In the south of Malta, a few hours after sunset, gunshots were heard. Using night vision the massacre was caught on film. Many dropped to the ground, injured or dead.
Independent councillor Steve Zammit Lupi was incensed. “Where are the politicians?” he demanded. “They are obliged to see that laws are observed”. The PN spokesperson Peter Agius commented “this is a failure of the system”.
But this was no failure. This was a triumph for Labour that worked diligently to ensure that hunters continue to do as they please including decimating protected species like the marsh harriers that met their fate in Delimara. Labour was fulfilling its promises that hunters and trappers would be allowed to wreak havoc in defiance of EU law without facing consequences.
When the blatant illegalities in Delimara were reported, only the Rapid Intervention Unit, more accustomed to dealing with Paceville brawls, turned up. The Environmental Protection Unit that’s meant to deal with such situations was nowhere to be seen. The Rapid Intervention Unit had no clue what to do – and did nothing. This was not incompetence. This was by design. Labour systematically eroded and demolished regulatory units responsible for enforcing hunting and trapping laws. It defiantly failed to prosecute culprits particularly those close to cabinet members.
According to Birdlife one well known taxidermist in Gozo was repeatedly found with carcasses and is facing police charges on alleged illegalities. But the police claimed they were unable to find him to serve him with court summons despite being seen publicly on a daily basis with keen trapper Minister Clint Camilleri during the election campaign.
On the eve of the election Labour’s government published a Legal Notice practically granting an amnesty to those in possession of stuffed birds. A hunter with nine previous convictions of illegal hunting who shot a black stork was cleared after prosecutors dropped all charges and failed to even produce his hunting licence. The man had been arrested with a loaded firearm behind his car seat during closed season.
A memorable 2019 international report by Mongabay noted that, “This reporter contacted the Wild Bird Regulation Unit (WBRU), the Maltese government agency responsible for implementing conservation and sustainable hunting policies but was told that the agency’s acting head was away for several weeks because he was himself trapping birds under the legal derogation”.
Labour went much further. Robert Abela again appointed the Minister for Gozo, a registered trapper, to be responsible for hunting and the Wild Birds Regulation Unit. In 2020 Abela removed hunting from the Environment minister’s portfolio and bizarrely gave it to Clint Camilleri. The outcry against Abela’s deeply cynical and opportunistic move was huge.
But Abela doubled down, ignoring decency, common sense and the pleas of environmentalists. He reappointed Camilleri minister for hunting. That was hardly surprising. Leaders of the hunters and trappers’ association FKNK were given front seats at Clint Camilleri’s election campaign events. They played a key role in Camilleri’s and Labour’s massive victory. Now they’re claiming their reward. Labour was never going to disappoint them.
Abela’s contemptuous assignment of trapping to Camilleri not only harms efforts for the protection of endangered bird species. It consolidates Malta’s reputation as a renegade state intent on circumventing EU legislation in defiance of the EU court of justice.
On 21 June 2018 that court ruled that Malta failed to fulfil its obligations under EU law when it allowed trapping of seven species of wild birds. The court also ruled that Labour’s 2014/15 authorisation of autumn finch trapping broke EU law. But that wasn’t going to stop Labour.
In 2020 Robert Abela again authorised finch trapping this time invoking a different ludicrous excuse for the new derogation – research. Has FKNK ever conducted any research? Everybody recognised Abela’s cynicism for what it was – a cheap and irresponsible attempt to reward that militant segment of the electorate – hunters and trappers.
Of course the Commission wasn’t fooled. It sent Malta not one, but two letters of formal notice in December 2020. “The high numbers of wild birds illegally shot in Malta constitute a major and systematic failure to establish a general system of protection according to article 5 of the directive” the Commission commented.
In simple language the Commission accused Abela of breaking EU law again. It accused Malta’s Labour government of “poor supervision of the conditions set out in the derogations” and that Malta “relied on inaccurate or insufficient information about populations of wild birds”.
Malta, it concluded, failed to fulfil basic conditions for granting derogations. In unusually blunt langugage the European Commission called Abela out – “the new derogation scheme circumvents the EU court of Justice judgement”. You are defying the law – and you’re fooling nobody.
The Commission was right. The vast majority of Malta’s hunters and trappers broke the law. Out of 10,675 registered hunters and trappers, in 2020 only 292 or 2.7% returned their carnet de chasse, their mandatory record, as they are obliged. Failure to do so carries a maximum 300 euro fine and revocation of the licence. But has Labour fined those 10,383 hunters and trappers? Have any of them had their licence revoked?
Abela’s answers to the Commission’s letters of formal notice were so pathetic that the Commission sent a reasoned opinion in June 2021 giving Abela just one month to remedy the situation.
Instead of seeing sense and abiding by the Commission’s reasoned opinion, Abela insisted on more defiance. Abela chose votes instead of Malta. On 12 November 2021 the EU Commission referred Malta to the Court of Justice again.
Malta now faces the Court not only on its reviled golden passport scheme but also over finch trapping. Abela has managed to obliterate Malta’s reputation. Malta is seen as a renegade state with no respect for the spirit of the law, entirely untrustworthy and intent on circumventing the rule of law and defying the court of justice. Malta is not an honest broker but a maverick state intent on undermining EU law from within.
This is the real massacre. It is not just protected birds that are being decimated as a result of Labour’s short sighted self-interest. It is the rule of law and the administration of justice that is being massacred. It is the country’s reputation.