Would-be commissioner takes step toward EU approval
A leading critic of Malta's would-be EU commissioner has said he will back him after his answers on gay rights at a European Parliament hearing.
British centre-left MEP Michael Cashman - who co-chairs parliament's gay rights "Intergroup" - said in a statement on Tuesday (13 November): "I do remain concerned about Tonio Borg's track record. But given the reassurances he has given us on fundamental rights, I believe we could entrust him with the public health portfolio."
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Two other Intergroup leaders - Dutch Liberal deputy Sophie in 't Veld and Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek - took the opposite view.
"He gets a clear No from me," In 't Veld said. "We do not trust him to work for all EU citizens regardless of their gender and of their sexual orientation," Lunacek noted.
Group leaders are digesting the hearing on Wednesday morning.
But if Cashman's S&D political family votes together with Borg's centre-right EPP faction in plenary next week, the Maltese politician will become the EU's top official on health and consumer affairs.
Civil liberties became a big issue after left-leaning MEPs highlighted that Borg had in the past opposed a Maltese law on housing rights for gay couples.
The issue was toxic enough to send an Italian candidate, Rocco Buttigilione, packing in 2004 when MEPs branded him a homophobe.
For his part, the Roman Catholic Borg told deputies on Tuesday: "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 noted that he steered through a bill to let same-sex couples get legal status in Malta's civil registry and he denied ever making anti-gay remarks, however.
"This [the civil register law] is a big step forward in my view ... I never made disparaging remarks, including one that has been circulated that 'one has to put up with gays.' I never said that. You can check the parliament transcript [in Malta]," he said.
He repeatedly pledged respect for the EU's Charter of Fundamental rights, whose article 21 forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"I shall chart my course on the Charter of Fundamental Rights ... this is something which I cherish," he said.
He also played to left-leaning sensibilities by backing draft commission proposals for gender-based quotas in European companies.
When asked how he feels about genetically-modified food and stem cell research, he said: "I will let science be my guide when making difficult decisions." And he voiced sympathy for animal rights, alternative medicines and HIV sufferers.
Borg's nomination comes after his predecessor, John Dalli, lost his post over allegations that he solicited a bribe from the tobacco industry.
The affair blew up when Dalli finalised his draft of a tobacco-control bill, with some health campaigners worried that his demise was engineered by the tobacco lobby in order to delay the law.
Borg went out on a limb by saying he is against forcing tobacco firms to use plain packaging - a leading provision in Dalli's directive.
"I believe tobacco products should look ... like tobacco products," Borg said.
But he slammed the industry as a killer of young people and promised to get European Commission agreement on his own draft law by January, with adoption by 2014 if MEPs agree.
"The tobacco directive is not dead. Indeed, it is alive and kicking," he said.
"I have checked these dates. I have checked these timetables. And I must say this was endorsed by the President of the commission. This can be delivered," he added.