Thursday, 15 November 2012

Malta Today: Borg’s competence is ticket to Commission, but LGBT intergroup remains guarded

The impressive foreign minister’s confident performance still does not cut the mustard with the EP’s left-wing on fundamental rights.
Wednesday 14 November 2012 - 10:19 by Matthew Vella

Conservative but reassuring... Borg impressed MEPs from the EPP and socialists, but not those of the Green, Liberal and left-wing camps.

MEPs who examined Tonio Borg's bid to join the European Commission left mixed reactions on his three-hour interview on the public health, environment and consumer protection portfolio, in spite of the Maltese foreign minister's confident performance and assured grasp of technicalities.

The European Parliament's intergroup on LGBT rights - a collective of 139 MEPs whose secretariat called for Borg's rejection - had already made clear its concerns regarding Borg's track record, citing conservative views on women's and LGBT rights.

But the conservative Borg made sure Tuesday evening's hearing would be one where 'Borg of the EU' sounded reassuring that his personal beliefs would not inform his actions as a Commissioner for an internal market of 500 million.

Reactions from several of its MEPs indicated the broad consensus that exists between the two larger groups, the European Peoples' Parties and the Socialists & Democrats, on Borg's appointment; and the main opposition coming from the Liberals, Greens and also the communists.

Sirpa Pietikäinen MEP (EPP), vice-chair of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety expressed reserved support for Borg on fundamental rights, which the Maltese commissioner-designate pledged to safeguard:

"Fundamental rights are not a matter of subsidiarity, they are universal. None of them are to be neglected or considered outside the competence of the EU, and I hope Mr Borg will abide by his unreserved commitment to these universal rights," she said.

Intergroup chairman and Michael Cashman MEP (S&D), who had previously indicated Borg would not meet the fate of conservative Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, said he was "remained concerned" about Borg's track record. "But given the reassurances he has given us on fundamental rights, I believe we could entrust him with the public health portfolio, and hold him strictly to account on the commitments he made tonight.

"He said his door would 'always be open', so we should immediately work on issues such as blood donation for gay men, the depathologisation of transgender people, and sexual and reproductive health rights."

Of a different opinion was the intergroup's vice-chair and Liberal MEPSophie in 't Veld:

"He gets a clear 'no' from me. Tonio Borg said he won't abandon his views, and I'm very much opposed to them - his Europe isn't my Europe. The Parliament cannot ask the Commission to press ahead with better fundamental rights, and then vet a Commissioner with very different views."

Green MEPs Ulrike Lunacek and Raül Romeva said that although Borg had "brandished subsidiarity and the treaties" when asked about his personal views on same-sex discrimination and the provision of safe and legal abortion, an argument Borg used to delineate the limits of his personal beliefs, or the red lines the EU could not cross on such matters like abortion.

"We don't trust him to go beyond the strict minimum and actually defend the Charter of Fundamental Rights, rather than simply abide by it. The Commission must not only respect minimum standards; it must set these standards - and set them high. We do not trust him to work for all EU citizens regardless of their gender and of their sexual orientation."

Another critic was MEP Dennis de Jong from the United Green Left, a member of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection: "Borg appeared to be competent, but he fell short of expectations when he refused to endorse the horizontal anti-discrimination Directive, which the Commission proposed in 2008, and which all Commissioners stand by. Avoiding concrete answers on legal proposals is a very negative sign."

A confident performance by 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.

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.

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