Environment in Vella’s hands: is it good news for Malta?

What are your thoughts on Jean-Claude Juncker's choice of Karmenu Vella for the environment portfolio? Tell us what you think in our comment section.

Karmenu Vella - environment can be a poisoned chalice for any commissioner...
Karmenu Vella - environment can be a poisoned chalice for any commissioner...

What does it mean for Malta?

As a portfolio, the environment commission is certainly one of the most important ones: Malta has struggled with many of its commitments on environmental legislation, having in the past had to pay for the continuing carbon emissions from the Marsa power plant that was supposedly heading for an early decommissioning; other infringements included incorrect implementation of packaging waste laws, penalties for sea pollution, protection of birds, and also on noise pollution.

Despite having been tarnished by the events of Dalligate, which saw the resignation of John Dalli on allegations that have been heavily contested and put into doubt the investigation of anti-fraud agency OLAF, Malta has almost been granted a double-portfolio, because maritime affairs and fisheries have been separate portfolios. Now they have been fused with the environment portfolio.

But the World Wildlife Fund has criticised the decision to merge the portfolios. “WWF finds it regrettable that for the first time in 25 years the environment will not have its own designated Commissioner. This comes precisely at the time when environmental problems are looming larger on the political agenda,” Tony Long, Director of WWF European Policy Office said.

Does it matter that Vella has a direct line to the Prime Minister?

Many European commissioners, if not all, have a direct line to their country’s prime minister. Karmenu Vella follows in a tradition of experienced and veteran government ministers who went on to become members of the Commissioners’ College. Joe Borg, who as foreign minister signed Malta’s Treaty of Accession with Eddie Fenech Adami, became the first Maltese Commissioner; John Dalli, the second commissioner was – to be sure – not a friend of Lawrence Gonzi, and indeed his rivalry played a part in having him ‘kicked upstairs’ to Brussels; Tonio Borg, his replacement, was Gonzi’s second-in-command.

Karmenu Vella is a Labour veteran who has served under four different Labour leaders, from Mintoff to Muscat. It cannot be discounted that a Commissioner does have confidential exchanges with his country’s prime minister when so many aspects of a country’s affairs will be determined by the actions of other commissioners.

“The way he kowtows to the national interest can be determined by the way he brings his knowledge of his own country into the discussion with other Commissioner. Decisions in the College are usually taken between every member, so a Commissioner tends to chip in with their knowledge of their country when decisions are being taken,” a Commission source told MaltaToday.

What does it mean for hunting and nature protection in Malta?

Karmenu Vella is now putting on a ‘Maltese’ face to Brussels’s most controversial law (in terms of Malta’s equally controversial hunting pastime) – the Birds Directive. Under the law, trapping is banned, and so is hunting in spring, but the Maltese derogate from the law under strict concessions that require limited seasons and catches of only turtle dove and quail in Spring.

The Labour government, which in Joseph Muscat’s words does not believe in “gold-plating wildlife laws”, has a pre-electoral agreement with hunting lobby FKNK to guarantee anything it can under EU law; and that means derogating from the EU ban on hunting in spring.

But Vella now serves the European Commission, and President Jean-Claude Juncker has told him he wants him to “overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose (and) carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.”

How does will pan out is something yet to be seen, but taking on an overhaul of the laws will put Vella on the frontline with environmentalists and bird conservationist lobbies. And it’s not just hunting that affects Malta in this case; it is a host of other environmental laws, including environment impact assessments and strategic environment assessments on the change of land use that MEPA carries out.

The WWF says it will be “extremely vigilant to ensure” that Vella’s overhaul of rules will not lead to a weakening of existing nature conservation legislation in Europe.

Having been a Labour MP, isn’t he biased on nature conservation?

Critics of Labour’s concessions granted to the hunting lobby, will be quick to note that placing the Birds Directive in Karmenu Vella’s hands seems like a concession from Juncker to the Labour government: indeed, he gave immigration to Greece, a country whose asylum system collapsed in recent years, and financial affairs to a British commissioner, a country that opposes the Financial Transactions Tax.

While Juncker could be seen to be playing a ‘nation-state’ game, Karmenu Vella faces strong pressure from well-funded environmental lobbies, the indisputable rigour of scientific research, and the opinions of the Environment DG and its bureacrats.

“The DG knows the situation in Malta very well,” MaltaToday’s source said. “They come to Malta every year to meet the government, and then the stakeholders. Every sides gets to voice their concerns.

“But at the end of the day it is the Commissioner that takes the political decision. He moves infringements to the College and the Parliament. When DG officials bring forward the technical arguments, which will be reasoned and scientifically sound, Vella will then have to assume political responsibility or mitigate the impact of these positions.”

As it happens, hunting in Malta during the spring has always continued under every single EU commissioner, even under strict conditions. So Vella will have to decide whether his overhaul of nature laws will be courageous or just a tame framework to appease member state governments like Malta’s.

Does Vella have any conflicts of interest?

Nothing direct, but Corporate Europe Observatory has compiled a report of Vella’s external business roles during his time as MP, and claims that such recent outside interests make him unsuitable to be a commissioner.

Vella was executive chairman of Corinthia Hotels International in 2001 and in 2009 he served as executive chairman of the Mediterranean Construction Co. Ltd; between 2007 and 2013, Vella had non-executive director for Betfair Holdings Malta, a subsidiary of the internet betting exchange.

Vella also left Orange Travel Group in March 2013, when he was appointed tourism minister. “In CEO’s view, it is pretty shocking that an MP was able to maintain such outside interests whilst apparently not breaking any rules; even more shocking when this MP was then appointed as minister for tourism.”

The business links irk CEO, which says they expect MEPs to seek commitments from Vella that he will have no professional or private contacts with any of the companies with which he has been involved; their lobbyists; and to refuse all professional and private contacts with the gambling and tourism industries.

They forget another aspect of Vella’s life: his daughter-in-law, Miriam Dalli, is a new Labour MP for the Socialists and Democrats.