The government said today that it felt that the European Court was the best place for a final decision on the spring hunting issue and while it would argue its case according to law, it would respect the court’s decision.

The government was reacting to the European Commission’s decision (see below) to refer the spring hunting issue to the court.

The commission had also called on the court to issue an interim measure for no spring hunting to be allowed until the issue was decided. The government said the commission’s statement confirmed that derogation on spring hunting was possible under EU law and that such a derogation was discussed during the accession talks.

In view of a European Court decision against Finland, taken after Malta joined the EU, the European Commission was now saying that a derogation should not be allowed in Malta since the bag declared by Maltese hunters showed that autumn was a sufficient alternative for spring hunting.

The government, while saying it would argue its case before the court, observed that since the procedure fell under article 226 of the treaty, Malta would not be liable to any fines or penalties.

Meanwhile, BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta welcomed the European Commission's decision.

“Unfortunately, the Maltese government has missed many opportunities in the past to solve this case and to avoid European wide embarrassment for the country” said Konstantin Kreiser, EU Policy Manager at BirdLife in Brussels.

“Therefore, we can only welcome the Commission’s decision to take Malta to Court now.” BirdLife called on the Maltese government to respond to the Commission’s actions by officially declaring the end of spring hunting in Malta, for 2008 and beyond.

“If the Maltese government opens another spring hunting season this year, BirdLife will urge the European Commission to ask the European Court of Justice for an immediate order,” Kreiser concluded.

The European Commission in its statement about the decision to take Malta to court said:

"The European Commission is taking Malta to the European Court of Justice under Article 226 of the EC Treaty for failure to comply with EU legislation protecting wild birds. Under the Wild Birds Directive the killing of wild birds is banned, but some species may be hunted as long as this does not occur during the breeding or spring migration season.

"This legal action by the Commission follows a final written warning to Malta in October 2007 on the hunting of quails (Coturnix coturnix) and turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) during spring. The hunting of these migratory birds takes place during their return from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe, before they have had a chance to reproduce. The impact on bird numbers is therefore more significant than it would be in autumn or winter, after the breeding season.

"This matter was discussed during Malta's accession negotiations where Malta maintained that in allowing the hunting of Quail and Turtle Dove in spring it was acting in accordance with the possibility for limited derogation as foreseen under Article 9 of the Directive, and documents were formally exchanged during the Intergovernmental Conference on Malta's accession to the European Union. Following a request from Malta during these negotiations, the Commission had confirmed that a derogation would be possible if the strict conditions set out in the Wild Birds Directive were met. Nevertheless, in the Commission's opinion, the circumstances that would allow such a derogation, which include the absence of alternative solutions, are not present in this case, as can be borne out by the data (Carnet de Chasse figures) provided by the Maltese hunters themselves for the autumn hunting season.

"Moreover, in its most recent ruling on the issue of spring hunting, in a case against Finland dated 15 December 2005, the European Court of Justice concluded that in cases where birds were present at other periods, even where those numbers were smaller than in spring, another satisfactory solution was available and a derogation from the Birds Directive to permit spring hunting was not possible. In this respect, the facts of the Finnish case find a parallel in the situation in Malta, where the Commission believes that alternative solutions to spring hunting do exist, in this case the possibility to hunt the two species in the autumn.

"In its final written warning in October 2007, the Commission called on Malta not to permit spring hunting in 2008. Responding in January 2008, Malta did not give a firm commitment in this regard. As a result, the Commission will refer the case to the European Court of Justice. Given that the spring hunting season is imminent, the Commission will also apply to the Court for interim measures, asking Malta not to allow spring hunting in 2008."

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