Tonio Borg, the Maltese nominee for the European Commission's health and consumer protection portfolio, sailed through a three-hour Parliamentary vetting yesterday (13 November) despite repeated questioning about his views on abortion and gay rights.
Borg, Malta's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was quizzed by numerous MEPs from the Parliament's committees for the environment, the internal market and agriculture. A vote on his nomination will be held next week.
He told MEPs that if confirmed he would prioritise the tobacco products directive update, which was at the centre of a controversy that led to the resignation of his predecessor, John Dalli.
But he indicated he does not favour controversial plain-packaging proposals for cigarettes. “I have seen plain packaging and I think they could be effective,” Borg said, clarifying that he was speaking in a personal capacity on the issue.
“I would leave member states free to introduce plain packaging and not impose it from the centre,” Borg explained.
No MEPs picked up on the apparent dilution of former Commissioner John Dalli’s widely reported desire to introduce plain-packaging.
Borg fended off allegations of homophobia
Several MEPs grilled Borg on reports that he had adopted anti-gay cohabitation and anti-abortion stances.
Borg denied the claims repeatedly. On abortion, he said that under the EU Treaties, issues surrounding abortion remain firmly within the competencies of the member states, but he said he would act as a European Commissioner, rather than a Maltese one.
He said 14 years ago he was criticised in Malta for refusing to condemn as illegal the actions of a young woman who travelled to the United Kingdom for an abortion.
On issues relating to gay co-habitation, Borg said that he had helped to initiate rules in Malta designed to enable same-sex cohabitants to register their interests and had beefed up protections against homophobic crimes.
On food safety and the thorny issue of genetically modified foods, Borg said he would introduce a new push for a foods directive next year, and await a further report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before coming to conclusions on GMOs.
“I will not rush in where angels fear to tread,” Borg repeated on the issue of GMOs, saying he was well aware of the resistance of Parliament to their use, and that he would take this into account in formulating policies.
Commissioner-designate avoided discussion of predecessor
Tackled on accusations of conflicts of interest within the European Medicines Agency and EFSA, Borg agreed, if confirmed, to discuss common new rules for EU agencies with the other Commissioners.
“The moment EFSA is popular I will be worried: it is usually accused of being too harsh or too lenient, but really it is somewhere in between."
"I believe that we should have common rules for all agencies," Borg said, adding that this was "a personal opinion”.
In a versatile political display, Borg brushed off attempts to draw him into opinions on the controversy over Dalli, claiming that to do so would be “imprudent”.
He said he favoured the attempt by Viviane Reding, the commission vice president, to introduce quotas for women on corporate boards, and indicated that he would press ahead next year with proposals to introduce a right for all European citizens to hold a bank account.
MEPs broadly content with performance
No mention was made by deputies of allegations that Borg played a role in granting Maltese residency permits to a Kazakh couple who facing criminal allegations.
Before the hearing, German MEP Elmar Brok had requested clarification from Borg over claims that he helped the couple evade criminal prosecution by granting them permanent residency permits in Malta.
Borg denounced the reports as "gross calumny and lies" ahead of the hearing, adding he was "very very hurt" by the allegations, EurActiv.de reported.
MEPs seemed broadly satisfied with Borg’s performance, with reports suggesting that the European Peoples’ Party swiftly decided to adopt him following the hearing.
The relevant committee chairs and political group coordinators will consult one another before MEPs vote on a resolution on Borg’s appointment at next week's plenary session in Strasbourg.
John Dalli resigned as the EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection after an investigation connected him with an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.
The nomination of Tonio Borg, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Malta, to succeed Dalli must be approved by the European Parliament.
- 19-23 Nov.: European Parliament Strasbourg plenary to vote on Tonio Borg's appointment as new commissioner for health and consumer affairs.
- News: MEPs grill Commissioner-designate for health and consumers (13 Nov. 2012)