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European Affairs

Can a Maltese Commissioner safeguard Europe’s Environment?

The new European Commission for the next five years has just been announced by President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker. In a time when European citizens have lost much confidence in ‘Brussels’ following recent economic turmoil, all eyes are on this new team to usher much needed change in Europe. Malta’s Commissioner-designate, Karmenu Vella, has been given the portfolio for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. While Malta’s first Commissioner has already headed the Fisheries portfolio, can this (or any) Maltese Commissioner really be tasked with safeguarding Europe’s Environment? (Answer below!)

Karmenu Vella: The Maltese Commissioner-Designate (Photo credit: TimesofMalta

I still remember the first time when I came across the EU’s Birds Directive and Habitats Directive during the course of my studies. These two European laws can be classified as the ‘gold standard’ of European Environmental Law, being quoted and referenced numerous times when discussing issues of land use, nature conservation and environmental sustainability.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that a Maltese Commissioner will be tasked with the Environmental Portfolio, with the power to effectively change and effect these two laws. The Environment Portfolio is quite versatile and demanding, with the next five years being of crucial importance in the revision and embellishment of several key laws including the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive. Amongst key areas which I can envisage as being of prominence in the upcoming Commission, the following will most likely take centre stage:

Water conservation

Fresh water as a resource is often disregarded and taken for granted, since people assume that water is abundant and infinite. The reality is that fresh water is a finite resource, and of central importance to domestic, industrial and agricultural practices. European water sources are covered by the Habitats Directive, but are increasingly threatened by pollution from industry, degradation of water ecosystems through physical modification (mainly through agricultural practices), and overuse of water resources such as aquifers and rivers (mainly in Southern European states).

In 2000, The European Parliament adopted the Water Framework Directive (WFD), considered to be a milestone law in the management of rivers basins for ecological purposes. Ten years of consultations culminated in River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), which a recent report by the European Environmental Bureau indicated as not being fully implement in all relevant Member States. The coming legislature will most likely have to provide an updated version of the WFD to meet the shortcomings of the previous version.

Waste management and Recycling

Waste management in the European Union has improved considerably over the past decade. However, the amount and type of waste has changed dramatically over this time period as well. With quality of life in most Member States improving, and societies becoming richer, the amount of waste generated has also increased as a result. Furthermore, our ever-expanding hi-tech lives are contributing to highly mixed waste consisting of plastics, precious metals and hazardous material that are difficult to deal with. It is estimated that the European Union is currently producing up to 3 billion tonnes of waste every year.

In 2008, the Waste Framework Directive was revised to incorporate such new hazardous material, and streamline other waste legislation to fit into the waste hierarchy characteristic of this Directive.


EU Waste Hierarchy

EU Waste Hierarchy

One of the main notions of the Waste Framework Directive is to turn the EU into a ‘Recycling Community’, with targets set at 50% recycling of municipal waste by 2020. These targets have been re-adjusted to 70% by 2030 on 2 July 2014, following a legislative proposal adopted by the European Commission to review recycling and other waste-related targets.

Current trends give a very optimistic view for the EU in general ,with recent Eurostat figures showing that 42% of European municipal waste is either recycled or composted, a marked increase for the 18% of 1995. Despite this, the new Commission needs to keep up the same momentum if it hopes to achieve the 2030 targets, particularly by focusing on underperforming countries such as Romania (1%), Slovakia (13%) and Malta (13%).

2020 Biodiversity Strategy

On 3 May 2011, the European Commission adopted a new strategy directed at stopping the loss of biodiversity, through the improvement of the state of Europe’s species, habitats, ecosystems and the services they provide. The halting of loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services was targeted to be achieved by 2020, by focusing on six major targets:
  1. Fully implement the Birds and Habitats Directives
  2. Maintain and restore ecosystems and their services
  3. Increase the contribution of agriculture and forestry to biodiversity
  4. Ensure the sustainable use of fisheries resources
  5. Combat Invasive Alien Species
  6. Step-up action to tackle the global biodiversity crisis
This strategy set out to have all Member States develop a strategic framework with the assistance of the Commission,  to set priorities for ecosystem restoration at sub-national, national and EU level by 2014. As such, Juncker’s Commission will be pivotal in seeing that this Strategy is followed and that Member States are adhering to their own respective frameworks.

Greening the Economy

Despite the fact that the European economic area is still recovering from the recent recession, the European Union still envisions a greener economy in its future. This field has the greatest potential for the next Commission in terms of growth, as it is still a relatively new concept that is heavily dependent on technological innovation.

While the notion of sustainability is already firmly in play, a greener economy can be achieved through more efficient resource use, which allows the economy to proliferate without increasing the use of natural resources and detrimental environmental impacts. The challenge for the new Commission will be to implement effective legislation that can allow this to happen, as the ‘green economy’ concept can become all encompassing  to the areas mentioned above.

The Malta Spring Hunting Issue

While the Malta Spring Hunting issue is inherent to Malta, it has received notable exposure on a European level within the last year when 33 MEPs from ten EU countries and six political parties wrote directly to Mr Janez Potocnik, the then European Commissioner for the Environment, in order to bring the issue to light. With the ensuing Spring Hunting referendum to happen in Malta in 2015, this issue may be highly troublesome for the Maltese Commission.

There is an undeniable conflict of interest at play – the Labour Party in Malta is known to have colluded with the Maltese hunting lobby to allow illegal hunting and finch trapping to continue. As such Karmenu Vella, being a seasoned Labour politician for over four decades, may be at great odds on this issue – Will he be the one to sign it once and for all, or will he appease Maltese hunters (essentially Labour Party supporters) and allow this illegal activity to continue?

* * *

I for one have been very open to the shortcomings of Maltese governments on the local environment. Simply taking the above themes into consideration,  Malta is a country of poor environmental enforcement, with overexploited water resources, shameful waste management results and alarming habitat degradation records. It is unfathomable that a Maltese Commissioner will be tasked with such issues on a European level, when every single Maltese government has always placed the environment at the bottom of their agendas.

While most Maltese people have already started expressing their satisfaction at a Maltese Commission being awarded such an important portfolio, I for one do not see this as an acknowledgment of Malta’s competence. A recent article by The Guardian argued that Juncker is effectively calling the Member States’ bluff, by putting Commissioners in charge of policy areas their respective countries are having trouble with. Should this be the case, it would be a tongue-in-cheek confirmation of the EU’s disapproval of Malta’s environmental management skills.

It will be especially interesting to see what happens with the spring hunting issue: will a Maltese Commissioner for the Environment stop this illegal activity in Malta, opening himself to being labelled as a ‘traitor’ by Maltese citizens? This keeping in mind that the Maltese public have so eloquently already done so with Maltese MEPs during the citizenship debate in the European Parliament.

As such, ca we really trust a Maltese Commissioner with the Environment portfolio? At this stage, it is too early to say how Karmenu Vella would perform in the role. Whilst wishing that he does a brilliant job, there is a positive outcome that I envisage from the appointment of Karmenu Vella Commissioner-Designate of the Environment. Malta will definitely be taking centre stage in the next five years on environmental issue, providing the best opportunity for a thorough scrutiny and withdrawal of current malpractices gripping the Maltese environment.


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