Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Malta Today: Conservative Borg gets ready to meet his MEP ‘makers’

Tonio Borg will probably be grilled over how he intends to take John Dalli’s anti-tobacco mission further, rather than his conservative and Catholic standpoints on civil rights.

Tonio Borg is bound to be quizzed on his take of the Tobacco Products Directive that John Dalli was championing.

When Tonio Borg comes to Brussels, there's going to be some questions waiting for him.

It is hard to know whether MEPs from the health and consumer policy committee will be interested in things other than the area of concern that Borg will be dealing with in Brussels.

To political observers in Malta, Borg stands out as a Christian-democrat whose Catholic patina has informed some of his outdated stands: in January 2009 in parliament he was cynical of a stand by Opposition leader Joseph Muscat when the latter declared himself in favour of recognising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.

Indeed, considering the Nationalist government's recent cohabitation bill that formalises, to a certain legal extent, the rights and obligations of cohabitating straight and gay couples, Borg's stand in 2009 deriding the attempt by Muscat to "use this [rent] law to regularise gays", stands out in contrast to the government's recently rediscovered liberal ambitions.

His less than controversial statements about the European greens may fail to raise eyebrows in the European Parliament, although MEPs may be surprised to know that at a Nationalist party general council Borg cynically described them as "a watermelon, green on the outside and red inside" and scoffed at their opposition to the nuclear deterrent.

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. Since he is not taking on the portfolio currently in the hands of Cecilia Malmström, it is hard to see whether this matter will arise.

It will be interesting to hear Tonio Borg's take on the Tobacco Products Directive, on which anti-smoking supporters want to see him hit the ground running. Going by the mood in Brussels and following rge conspiracy theories that John Dalli's resignation was brought about by some big tobacco ruse, there is no doubt that Borg's (a non-smoker) anti-tobacco credentials will be put to the test.

In 2004, the Cypriot nominee for the health portfolio Markos Kyprianou presented [opens PDF] a strong anti-tobacco image. Back then green MEP Adamos Adamou welcome Kyprianou's determination to combat smoking but expressed reservations as to the Commission's ability to face up to the powerful tobacco industry.

Kypriano said that as finance minister (like his successor John Dalli) "[he] had to face up to the banks, an equally powerful sector" and that he "did not hesitate and was successful. I will also take on the tobacco giants."

On his part, Dalli had told MEPs at his hearing in January 2010 that he would be tough on issues like alcohol, smoking and obesity, in reply to a question by British Labour MEP Linda Mc Avan. "The earlier we get at children, the better it is." Health NGOs today claim that Dalli's toughness on tobacco inside Brussels ended up costing him his job.

It is yet to be seen whether Borg will be questioned by MEPs from the health and consumer policy committee on matters other than the immediate concerns of this portfolio.

The conservative Catholic minister Rocco Buttiglione had failed to earn MEPs' respect, especially when targeted on the area of fundamental rights - but that was because Buttiglione was being nominated for the post of Commissioner for justice, freedom and security.

MEPs zoned in on Buttiglione's position on gay rights, to which he referred to Immanuel Kant, saying "there is a clear distinction between morality and law."

He went on to say that he "may think homosexuality is a sin" but he fully endorses the final text of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and "is willing to defend it". Then, answering a question by Bogdan Pek on the nature of marriage, Buttiglione said his view of the marriage was "well known" and was the "traditional one". He said that a "woman has the right to have children and have the protection of a man" but that this is a philosophical question.

There is one final hurdle for Borg: after MEP Hannes Swodoba of the Socialists & Democrats said that a new commissioner should be appointed after the next Maltese general elections, possibly earmarked for February 2013, does this mean Borg will not be backed by the European socialists? We'll wait and see.

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