Borg moves closer to joining EU commission
by Daniel Mason
Tonio Borg, the man nominated by Malta to be its European Commissioner following the resignation of John Dalli, faced a three-hour grilling by members of the European Parliament yesterday over his suitability for the role.
If he wins parliamentary approval Borg will fill the vacancy at health and consumer policy left when Dalli resigned in the wake of an alleged tobacco lobbying scandal. But the credentials of Borg, currently Malta's foreign minister, have been questioned by some MEPs because of his record on women's rights, abortion and gay rights.
Borg denied that he had ever made "disparaging remarks" but told parliament: "I have not come here to abandon my personal views. That would be hypocritical and you would see through me immediately if I were to do that." He countered accusations that he opposed housing rights for same-sex couples by saying he had supported a bill in Malta giving legal status to co-habiting gay couples.
And his performance won over some critics. Following the hearing Michael Cashman, from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said he still had concerns about Borg's track record but would back him anyway. "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," he said.
However, Sophie in't Veld gave Borg a "clear no". The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats MEP said parliament could not ask the commission to "press ahead with better fundamental rights and then vet a commissioner with very different views". "He won't abandon his views, and I'm very much opposed to them," she said.
Borg said he would abide by the Charter of Fundamental Rights but that was not enough for Greens/European Free Alliance MEPs Ulrike Lunacek and Raül Romeva, who said in a joint statement: "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."
Nevertheless, Corien Wortmann-Kool MEP, from the centre-right European People's Party, said Borg had shown himself to be a "solid candidate". She added: "We are confident that Tonio Borg's record as foreign minister, minister of environment and leader of the House of Representatives in Malta gives him the necessary experience to take on this difficult task," she added.
On other issues relating to the health and consumer policy portfolio, Borg said the he would aim to finalise the commission's draft tobacco directive by January 2013 but noted that he does not support Dalli's plain-packaging proposals for cigarettes, and preferred leaving it to member states to make a decision. He said science would guide him on matters around genetically modified food and stem cell research.
The various political groups will hold internal discussions before the parliament as a whole votes on the nomination next week in Strasbourg. With the largest group, the EPP, ready to support Borg, his appointment would be secure if the second biggest group, the S&D, also backs him.