SME Chamber

A kindler, gentler Borg

Tonio Borg, Malta's nominee to become
the new European commissioner for health, impressed MEPs with an assured
performance and a firm knowledge of the major issues of the health portfolio at
a hearing with the European Parliament on Tuesday (13 November). But some MEPs
were left wondering what had become of the Maltese politician who was known in
his home country for conservative Catholic positions on social issues.

‘Brussels Borg' was gracious and
friendly as he took questions from MEPs. He said he would vigorously enforce
article 21 of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which forbids
discrimination based on sexual orientation. He highlighted his support of the
legal normalisation of same-sex partnerships and a hate-crimes bill in Malta,
and said that he had taken a stance against criminalising those women who left
Malta, where abortion is illegal, in order to have a pregnancy terminated. He
said as commissioner for health he would work to end bans that some member
states had imposed on gay men donating blood. "I fully believe in the European
values, including those of non-discrimination," he said.

Borg surprised many when he said that
he would support Viviane Reding's proposal to establish a quota for women on corporate
boards. When asked about genetically-modified food and stem cell research, he
said: "I will let science be my guide when making difficult decisions."

It was a far cry from the
descriptions of ‘Malta Borg' that were circulated to MEPs ahead of the hearing.
Campaigning groups accused Borg of taking stances unsympathetic to same-sex
couples in debates on the EU law of free movement and on a rent law. "We will
only protect those who deserve protection," he was quoted as saying in 2009.

They said Borg had personally
campaigned to have a ban on abortion inserted into Malta's constitution and
voted against the bill legalising divorce in Malta in 2011, even after it had
been supported by a public referendum.

Borg was asked by MEPs how positions
he had taken while a national politician in Malta fitted with his assertion at
the beginning of his opening address that he would honour the EU's Charter of
Fundamental Rights. Borg insisted he had never made the disparaging remarks
attributed to him. He said his opposition to the Maltese bill to include
same-sex partnerships in rental laws was for technical rather than ideological

Questions about his past positions on
social issues were largely confined to the start of the hearing, but he
deflected them with ease. By the end of the hearing, there was a sense in the
room that he had largely won the MEPs over. Even British centre-left MEP
Michael Cashman, the co-president of the Parliament's gay rights group, came
out of the hearing saying that he had been reassured that Borg could be trusted
with the health portfolio based on the commitments to human rights that he had
made. But the next day (14 November), when political groups met to decide
whether they would endorse Borg or not, the friendly mood faded. Cashman told
members of his Socialists and Democrats group that, after thinking about it
overnight, he could not endorse the Maltese nominee.

"There are far too many
question-marks over why he's suddenly changed his positions, despite what was
considered an impressive performance," he said. "If you have these deeply held
views that you put into political practice [in Malta], why would you suddenly
ditch them at EU level? I don't think his conservative allies would accept

The S&D MEPs were unable to come
to a decision on Wednesday. They have sent a letter to Borg saying they are
inclined to support him, but need further assurances on his commitment to human
rights. The ALDE group in the Parliament was able to come to a conclusion on
Wednesday – a qualified ‘No'. The group said it could not support Borg unless
Commission President José Manuel Barroso moves him to a different portfolio.

The full Parliament will vote on the
confirmation next week in Strasbourg. A successful outcome for Borg now
probably rests with the Socialists, who can decide whether he is endorsed.

During the confirmation hearing, Borg
said his top priority would be the rapid proposal of an ambitious
tobacco-products directive. He guaranteed that he would not water down the
draft that is now in the pipeline within the Commission and that he would get
the proposal out so that it could be passed before the next Parliament
elections in June 2014.

Borg was also asked about other
controversial areas of his portfolio including genetically modified crops,
animal transport, conflicts of interest at the European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA), and vaccine co-ordination, but he did not indicate any specific policy
directions in his answers to these questions.

He indicated, however, that he is
ready to stand by the beleaguered food authority in the face of recent
criticism. "The moment EFSA becomes popular I will really become worried," he
said. "It is either criticised for being too harsh, or for being too lenient.
The truth is somewhere in between."

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