Malta should use its stint at the helm of the Council of the European Union next year to push a sustainability agenda, but it is going to have to clean up its act first, according to Birdlife International’s head of policy.

Ariel Brunner, the eNGO’s senior environmental policy adviser, said “the whole world will be watching” when Malta takes over the presidency of the European Council for the first six months of next year.

“Environmental sustainability is one of the main issues that needs to be discussed between member states during Malta’s presidency, and this needs to be something Malta pushes for.

“This is an opportunity for the island to act as a broker of important agreements. But to do this, it has to avoid embarrassing situations,” he said.

How can Malta broker a deal between member states over fishing rights when it has dead fish washing up on its beaches?

Mr Brunner cautioned that Malta needed to bolster its own environmental credentials before leading discussions on any green issues. It would have to lead by example, he said.

He was speaking to this newspaper on a whirlwind visit to the island, during which he met with Environment Minister Jose Herrera to discuss Malta’s presidency.

In January 2017, Malta will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Mr Brunner said that during this six-month stint, Malta will be better placed to influence discussions within the EU. It will broker agreements between member states, and it will then have to defend those agreements before the European Commission.

Malta’s term will undoubtedly be dominated by issues that loom large over the EU – Brexit, terrorism, migration and financial stability are seldom absent from the debate. But Mr Brunner believes a number of environmental issues need to be addressed too.

Among these are talks on the union’s climate change policy, as well as an action plan on biodiversity which will be up for discussion next year.

“Malta could help addresses these issues, but it needs to clean up its act,” he said.

Mr Brunner pointed to the recent fish farm debacle as a something the government should address before 2017.

“How can Malta broker a deal between member states over, for instance, the fishing rights and quotas in the North Sea – something that will need to be discussed – when it has dead fish washing up on its beaches and fish farm slime polluting the sea around it?” he asked.

Slimy fish feed washed repeatedly onto a number of beaches in Malta this summer, with the government eventually feeling the need to step in. However, despite a number of fish farms halting operations, beaches in the north of the island were again invaded by fish carcasses and foul smells earlier this month.

Fish farming is not the only skeleton in Malta’s closet. Mr Brunner said EU-wide legislation on habitats and bird hunting would also be up for discussion during Malta’s presidency.

He was quick to point out that Malta’s controversial hunting season would once again be opened during Malta’s presidency. This, he said, could also be of some embarrassment if the illegalities which so often hit the headlines were repeated.

Despite this, Mr Brunner thinks the presidency could offer Malta a fresh start.

“Countries often use this as an opportunity to get serious about enforcement, to take measures that have been on the shelf for years and to finally take things a bit more seriously. We hope this is the case here,” he said.