Maltese government lawyers arguing in favour of a derogation on finch trapping faced multiple questions at a European Court of Justice hearing this morning, sources close to the court said.
ECJ Advocate General Eleonor Sharpston expressed scepticism about the government's arguments, reportedly telling government lawyers "I'm sorry, but I don't seem to be able to follow your line of reasoning".
Sources said that the Maltese government, represented by the lawyers from the Attorney General's office and law firms CCX Advocates and Stibbe, argued that the derogation was justified because the European Union's Birds Directive sought to strike a balance between conservation and leisure activities.
Lawyers for the European Commission contested that line of argument, insisting that finches were a protected species under EU law and that Malta's application of a derogation was not judicious or applied proportionally.
Malta was "trapping for the sake of trapping", EC lawyers Christoph Hermes and Ken Mifsud Bonnici insisted, arguing that EU law only permitted trapping if there was a good reason to allow it, such as expanding the genetic population of a captive-bred population.
EU law prohibits finch trapping and the practice was phased out in Malta in 2009, following an initial derogation obtained as part of the country's EU accession treaty.
The practice was reintroduced in 2014 despite objections from the European Commission. With both sides failing to reach an agreement, the matter was taken to the ECJ, with the court hearing both sides' arguments this morning.
BirdLife Malta yesterday claimed that the Attorney General had warned the government that it stood on shaky legal ground in seeking a derogation from the Birds Directive.
The government vehemently denied the claims as "pure speculation" and a "last-ditch attempt at influencing proceedings."
With both sides having made their case, the court then proceeded to ask questions of both sides. While government lawyers and a technical expert from the Wild Birds Regulation Unit were kept busy, European Commission lawyers were asked just one question by the court, sources said.
The court's Advocate General will now publish their opinion concerning the case within the next three months, and the ECJ is expected to make its final decision by the end of the summer.