26th Oct 2016

Borg woos left-wing vote in EU parliament

Malta's would-be EU commissioner, Tonio Borg, has tried to dispel his image as a Roman Catholic hardliner in a bid to win MEPs' approval.

The 55-year-old politician said in his written reply to a European Parliament questionnaire: "I have, throughout my political career, fought for and defended European values as reflected in the Treaties, with their highest expression now contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights."

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He described himself as a champion of "equity and solidarity" in terms of healthcare access for the poor amid the economic crisis.

Referring to a draft tobbaco law prepared by his predecessor John Dalli, who lost his job over allegations that he solicited a bribe from a tobacco firm, Borg said he would submit a new bill "as soon as possible."

"My goal is to be ambitious while balanced, addressing deficiencies in the current legislation in order to facilitate the functioning of the internal market in tobacco ... and ensure a high level of health protection," he said.

His remarks come ahead of a three-hour hearing by parliament's environment, consumer protection and internal market committees on Tuesday (13 November).

MEPs will the following week vote in plenary on whether he is fit to take up the post.

The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights says in article 21 that "any discrimination based on ... sexual orientation shall be prohibited."

Despite his pro-charter pledge, Borg has attracted fierce criticism from Liberal and centre-left deputies and NGOs for his track record on values.

His antagonists note that in 2008 he opposed a law on housing rights for same-sex couples in Malta.

He has also campaigned for anti-abortion laws and anti-divorce laws. His oversight of migrant detention centres in Malta while home affairs minister in 2002 saw over 200 Eritrean asylum seekers deported home, some of whom were later killed in prison.

Borg last week met with British centre-left deputy Michael Cashman, a leading gay-rights campaigner in the EU assembly.

"I ... pointed out the views he previously expressed would be incompatible with holding a high EU office," Cashman said in a statement afterward.

For her part, Swedish Liberal deputy and Lutheran minister Cecilia Wikstrom said in a YouTube interview: "As Liberals we will have to vote against him and I hope other groups will follow, because this is a candidate that non-conservatives can never accept. He is not welcome here."

Borg in his financial declaration to parliament also stated: "I do not have any business interests of any kind."

He noted he has about €80,000 worth of shares in various banks and investment funds. But he said he gave up his previous directorships in two Maltese firms - Media Link and Euro Tours - years ago.

The question of financial probity is an acute one given the manner of Dalli's departure. There is concern among anti-tobacco NGOs that unless the new commissioner is squeaky clean, it will give ammunition to the tobacco industry to delay EU legislation.

A former German politician, Lothar de Maiziere, recently accused Borg of improperly granting Maltese residency to an exiled member of the Kazakh elite - Rakhat Aliyev.

Borg dismissed the allegations as "gross calumny ... a lie ... scraping the barrel" in comments to Maltese media last week.

Correction: The original story said wrongly that Borg also met Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In 't Veld

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