[WATCH] Some MEP candidates 'misinformed' on environmental issues, BirdLife CEO says

BIrdLife holds Q&A session with six MEP candidates ahead of the European election

Only a handful of MEP candidates answered BirdLife's questionnaire on the environment
Only a handful of MEP candidates answered BirdLife's questionnaire on the environment
MEP candidates quizzed on the environment

Only six candidates out of 41 contesting the European parliament election answered a questionnaire sent to them by BirdLife on environmental issues with the answers revealing how some were "misinformed" on the topic.

He said that the questionnaire also revealed how some politicians within the same party disagreed on some major environmental issues such as Spring hunting.

“It’s surprising to see how misinformed some of these candidates are on matters that concern the environment,” BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana told MaltaToday after a Q&A session with MEP candidates on Friday morning. The session was held at the Salina Nature Reserve.

Sultana said he was pleased that small parties seemed to have taken a decision to place the environment at the top of their agenda.

“We’re already seeing a major party, the Nationalist Party, questioning the issue of the Gozo tunnel, claiming that they first want to see all the studies published before they commit to a final decision. I’m pleased that the small parties are having an effect,” Sultana said.

During the debate, MEP candidates were asked on hunting and trapping, the Malta-Gozo tunnel, agriculture, transport and the fuel stations policy.

The six participating candidates were Partit Demokratiku candidate Anthony Buttigieg, Alternattiva Demokratika candidate Carmel Cacopardo, the Labour Party candidates Robert Micallef and Alfred Sant, and the PN candidates Peter Agius and Frank Psaila.

AD candidate Mina Tolu and independent candidate Arnold Cassola were also in attendance but did not form part of the panel.

“We felt that it was BirdLife’s duty to carry out this exercise because the environment has a large say on people’s quality of life. In Malta we have two decision makers — the politicians and the voters — and we feel it’s our obligation to educate these two parts, to help them understand why the natural environment is an important factor,” Sultana said.

PD candidate Anthony Buttigieg
PD candidate Anthony Buttigieg

Anthony Buttigieg: 'We need a mass transport system now’

PD candidate Anthony Buttigieg questioned the government’s “empty rhetoric” on requiring a mass transport system.

“A mass transport system project would take between 15 to 25 years to complete. If we don’t carry out the studies now, a mass transport system might never happen. We need to start now. The idea that people are tied to their cars is partially true due to the inadequacy of our current public transportation. But if we have a decent mass transport system people will resort to it,” Buttigieg said.

On the Gozo tunnel, Buttigieg said that he was unequivocally against. He suggested that despite the possible solutions, politicians were not addressing the fact that Gozo could be self-sustaining.

“Why not talk about improving Gozo’s economy and education so that it becomes self-sufficient? Why not discuss the possibility that Gozitans would not have to come to Malta to survive in the first place?” he asked. “It’s 2019. Shouldn’t Gozitan students be offered the possibility of online tutorials so they won’t have to come to Malta all the time?”

Buttigieg argued that one of the worst emission contributors had to do with those ships, including massive cruiseliners, who were still using heavy fuel oil to power their vessels while docked in Maltese harbours.

“They should switch off and connect to our national grid. What’s the use of switching to gas and constantly talking about our Malta-Sicily interconnector if we don’t use it to limit the worst emissions?” he said.

PL MEP and candidate Alfred Sant
PL MEP and candidate Alfred Sant

Alfred Sant: ‘Malta’s situation is unfair for hunters’

Labour MEP and candidate Alfred Sant said that the situation for Maltese hunters was unfair, that the country was suffering the brunt of EU laws on hunting and trapping.

“The EU created certain restrictions for Malta that do not exist in other countries. Consider Marseille, for example, where trappers use turpentine to catch birds. Imagine that,” he said, adding that hunting could, in effect, be sustainable.

“We are at a point today where the insect population can be decimated. This is where environmentalists and hunters can come together,” Sant said.

Sant argued that hunters and trappers would continue to militate in favour of enjoying their hobby and that the only solution would be to find a middle ground where environmental groups and hunters and trappers could coexist.

Sant could not stay for the whole debate.

PN candidate Peter Agius
PN candidate Peter Agius

Peter Agius: ‘Alienating groups of people is not the right way of doing politics’

PN candidate Peter Agius said that imposing across-the-board restrictions on a large group of people, in effect alienating them, was not the right way of doing politics.

“Europe should be a way to connect people and not to create further divisions. It’s not right to impose restrictions on hunters and trappers that we don’t need. The Bird Directive, adopted by the EU in 1979, is the only EU law that was never amended,” Agius said.

Agius said that the Federazzjoni Kaccaturi Nassaba Konservazzjonisti (FKNK) had some ideas that, while half-baked, could serve as an “embryo” of solutions.

“We don’t need to be confrontational. Hunters too want sustainable hunting. One of FKNK’s solutions is the breeding of finches for the express purpose of hunting them. They are also breeding barn owls. We need to find methods of how hunters could hunt in spring legally and sustainably and not restrict it altogether,” he said.

He added that while groups like BirdLife were important, their push for absolute restrictions would cause hunters and trappers to perform illegalities “underground.”

“I already have a role in the EU Parliament. I want to be elected because there is so much more we can do in terms of funds and, yes, in terms of the environment and protecting the small groups like fishermen, farmers, self-employed and also trappers and hunters,” he said, adding that this week he had been arguing for a minority, 500 licensed fishermen.

AD chairperson and candidate Carmel Cacopardo
AD chairperson and candidate Carmel Cacopardo

Carmel Cacopardo: ‘Spring hunting, by definition, is never sustainable’

AD candidate Carmel Cacopardi said that, by definition, spring hunting could never be sustainable.

“These are birds that are travelling and in the midst of breeding. Spring hunting is never sustainable. Only a few derogations can be useful, such as the few which allow for the hunting of birds that could prove a danger to airplanes,” he said.

Cacopardo praised the government’s national transport strategy but criticised the same government for not implementing it.

“The National Transport Strategy showed that the government, in principle, wants to limit cars on the road. However, the government is also widening the roads, moving forward with the Malta-Gozo tunnel, in effect making it easier for cars. If we are hoping to limit cars that use diesel and petrol, why does the government keep handing out permits for the construction of new fuel stations?” he said.

Cacopardo said that the two major parties, unlike AD, were never consistent on matters of the environment.

PL candidate Robert Micallef
PL candidate Robert Micallef

Robert Micallef: ‘The environmental sector can’t be seen on its own’

Labour candidate Robert Micallef said that the environmental sector cannot be seen on its own but alongside other sectors.

“Yes, I believe that the environment should be an issue to be looked at when approaching every policy and every government decision,” he said, adding that government should not fear making brave decisions in this regard.

However, Micallef argued, that from a political point of view, a middle ground needed to be found for both sides of the coin to coexist.

“We are committed to a circular economy and as seen in Labour’s manifesto released on Thursday, we want Gozo to be seen as a model of best practice,” he said, arguing that a Gozo tunnel was still the best decision to contribute to the improvement of Gozitans’ lives.

Micallef also suggested that an environmental court be established with an appointed magistrate to deal with issues related exclusively to the environment.

“The significance of the Maltese environment should also be acknowledged in our constitution,” he said.

PN candidate Frank Psaila
PN candidate Frank Psaila

Frank Psaila: 'We need to see the studies before decision on tunnel’

PN MEP candidate Frank Psaila said that while on principle the PN agreed on a permanent link between Malta and Gozo, the party insists that before a final decision is taken, the studies related to the tunnel have to be published in their entirety.

“What PN leader Adrian Delia said on the Gozo tunnel does not contradict what the PN voted on in Parliament. We need to see the studies before a final decision is taken. At the same time, Gozo cannot keep waiting for this link to happen—we need short-term decisions to happen now,” Psaila said.

On the issue of hunting, Psaila said that there was never a tranquil discussion between the hunting lobby and the environmentalists and that neither attempted to reach a middle ground.

“I do not believe in illegalities, of course not, but neither do I believe that an age-old tradition is done away with. Can’t we find a proper solution? Why can’t the hunters practice their hobby that gives them such psychological satisfaction?” Psaila asked.

He added that while NGOs like BirdLife were necessary, the latter needed to attempt to reach a middle ground and call for a peaceful discussion with the hunting lobby.

Psaila admitted that previous PN administrations were largely to blame for excessive construction and the handing out of unsustainable permits but that the party was willing to learn from its mistakes and look towards a more sustainable future.

BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana (left)
BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana (left)

Mark Sultana: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’

Mark Sultana responded to the points raised by the candidates by saying that it was unfair that they were putting so much pressure on NGOs to come up with solutions.

“You are putting a lot of pressure on BirdLife to come up with a middle ground. How about you give us an example yourselves? While I admire the fact that it’s not easy to talk about these things due to the votes you wish to garner, you also don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

He added that Malta was the most heavily-developed country in terms of infrastructure with 33% of the island built up. The country following Malta on the list is Belgium, with just 13% of it built up.

Independent candidate Arnold Cassola
Independent candidate Arnold Cassola

“I urge you to give the Environment and Resources Authority the power of veto. This authority is the only one with enough strength to fight for the environment and you are guilty of debilitating it and weakening it,” Sultana continued.

Arnold Cassola passed a comment after the debate was finished, saying that the government was pulling the electorate’s leg.

“God Muscat has promised the biggest open space zone in generations to claps from the audience. What is he trying to pull? The only open space required is the natural environment itself,” he said.

He also made reference to Denmark’s use of a solar-powered ferry service between their islands. “We don’t need a tunnel,” Cassola said. “We can find better solutions.”