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Borg tells MEPs: 'What you see is what you get'

'I shall be independent, objective and above all, European'

Foreign Minister Tonio Borg told MEPs at the opening of his hearing in the European Parliament today that he would be independent, objective and, above all, European.

Dr Borg placed an accent on his European credentials at the opening of his three-hour hearing, pointing out that he had spent the major part of his political life working to take Malta into the EU because he was a firm believer in its values.

The hearing is being held in a packed hall, with some people standing at the back. Those present include Malta's MEPs and Malta's former representative to the EU, Richard Cachia Caruana.

Dr Borg described his portfolio of health and consumer affairs as 'the people's portfolio' since its activities directly affected the people. He said he would use his experience, if appointed, to the maximum benefit of the people.

He promised to cooperate fully with the European Parliament and to be honest and frank with the MEPs, without promising the unattainable.

"I shall be independent, and objective and above all, European," he said.

He also said that science would be his guide when taking difficult decisions.

He was honoured, he said, to enjoy the support of the two political parties in Malta and, he said, he would aim for continuity, rebuilding confidence and giving his full commitment to the completion of the tasks at hand.

TOBACCO DIRECTIVE PRIORITY

In health, he said, his priority was to present a proposal on tobacco products with a high level of consumer protection. "We have the tools, I hope I can count on you to help me finish the job," he said.

He said another challenge was to tackle chronic disease and problems related to ageing including the right of access to healthcare.

Dr Borg also spoke briefly in Maltese, saying he had every intention to protect consumer interests and to make sure that consumer rights were a reality everywhere.

He also promised action on food safety and animal welfare.

The first question Dr Borg faced was on his timetable for the Tobacco Directive.

He said he intended to present the revised proposal in January. In an indirect reference to snus, he added: "Tobacco products must look like tobacco products and taste like tobacco products." 

ABORTION VIEWS

Dr Borg then faced a number of question on his personal views.

Replying about his views on abortion, he said this was a matter of national jurisdiction. As Commissioner, if appointed, he would abide by the EU treaties and charter rights as well as the subsidiarity principle which did not allow the Commission to interfere in these rights.

However, he referred to comments he gave to to The Times in 1998 when asked about a case where a woman went to the UK to have an abortion. He had said that he was against abortion, but legally this woman had done nothing wrong since she had gone to a country which allowed abortion.

Replying to another question, he said he would also abide by all programmes decided by the Commission on stem cell research.

He also stressed, to applause, that he would not be the Maltese Commissioner, but a European Commissioner.

SAME SEX COUPLES

Another MEP criticised Dr Borg for his views on LGBT, abortion and divorce and asked why he should vote for him.

Dr Borg said he was never against regulating relationships outside marriage and had  voted in favour of legal rights and obligations. He denied having passed disparaging remarks on same sex partnerships and said his comments quoted in some quarters regarding rent rights for same sex couples was about retroactive contracts only.

The attack continued, with another MEP asking if his views would be carried forward in his work as commissioner.

Dr Borg said he would chart his course on the charter of human rights.

LGBT RIGHTS

On LGBT rights, Dr Borg said he would work to remove areas of discrimination. For example, he said, when donating blood, people should not be asked whether they were gay, but whether they engaged in risky sexual behaviour. One could be married and still have a risky sexual behaviour, he said.

Replying to another vague question which implied restrictions in Malta on contraception, Dr Borg invited the MEP to come to Malta. "We do not have a campaign against contraception," he said.

He stressed that he had not gone to Brussels to abandon his personal views.

"I am not here to abandon my beliefs; doing so would be hypocritical and you would see right through me," he said. But he would abide by his oath of office where he was bound by the Rules of Collegiality and the rule of subsidiarity.

Therefore he would not interfere in what other countries did. He would be a European Commissioner, he stressed. Malta, he said, had joined the European Union because it had European values.   

Replying to other points, Dr Borg said he was in favour of common rules to avoid conflicts of interest across all EU agencies.

He also said animal cloning for food should be prohibited in the EU.

OLAF INVESTIGATION

Asked on his views on the OLAF investigation on John Dalli, Dr Borg said he had to be prudent. He had worked with Mr Dalli and he hoped he was allowed to defend himself, but that was all that he could say. Furthermore, OLAF could defend itself.

Dr Borg expressed his agreement with proposals for quotas for women on company boards.

Dr Borg stressed that the consumer agenda has to be applied 'across the board' included the right of redress. "Consumer protection should pervade all the pigeon-holes of this structure" he said.

Dr Borg underlined his commitment against unjustified discrimination, pointing out that he had battled discrimination throughout his political and legal careers.

Dr Simon Busuttil praised Dr Borg as a symbol of human rights and European values and questioned him on consumer protection for online purchases. Dr Borg reiterated that the EU needed to tackle misleading information and the need for effective tools for consumer redress.

Dr Louis Grech asked how a holistic package on consumer affairs could be implemented when responsibilities fell under different departments. He said he was personally in favour of collective redress but he had to work with other commissioners. The role of the commissioner was to coordinate with member states on the consumer agenda. 

Replying to other questions, Dr Borg said he supported sensible budget cuts, but one had to be careful in areas such as health.

He also replied on GMOs saying this was a sensitive issue where one had to base himself on firm scientific results. In areas such as this, it was sometimes better to be a step back than a step forward. "I will not rush where angels fear to tread," he said.

Near the end of the hearing, a Swedish MEP again raised the issue of sexual and reproductive rights of women and asked what Dr Borg would do about it.

Dr Borg replied that he would abide by the EU treaties and the treaties excluded such health delivery issues from the EU's control and left them to national controls.

The EU, he said, was not a federation but an organisation of sovereign states. Different commissioners had always said that irrespective of their views these are matters which had to be decided by the member states. 

Concluding, Dr Borg said he wished to persuade all the MEPs said he felt comfortable in the parliament because he was a Parliamentarian. When one felt he was a parliamentarian elected by the people for a purpose, it made a difference. 

He said this hearing was a proper dialogue, It was not a question of being smart or clever, but of being himself. "What you see is what you get, there is no hidden agenda, there is no hidden anything," he said.

He reiterated that if approved, his priorities would be a new Tobacco Directive in January, a directive on animal testing for cosmetics and on animal cloning which respected animal welfare and stronger emphasis on better enforcement of consumer protection law.

See full recording of the hearing at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121113/local/live-meps-question-tonio-borg.445064

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