votes as the European Union will not tolerate further breaches through derogations of the Birds Directive.”