Despite much criticism from civil society and some MEPs, Tonio Borg has been appointed as the new EU Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection following the resignation of John Dalli over a tobacco-linked influence-peddling probe. The Council has approved Borg’s nomination after the European Parliament endorsement in Strasbourg, with 386 votes in favor and 281 against.
Borg has been strongly criticized for his views on abortion, homosexuality and immigration. As Maltese Minister for Foreign Affairs, he had a reputation as an ultra-conservative member of the Maltese Nationalist Party, having among other measures proposed to entrench in the Maltese Constitution the sections of the law banning abortion (a criminal offense in Malta). In the Maltese Parliament, he voted against the introduction of a divorce law, despite it being upheld in a consultative referendum. Borg also spoke out in 2009 against including cohabiting couples (either heterosexual or homosexual) as beneficiaries of legislation enacted around the time of the Second World War intended to protect tenants during the housing shortage of the time.
For these reasons, some in Brussels see him as an unfit candidate for the important portfolio of Health and Consumers Commissioner. Some fear that he might fail to guarantee equal access to everybody to healthcare, or that he could water down European initiatives addressing some vulnerable communities like homosexuals and migrants. Also the ongoing tobacco Directive raises some concerns. The EU is struggling to adopt a single approach on the matter, and Borg’s insistence on Member States’ primary role in health issues might jeopardize the common legislation.
In a two-hour hearing at the European parliament, Borg insisted that his personal views would not influence his behavior as EU Commissioner, swearing that he would respect the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. He gave a sound performance in front of the MEPs and managed to convince not only all the EPP Members but also some of the Socialists to support his nomination.
So the question remains: is Tonio Borg suitable for the role he has been appointed for?
The whole EPP group, and with it the Council as a whole, has commended him for his “general competence, European commitment, personal independence, knowledge of the prospective portfolio and cooperation with the European Parliament”. On the other hand, some Socialists, the Greens and the Liberals believe his actions must inevitably reflect his stated views. The Socialists, in particular, faced a huge dilemma that led the President, Hannes Swoboda, to propose a free vote in the plenary session.
But from a European federal prospective, another question arises: can such a conservative Commissioner play an important role in constructing a modern Europe? In the words of one socialist MEP: “Who will you find from Malta who is more progressive on the issue of abortion?”. This is exactly the point: can a ‘non-progressive’ mentality contribute effectively to a modern Europe?
Sophie Int’Veldt, a Dutch Liberal MEP, has stressed that being a Commissioner is not just a ‘technical’ position but is also deeply political. “For this reason we need someone who strongly believes and shares the European values the we put as a basis of the EU itself”, Sophie said. She is indeed right. Even with no consideration of abortion or other religious issues, however important these may be, the EU is going through a period of changes as never before. This requires the strength and the courage to set aside traditional beliefs – even religious ones – in order to build a more concrete and modern Europe that does not match Tonio Borg’s personal beliefs. In most of Europe, indeed, the right to abortion, civil rights for homosexuals and a comprehensive immigration policy already exist. We cannot afford to step back on such rights. “In the Netherlands we enjoy some rights because we have fought for them”, Sophie said. Well, the same holds in Europe too.