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Tonio Borg hearing


Tuesday 13 November 2012

18:30 - At the press conference, I asked Mr. Borg for some clarification on the plain packaging issue. He stressed that it is his personal opinion that member states should not be made to require plain packaging, but that he will not weaken the draft in the pipeline. This to me means that plain packaging is definitely not in the draft, otherwise he wouldn't feel so free to state his personal opinion on it.

18:06 - Borg has just finished his closing address. The consensus in the room seems to be that he performed very well, and he is likely heading for confirmation. Some highlights from his closing speech-

"What you see is what you get. There is no hidden agenda, there is no hidden anything."

"From your questions, I can see this is truly a people's portfolio, this is not discussing general things as we do in foreign affairs."

"In my political career, I have always been an ardent defender and promoter of the European idea both in easy times and in difficult times. And I fully believe in the European values, including those of non-discrimination."

17:55 - Borg is asked again about the Tobacco Products Directive revision. Now he says "I will certainly not weaken the current directive in the pipeline." But before he said he is personally against requiring member states to mandate plain packaging on cigarette packs. So if it's already in there, he will support it even though he personally opposes it? Or, did he just reveal the secret that plain packaging is not in the current draft? It is still being kept closely under wraps by the Commission.

17:35 - A joke Borg made during his declaration of posts he currently holds, about being member of a band club in Malta, has become the comedy touchstone of this hearing. It keeps being brought up, and was just mentioned by a British MEP in such a classically British 'dry wit' kind of way that Borg apparently didn't get that it was a joke. So he responded by saying he would resign his post as honorary member of his band club if it presents a conflict of interest. Apparently band clubs are some kind of popular neighbourhood organisation in Malta, all the Maltese in the room seem to be well acquainted with the concept.

17:30 - The round of questions from the agriculture committee just wrapped up, which was full of potential pitfalls for the nominee. He was asked about the controversial issues of genetically modified crops and animal transport rules. But he avoided saying anything definitive in response. He did say, however, that he thinks the current rules on animal transport are not being followed because he is not aware of any infringement action taken by the Commission on the subject. He floated the idea of equipping animal transport lorries with GPS tracking devices to make sure the rules are being followed.

17:15 - Two issues which have so far not been addressed by any MEP even though they were a large element of the pre-hearing criticism - the corruption allegation involving a Kazakh residency permit and his deportation of Eritrean migrants while home affairs minister in Malta.

17:05 - Big development just now. Borg was asked if the upcoming tobacco products directive should require cigarette packs to have 'plain packaging' - i.e. no brands. He said while the Commission process is secret, his personal view is that member states should be free to require plain packaging or not. In other words, Borg is personally opposed to requiring plain packaging in the Tobacco Products Directive revision.
This is precisely the issue on which the tobacco companies were lobbying so hard. It was under this cloud of tobacco lobbying activity that the previous Maltese health commissioner, John Dalli, was forced to resign.

16:53 - Borg has been asked about whether he would support the anti-discrimination directive proposed by the Commission in 2008 but never passed, which would make discrimination against same-sex couples illegal. He says he will protect article 21 of the treaty, he would for instance fight for same-sex couples to be able to visit their partner in hospital. But he does not explicitly say whether he would support the anti-discrimination directive.

16:50 - Borg has been asked specifically what posts he would have to resign to avoid a conflict of interest. He says his only current positions are Maltese MP and minister. He says he is not a director of any commercial company. "No business interests of any sort." He is also, he jokes, a member of a 'band club' in Malta.
"The moment I became a minister in 1998 I abandoned completely my legal office. I do not receive any payment from it."

16:30 - Borg is asked by German centre-left MEP Evelyne Gebhardt whether he would support Viviane Reding's proposal to establish a quota for women on corporate boards. He doesn't have to answer, but he does anyway - yes. He says the charter of fundamental rights forbids discrimination, but does allow for positive discrimination for an underrepresented group. A surprising answer considering how unpopular that proposal is within this Commission college.

16:15 - The questions are getting more technical now, focusing in on specific issues. It feels as if Borg has passed the test on social issues. None of the MEPs on the left were able to land a knockout punch. The crowd appears to be with Borg as well. No MEP has asked a question on the social issues for the past 15 minutes, and it feels as if they did, they would be greeted by groans by those in the back of the room (despite being scolded by the committee chair earlier).

16:05 - Borg has been asked about conflicts of interest, particularly in light of what happened concerning the previous Maltese commissioner John Dalli. He says the highest standards must be maintained. But the fact that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has so many detractors perhaps means its doing it's job correctly. EFSA has been the subject of conflict of interest allegations.

"The moment EFSA becomes popular I will really become worried," he says. "It is either criticised for being too harsh, or for being too lenient. The truth is somewhere in between."

15:58 - Borg is again asked about his personal beliefs on abortion and gay rights, and whether his defence of the subsidiarity principle is merely a legal defence to shield himself. He responds:

"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."

(While Borg hasn't explicitly disavowed his previously stated views on homosexuality, he also hasn't repeated them here. He has focused his defence on policy actions, and has not said what his personal view is.)

Borg's statement is greeted with applause by the back of the room, which appears to be largely stacked with EPP members but also several from Malta. Borg goes on to say he would defend European values. "In my political life I have always fought for Malta to accede to the EU," he says.

Not just to get funding and aid, but primarily "to anchor Malta to the values of the EU. When a country is in the periphery, it has even more reason to anchor itself to the centre." he says, adding that he also means this politically. "Joining the European Union meant anchoring Malta once and forever to European values."

Once he is finished ENVI Chair Matthias Groote scolds the people at the back for their cheering and jeering, saying "this is not a football match".

15:47 - We just had a rather bizarre exchange about birth control. Dutch Leftist MEP Kartika Liotard asked Borg if he would defend the use of contraception in Malta, which was greeted with jeers from the Maltese in the room. Borg said contraception has never been illegal in Malta, and invited her to visit the country to see what it's like, adding that there are many misconceptions about Malta. He then noted that birth control was once illegal in the US state of Connecticut, but it has never been illegal in Malta. I'm from Connecticut but I have no idea if that's true.

15:40 - The debate has turned to more practical matters. Borg says he wants to wrap up clinical trials during this parliamentary period.

15:30 - British Liberal MEP Chris Davies says Borg's past statements on homosexuality were "distasteful". He asks why he should endorse such views by voting to confirm him. Borg says he never amde disparaging comments, and he points to his recent support for normalising same sex relationships outside of marriage in Malta as an example of the fact that he supports equality. He also points to things he can do as Health Commissioner to demonstrate this, including ending discrimination against gay men in blood donation.

15:25 - Borg is asked early on how his defence of EU human rights, which he promised to defend in his opening remarks, jibes with his past positions on abortion and gay rights. His defence relies chiefly on the subsidiarity principle, that abortion, for instance, is not dealt with at EU level. But he also defends himself against allegations of homophobia. He points to a 14-year old news article where he said that while he personally opposes abortion, it should be legal for someone to go abroad to get one. On gay rights, he points to his support for the legalisation of relationships outside marriage in Malta last year, and his support for a hate crimes bill.

15:15 - Borg's opening statement has just wrapped up. He hit all the main points in his portfolio: tobacco, cloning, animal welfare, etc. He seems to be committing to continue the agenda of his predecessor John Dalli.

15:05 - Borg has begun his opening statement. "I shall be independent and objective, but above all European." He says his number one priority will be to rapidly present an "ambitious proposal" on tobacco products.

15:00 - The Tonio Borg hearing is about to start. Click here for a background of the issues at stake. Watch this space for live updates.

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Observations and comment from European Voice's environment reporter.

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