Friday 26 October 2012 - 09:35 by Jurgen Balzan
Arnold Cassola was secretary-general of the European Green Party between 1999 and 2006.
Alternattiva Demokratika's spokesperson for international and EU affairs Arnold Cassola said designate EU Commissioner Tonio Borg faces a tough challenge to overcome a grilling by MEPs in the European Parliament, scheduled for 13 November.
The hearing before MEPs is a prerequisite in the process of appointing all European Commissioners, and Borg is expected to be grilled by MEPs from two committees: the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, and the Internal Market and Consumer Affairs Committee.
Speaking to MaltaToday, Cassola, the former secretary-general of the European Green Party, explained that the Green group within the European Parliament has serious doubts on Borg's suitability for the position, given his track record in terms of human rights and gay rights.
"The Greens are sceptical because of the information they have received from international agencies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They have serious doubts on Tonio Borg," Cassola said.
He added that his feeling is that the Greens will vote against as things stand, however he noted that Borg will have ample time to convince MEPs otherwise during the hearings.
Cassola said that the Greens are not the only party within the European Parliament to have doubts about Borg's suitability, noting that the Socialists and the Liberals share the same reservations.
"We have indicated what kind of reservations MEP have on Borg. I hope that he will convince them otherwise on their reservations in regards to human rights and homophobia," Cassola said.
The European Greens hold 59 seats in the 754-strong Parliament. The Socialists and the Liberals have 189 and 85 seats respectively.
On Thursday, Hannes Swoboda, President of the Socialist and Democratic Group, said: "We will look carefully into the qualifications of his proposed successor. In view of some comments from Mr Borg on the rights of homosexuals we intend to question him closely on whether his views are compatible with Europe's fundamental values on civil liberties and non-discrimination.
"There has already been one case where the European Parliament rejected a candidate who could not convince MEPS of his readiness to accept basic European values. We do not need a second Rocco Buttiglione."
Arnold Cassola said that while the Socialists in the European Parliament have expressed their doubts on Borg, the Labour Party in Malta was playing a double game.
Earlier this week Labour leader Joseph Muscat said that he supported Borg's nomination, and that statements by the European socialist MEPs' president Hannes Swodoba to appoint a new commissioner after the next general elections were his own opinion.
"We will not work against the national interest, we never wanted there to be a vacuum," Muscat said.
However, in a Facebook chat he held on Thursday, Swoboda insisted that the European Socialists would give Tonio Borg "a very severe but fair 'grilling'. For me it is clear, that he must accept and support the European values and fundamental rights."
Asked whether Borg's conservative views on homosexuality and divorce will be an issue, Swodoba replied: "Yes, certainly."
In Malta, Borg stands out as a Christian-democrat whose Catholic patina has informed some of his outdated stands: in January 2009 in parliament he was cynical of a stand by Opposition leader Joseph Muscat when the latter declared himself in favour of recognising the rights of gay or cohabitating couples during the debate on the rent reform legislation. Borg deriding the attempt by Muscat to "use this [rent] law to regularise gays."
His most conservative of campaigns was his unilateral support of pro-life group Gift Of Life's mission - unsuccessful though it was - to entrench the Maltese criminal code's provisions against abortion in the Constitution. Borg petitioned every single association on the island, bowls clubs and pyrotechnic associations, to see whether they agreed with the entrenchment. In the end, the campaign lost steam when Labour leader Alfred Sant failed to give it any discernable recognition.
It is also unclear whether MEPs will want to grill Borg on his having been the architect of Malta's much-maligned detention system of immigrants, having presided over the horrific repatriation of Eritrean asylum seekers in 2002 who were later subjected to torture once in their homeland, and his tacit support of Italy's pushbacks of irregular migrants to Libya.
Borg was chosen by the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to replace John Dalli, who resigned on Tuesday 16 October after he was read the covering letter of an investigation by the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF that claimed he was aware that one of his former canvassers, Silvio Zammit, was soliciting a bribe from Swedish Match, a company that produces snuff tobacco, in a bid to reverse tobacco legislation.