Thursday, 15 November 2012

Malta Today: Tonio Borg hearing: Malta’s moment of truth

Reactions to the nomination of former home affair minister Tonio Borg as Commissioner-designate suggest that a cultural gulf still separates Malta from the rest of the EU, eight years after accession. And it’s not just about ‘Christian values’ either.
Tuesday 13 November 2012 - 08:30 by Raphael Vassallo

Addressing the PN general assembly after the bruising divorce referendum defeat last year, guest speaker Prof. Joe Friggieri told his audience that "you can't open a window and expect people not to feel the fresh air."

His point was inescapable, to an audience that had earlier lobbied aggressively for EU membership. The Nationalist Party could not expect to both pave the way to change, and at the same time do everything in its power to prevent the effects of that change from being felt.

Significantly, Friggieri would go on to recommend removing the 'Religio et Patria' as PN motto, to be replaced by something less immediately anachronistic. His advice has since gone unheeded; and by choosing precisely Tonio Borg to replace the disgraced former Commissioner John Dalli, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi seems to have signalled his intention to keep (as it were) the 'Religio et Patria' flag flying high.

Naturally, it is debatable whether this was his actual intention; but this issue is tackled separately by James Debono (see pages 10-11). Whatever the reason, confrontation is now all but inevitable.

Borg, known for his hardliner stances on such issues as gay rights and abortion, is now scheduled to face a 'severe but fair' grilling at the hands of European parliamentarians on Tuesday. One liberal MEP has already described our former home affairs minister as a 'dinosaur' for his out-dated views on gender issues and abortion; another has argued that his nomination should have been rejected out of hand by Commission president Barroso, as Borg does not share Europe's fundamental values..

As expected, Borg's arch-conservatism tops the list of objections. But it is not the only possible hurdle. Questions are asked also about his decision to grant residency to a Kazakh billionaire, despite enquiries by Interpol. His 2002 deportation of over 200 Eritrean asylum seekers - and their subsequent fate upon repatriation - is another potential stumbling block.

But Borg has his defenders, too. A Brussels-based NGO named European Dignity Watch has lashed out at his detractors, arguing that the Maltese Commissioner-designate is the victim of an anti-Catholic plot spearheaded by European liberals and secularists.

Either way, Borg's nomination has once again forced our country to confront the uncomfortable fact that much of what is considered 'business as usual' in Malta, is in fact eyebrow raising (to say the least) in Brussels.

And this in turn can only mean that despite having joined the Union in 2004, there is still an undercurrent of thought which places Malta firmly outside the European dimension.

Coming so soon after the Dalli debacle - when Malta's second Commissioner ended his term prematurely and in disgrace over alleged influence-peddling - the queries surrounding Borg's nomination also highlight a few crucial differences between Malta's 'way of doing politics' and the way the Commission operates.

The jury is arguably still out on Dalli's resignation, but details that emerged nonetheless suggest a curious naivety underpinning the whole affair. Here in Malta we may be used the idea that politicos run around accompanied by 'canvassers' (even the word had to be explained in its new, unfamiliar setting of Brussels)... who are little more than glorified henchmen and factotums. But that a man like Silvio Zammit should be allowed to hobnob with a European Commissioner, and even use his name with impunity while dealing with multi-million industries and their lobbyists... the very idea is simply preposterous by European standards.

Yet here in Malta it is old hat: in fact nobody here even so much as commented about the impropriety of Dalli's association with the likes of Zammit. One shudders to think how Europe would react to the news that (among many other examples) a former henchman of a former Prime Minister was not only granted bail when accused of wilful homicide - but was even allowed to leave the country on business trips.

Clearly, there is a level of tolerance towards such anomalies in Malta which is at odds with the way such matters would be received in Europe. One need only look at the interest surrounding Borg's involvement in the Aliyev case to understand that Malta has succeeded in creating an unsavoury reputation for itself, as a country which permits and possibly encourages collusion between politicians and 'business interests' of a borderline criminal nature.

Borg of the unborn

But the most glaring difference between 'us and them' (i.e., Europe and Malta) concerns our innate aversion to health issues that are considered fundamental in Europe. Ideas and attitudes that are entirely mainstream in Paris, London, Brussels and Berlin remain not only unusual in Malta, but sometimes the subject of an insurmountable taboo.

Borg's outspoken allergy to abortion - above all, his endeavours to entrench the law with the declared aim of making it impossible to change in future - may go down very well with a certain section of Malta's conservative population; but it sits very uneasily with his separate claims to be able to distinguish between his personal views and his public office.

Borg has proved entirely incapable of making this same distinction as a Maltese minister; so much so that in 2004-5 he had used his ministry office to push Gift of Life's 'private' campaign.

One naturally must wait to see how Borg defends his record at Tuesday's hearing; but he clearly cannot rely on the sort of arguments that have always stood him in such good stead in Malta (e.g., 'abortion is murder, period').

And this in turn opens him up to possible criticism. If Tonio Borg strikes a noticeably different note in Brussels than he does in Malta, he may well disillusion and incense the pro-life lobby group that (not unreasonably) expects him to further their own cause as EU Commissioner.

For instance: if Tonio Borg stops short of condemning abortion before a European audience, as he has always done in a local context; or even worse, if he hints that he will retain those European health programmes which fund abortions in developing countries... the same programmes he had criticised so savagely, when they were endorsed by the European Greens or Malta's three Labour MEPs - he will come across as not only a hypocrite but also a traitor to the pro-life cause.

All this seems to imply that it will not just be Borg's suitability for the Commission that will be decided on Tuesday: also under review will be Malta's suitability for the role of EU member state. So to return to Friggieri's excellent analogy: Tuesday's hearing will either fling those same windows wide open to let in more fresh air; or alternatively, slam them shut in our faces.

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