Malta’s accession to the European Union has undoubtedly raised the profile of the bird hunting issue. However, the issue has also been very much influenced by national political factors. The fact that a national, legally-binding, abrogative referendum will be held on April 11 is a case in point.

The road to the referendum was constructed following Labour’s 2013 electoral victory. However, the roots of this campaign go back to the mid-1990s.

Indeed, when the Nationalist government at the time had attempted to curb excesses in hunting, most notably through parliamentary secretary Stanley Zammit, the Labour Opposition, then led by a new leader, Alfred Sant, quickly saw this as an opportunity to gain support for the subsequent 1996 electoral victory and, in 1994, entered into an agreement with hunters. The Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists directed its members not to vote Nationalist in that election. The slogan ‘10,000 members = 10,000 votes’ symbolised this strategy.

Subsequently, the PN, re-elected to power in 1998, made an agreement with hunters and trappers, promising that hunting legislation would not be affected by EU legislation. Indeed, the issue was politicised again during the EU referendum campaign. At the same time, Malta’s 2004 EU accession obliged conformity with the Birds Directive, which prohibits hunting in spring.

Should the No vote win on Saturday, the biggest political winners will be civil society and everyday democracy

Once Malta formally adopted the Birds Directive in 2006, the European Commission said it would be taking legal action against the island because of spring hunting and the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament recommended the non-renewal of the derogation on spring hunting in 2008 and the abolition of trapping after 2008.

Spring hunting seasons were not opened in 2008 and 2009.

An interesting declaration on the issue was made in September 2009, before the European Court of Justice was due to decide on the matter. Birdlife International and the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE) issued a joint statement urging respect of the Court’s decision with regard to biodiversity. In their words: “We remain convinced that the EU nature directives provide sufficient possibilities to reconcile nature protection, sustainable hunting, bird watching and other recreational activities and socio-cultural traditions, in line with the Guidance Document on Sustainable Hunting.”

When the European Court of Justice decided on the matter, it ruled that “by authorising spring hunting of quails and turtle doves from 2004 to 2007, Malta has failed to comply with the Wild Birds Directive”.

At the same time, however, the ruling noted that hunting for quails and turtle doves in autumn was not a satisfactory solution, even though the number of birds killed in spring was not in line with the Birds Directive.

The Nationalist government, whose legal team was assisted by FACE, said it would respect the Court’s decision. Spring hunting seasons were subsequently opened from 2010. In the meantime, the Labour Opposition was promising even more support to the hunters’ lobby. Yet, this was also a time when civil society was raising its voice on various matters, not only environmental ones but also other matters such as civil rights.

Following Labour’s 2013 general election victory, hunting was generally accommodated by the government. The national dimension of the issue was clear for all to see and this inspired the environmentalist coalition to successfully compile enough signatures to call a legally-binding abrogative national referendum on the matter.

The No camp, comprising Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party, eNGOs such as Birdlife, a host of public personalities and supported by English-speaking newspapers, are articulating three main arguments on the matter. They are citing the legality of the Birds Directive, they are referring to the conservation of birds and they are speaking on quality of life through access to the countryside.

The hunters’ Yes camp, on the other hand, is minimising the impact on bird populations, is resting on the individual support of Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil (among other politicians) and is giving a different interpretation to the Birds Directive and to the ruling of the European Court of Justice.

They are also disputing the environmentalists’ arguments with regard to access to the countryside, stating that significant areas are private property.

The respective campaigns are characterised by antagonistic interpretations even on ‘scientific’ and ‘legal’ facts, thus demonstrating the politicisation and social construction of the issue.

The two sides are also criticising the ‘arrogance’ and ‘credibility’ of their adversaries.

Surveys are showing that the No camp is leading. Some are interpreting Muscat’s recent statements on the issue as an indirect attempt to give a lending hand to the Yes camp, especially since he is constantly riding high on opinion polls.

The PN has been less accommodating to hunters than Labour but when in government it was closer to the hunting lobby than to environmentalists. Yet, most of its supporters seem to be closer to the latter.

The Green party has been consistent on the matter since its birth in 1989. It hopes to be rewarded in Saturday’s local elections by means of a sympathy vote.

Should the No vote win on Saturday, the biggest political winners will be civil society and everyday democracy. The wave of increased civil society activism on a plurality of issues can be encouraged to grow further, possibly increasing empowerment along the way.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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