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Borg was right to sign

In the lead-up to yesterday’s EP vote, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando was all over the media saying he’d never have signed the letter that Tonio Borg sent MEPs. He says it’s humiliating not to be taken at one’s word and he may well know something about that. But I must have missed the reason the media gave for taking its cues about assurances and honour from our man of Mistra.

A significant number of MEPs remained hostile to Tonio Borg for tribal reasons
- Ranier Fsadni

Eddie Fenech Adami and Labour’s George Vella, however, also declared they would not have accepted to give the additional assurance requested by the EP Socialist group. And the Socialists’ subsequent decision to reject Borg anyway might seem to strengthen the case for saying the letter was a step too far.

This column is being written ahead of the vote. But, whichever result we’re living with this morning, I’m convinced that Borg did the right thing.

First, while Malta has been abuzz with talk of humiliation, to date, no one has reported how the request was interpreted in Brussels. My own long-distance soundings turned up nothing about humiliation. On the contrary, in some quarters the letter was interpreted as a creative attempt by some Socialists to get their group out of a pickle.

Borg’s excellent performance at the hearing made it difficult to turn him down without embarrassment. As the Greens’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit declared within his own group, voting against Borg was the wrong thing to do. A significant number of MEPs, however, remained hostile to Borg for tribal reasons. The idea of a letter was devised by people who wanted to see Borg approved not by those who wanted to humiliate him.

The letter could be waved as a ‘concession’ wrested from Borg. It made it easier for some to change their mind if it seemed the facts had changed. Actually, as the letter itself states, all Borg did was reiterate what he’d already said.

Nor was it a matter of his word not being enough. The hearing’s recorded film is as much a document as a letter. However, the written word, in its plain brevity, was more effective in getting hesitant MEPs to focus on what was said. (Whether it was effective enough we know today.)

It’s in the same vein, I think, that the Socialist leader, Hannes Swoboda, declared that he was voting for Borg but keeping him under scrutiny. It was sabre-rattling aimed at coaxing MEPs to vote for Borg even if still unconvinced. In fact, all commissioners are kept under observation. It would be shocking if they weren’t.

It’s been said that the letter wouldn’t have been asked of someone from another member state. This is probably true if its main aim was to address doubts about how Borg would deal with EU policies on abortion. Unlike Borg, all European politicians (other than the Irish) operate in an environment with established abortion laws. Each one has a track record that can be checked.

Indeed, Europe is full of politicians who may think abortion laws are wrong but who still participate in governments duty-bound to see that abortion services are funded, administered, brought to the attention of clients and delivered, in accordance with the law and in fulfilment of the democratic process. That’s what actively supporting the policy means. It does not mean becoming an apostle of abortion rights.

It’s no different from the obligation of the present Nationalist Party-led Government to ensure that, once divorce was legalised, people have equitable access to it.

No anti-divorce minister swallows his convictions by supporting the law.

If, by pledging to actively support EU policy on women’s rights (where abortion rights could be one element among much else) Borg has swallowed his convictions, does this mean that all European ‘pro-life’ politicians are morally precluded from participating in government – or at least from being ministers of health, social services and finance – unless they actively try to restrict the law, funding and services?

If yes, they are destined to belong only to small political parties of opposition.

In fact, Borg stated he would support the policy while also clearly stating, during the hearing, that he would not abandon his beliefs, nor indeed his adherence to the existing treaties, which say abortion laws are of national competence. His insistence on the charter of fundamental rights was motivated mainly to allay misunderstandings of his commitment to non-discrimination but MEPs obviously picked up his additional implication that the charter does not mention abortion as a fundamental right.

That’s exactly why some insist Borg did not go far enough. But to accept EP resolutions as defining de facto EU policy is to grant the EP powers to modify treaties, which it does not have.

Pro-life politicians who say that active support of EU policies means what MEPs want it to mean, rather than what the treaties say, had better be careful. By doing so they are contributing to a climate that weakens the force of those treaties and, thus, sawing off the branch on which Malta’s exceptionality rests.

In writing that letter, Borg suffered no humiliation. He did not compromise his principles. Facing a tight vote, he increased his chances of being approved and reduced the risk of Malta remaining unrepresented in the College of Commissioners for the coming vital weeks if not months – something we should appreciate whichever way the vote went. In signing that letter, he didn’t just avoid doing anything wrong. He did the right thing.

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