Could Malta’s treatment of Birds bring down the EU Commission?


The Commissioner hearings start this week

Already several campaigns have begun seeking the removal of certain candidates deemed ill-equipped for office, either through past personal transgressions, seeming conflicts of interest, or indeed the record of the Member State government which nominated the candidate.
In the latter category is Karmenu Vella, the Maltese Commissioner-designate for the Environment, Fisheries & Maritime Affairs. The record of the Maltese Government regarding the treatment of wildfowl in general, and the implementation of the EU Birds Directive in particular, leaves a great deal to be desired. So said the European Court of Justice back in 2009 when it found Malta guilty of misapplying the Birds Directive because of its 'hunting' derogation.

Mr Vella is scheduled to appear before the European Parliament's Environment (ENVI) Committee on Tuesday. He will be called upon to explain both his record and the record of the current and past Maltese Governments. (Until March 2013 Malta was governed by a 'National' Coalition, with the Labour Party governing outright since).

Thereafter the ENVI committee will determine its opinion. These opinions are usually, 'on the one hand this, on the other hand that' sort of affairs. Since Mr Vella hails from a political party which belongs the Socialist Group in the Parliament, it is likely that this group will support him, even if others do not. The question will be, how strongly do the other political group feel about Mr Vella and his competence and the Bird issue in particular.

All the commissioners-designate go through a similar process, with the interrogating committees determining their individual opinion. What happens next is important. MEPs do not vote on the individual commissioners-designate, rather they vote upon the College of Commissioners together, i.e. one vote on the whole Commission. In this vote MEPs either endorse the College, and it is empowered or they vote against it, the commissioners-designate are dismissed and the process begins again. This is the nuclear option, and for obvious reasons few wish to see it deployed. It would hamstring the Commission for months and create a blockage on new thinking and new direction.

To avoid using the nuclear option, the Parliament uses the threat of the nuclear option to demand changes in the college line up before the critical vote. In the past, for example, the Parliament demanded the removal of the Italian Commissioner-designate for past public statements. So, on this the Parliament has 'previous'.

There are a number of candidates who may yet be picked off from the herd using this non nuclear technique.

The issue with regards Mr Vella and Malta, and the ongoing Bird Campaign - check out Chris Packham's website for full details: - is a little more problematic. Using the non nuclear method, Malta could be compelled to field another candidate. That would be embarrassing for Malta, but doable nonetheless. However, given much of the critique of Mr Vella centres around not just his competence but the competence of successive Maltese Governments to adhere to EU directives it remains to be seen whether Malta could field any candidate the environmental lobby would deem suitable.

This could create a jam. It is one thing to call upon a Member State to put forward a candidate more suited (or competent) for the role, it is another to ask the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to reconfigure his college. That has no precedent, and it is unclear whether the Parliament would have the levers with which to exert such pressure.

Juncker has already come out fighting against those who have argued his reconfiguration of the portfolios won't work, or creates too many internal conflicts. On this I should declare an opinion; bolting environment and fisheries together is just bad. The complex and vital fisheries portfolio will just be subsumed by the gargantuan Environmental dossier.

However, removing the Environmental dossier from Malta would also require switching another Commissioner-designate from his or her current dossier. That is likely to be unpopular with the other switcher, and require a significant delay while the new candidates square up to their new briefs. Juncker's tight timetable would unravel.

So the question appears simple; if Mr Vella is removed, can Malta field any candidate acceptable to the Environmental lobby?