Thursday, 15 November 2012

Malta Today: ‘Borg of the EU’ gives confident performance in Brussels

Tonio Borg shows good grasp of health and consumer policy portfolio in three-hour hearing where MEPs also question his socially conservative beliefs.
Tuesday 13 November 2012 - 19:24 by Matthew Vella

Tonio Borg was well-prepared for his three-hour hearing before MEPs.

Our live-blog from the EP hearing

A confident performance by foreign minister Tonio Borg yesterday at the European Parliament saw him overcome a tough, three-hour grilling by MEPs which tested him on his general competence of the health and consumer affairs portfolio but also on his past statements on same-sex and women's rights as well as safe abortions.

Borg clearly impressed MEPs with his general grasp of his portfolio, fielding questions on health matters, clinical trials, GMOs, animal welfare, consumer safety and rights, and agricultural matters.

But there was also an evident metamorphosis: the 'Borg of the EU' told MEPs he would "not be the Maltese commissioner... I will be the European Commissioner appointed by Malta", allaying fears raised by NGOs ahead of his hearing over his conservative views.

The commissioner-designate's delivery was confident and sincere, although he was hard pressed on issues concerning past pronouncements on rights for same-sex couples: he boasted of his human rights record as a lawyer, saying he co-authored a cohabitation bill that will give rights to same-sex partnerships; and he pledged to safeguard the EU treaties' anti-discrimination provisions.

He also expressed support for justice commissioner Viviane Reding's bid to introduce a 40% quota for women on publicly listed company boards, something that the Maltese government - with him as deputy prime minister - opposed.

"I will abide by the Treaty, I will abide the Charter of Fundamental Rights," Borg told MEPs, but defended himself vigorously on questions related to sexual and reproductive health that dealt with the matter of safe and legal abortion. Borg insisted he was publicly against abortion but had never declared that women who go abroad to seek abortions 'were doing something wrong'.

The commissioner-designate also insisted that an issue like abortion was squarely in the hands of member states. "I did not make these Treaties, they have been sanctioned by the member states. We are not a federation but a sui generis kind of organisation of sovereign states... some areas are in the hands of member states to decide. Each one of us has their own personal views. God forbid that we should be regimented in thinking one way, but I shall abide by the Treaties and I won't interfere in programmes that already exist because it will be illegal for me to do so."

Borg also made his mark on the Tobacco Products Directive, the controversial anti-smoking legislation championed by his predecessor John Dalli, who back in Malta was being questioned by the Commissioner of Police on the contents of the OLAF investigation that had brought about his resignation over an alleged bribe connected to tobacco laws.

In fact Borg said he favoured member states to retain the option whether to introduce the controversial plain packaging rules for tobacco products.

"There has to be something on packaging that must be effective. Tobacco products should look like tobacco products... What I would favour is to leave member states individually free to introduce the plain packaging rather than imposing it upon them. But this is my personal view. The bill can become stronger, and I would be against weakening the current TPD."


Critics who called for the rejection of Tonio Borg over his 'outdated and conservative views' also took heart from the commissioner-designate's pledge to work closely with MEPs and to abide by the European treaties and fundamental rights of the Charter.

"It is evident that Borg has put out a smart performance giving a good basis for us to look forward to work with him if he is elected," Juris Lavrikovs, a spokesperson for the International Gay-Lesbian Bisexual Association told MaltaToday.

Echoing statements by other MEPs like Dennis de Jong, who questioned Borg on same-sex issues, Lavrikovs said Borg left some room for interpretation whether he supports or not the adoption of the EU's anti-discrimination directive that will harmonise provisions across the EU.

"What we wish for now is that MEPs bear in mind not just the fine performance he gave today, but to take a holistic approach to his election, which was one of the reasons we wanted to raise awareness about his actions and past record, which are very worrying and made our organisations call for his rejection. It is now up to MEPs to take the right decision."

While the Greens have already said they would not be supporting Borg, MEP Chris Davies of the Alliance of Liberal Democrats said his grouping did not feel "Borg [was] suited to the portfolio for which he has been nominated" and that he did "not do enough to assuage fears on social issues."

The European People's Party also said Borg had proved to be a solid candidate for the post of European Commissioner. "His performance during the hearing demonstrated that he is fully prepared to take on the responsibilities of the Health and Consumer Policy portfolio. We trust that he will do a good job", an EPP vice-chairperson Corien Wortmann-Kool MEP, said.

Next steps

MEPs at next week's plenary in Strasbourg will vote on Borg's performance after the chairs of the committees on environment (covering health and food issues), consumer protection and agriculture will consult with political group coordinators and each other on their impressions and recommendations immediately after the hearing.

Parliament's Conference of Committee Chairs will meet on Wednesday and the Conference of Presidents on Thursday, before the whole House votes on a resolution to give their non-binding verdict next week in Strasbourg.

While his political grouping, the European People's Party has pledged support for his nomination, Borg's effective election depends on a strong show of support by the Socialists & Democrats grouping.

On Monday Borg was reported to have given reassurances to socialist MEP Michael Cashman, the president of the LGBT-rights intergroup, that his personal views would not affect his legislative activity.

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