Witch hunt or due process?
Now that the dust is settling on the nomination of Tonio Borg as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, it is appropriate to look dispassionately at the process of his nomination in the European Parliament, and arrive at a more objective conclusion.
I have the greatest respect for Dr Borg and am confident he will do an excellent job as EU Commissioner. Even if one may have divergences on political and moral issues, that does not have to interfere with a balanced assessment of the question whether such issues were relevant to his appointment or not.
Unfortunately, the reactions in Malta to the European Parliament’s debate have been ill-considered, even if probably motivated by national pride, and show how little we have learned about the way the EU works.
It is pertinent to recall that the European Commission proposes legislation, implements decisions, upholds the Union’s treaties and carries out the day-to-day running. The Commission has often been described as “the only body paid to think European”. In addition to its power of proposal, the Commission acts as guardian of the Treaties, representing the common interest of the EU’s citizens and member states. Though they are proposed by the governments of member states, the commissioners are, however, bound to act independently and be neutral from their governments.
Each Commissioner is required under Article 245 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to give “a solemn undertaking” to respect his obligations under the EU Treaties when entering upon his duties, and this includes respect for fundamental human rights.
Many of those who commented on Dr Borg’s nomination passed disparaging remarks about liberalism, even if some of them showed they have no idea what liberalism is – it is definitely not some set of beliefs concocted by “pigs” as MP Adrian Vassallo seems to believe. It is, however, difficult to define the different shades of liberalism.
In essence, though, liberalism puts the freedom of the individual at the centre. Human rights represent a protected zone for the individual. The State is not based on religion, ethnicity, language or culture. A liberal constitution should concentrate on rules of interaction that maximise freedom, and therefore the power of the State is to be restricted to regulating only those matters where the rights of others are infringed. Those who find fault with this should first think of Magna Carta and the Enlightenment.
Why was it legitimate for many MEPs to question closely Dr Borg on his views regarding certain issues which are close to liberals’ hearts? Precisely because, as a Commissioner, Dr Borg would have influence on, or be directly involved in, decisions that could impinge on the liberal concepts that underpin the European Constitution and the various treaties. As a member of the Commission, he could argue against liberal policies, lobby for “non-liberal” ones, and influence decisions to undermine the EU’s liberal underpinnings.
As far as I know, none of the MEPs who questioned Dr Borg so closely asked him to recant his personal views on abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, divorce and a host of other issues. All they wanted to know, and be assured of, was that he would not allow his personal views on these matters to result in any discrimination against persons because of their sexual orientation or personal behaviour or to impact questions of gender balance.
It was a legitimate concern, even if I personally would go along with Dr Borg on certain issues. The questions were even more pertinent in view of Dr Borg’s abstention on divorce when the majority of Maltese voted in favour of it, and various other declarations that could be construed as anti-liberal.
A considerable number of Maltese felt the MEPs concerned were seeking to impose their liberal views on the Maltese. Not so. Most of them were simply concerned that Dr Borg would not use his office to retract established policies regarding women’s rights and those of homosexuals, amongst others.
Many in Malta thought that, as Commissioner, Dr Borg would somehow represent what they think Malta stands for – a socially conservative, Catholic country – even if that itself is probably no longer what the majority of opinion believes. Wrong. Dr Borg would have been able to do that as a member of the European Council of Ministers, and therefore as a politician and representative of a member state. As Commissioner, he can’t.
Others, like President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami, thought that Dr Borg should have refused to give written commitments to MEPs and considered this “a humiliation”. Why? Are they aware that, in confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court Justices, members of the Senate question nominees very aggressively on human rights matters and previous constitutional rulings, delving into the nominee’s writings or public statements on social, economic, political, legal or constitutional issues? University of Chicago Professor of Law, Elena Kagan, wrote that examination of the nominees’ views on constitutional issues gives the public an opportunity to ascertain the values held by the nominee, and to evaluate whether the nominee possesses the values that the Supreme Court requires.
Similarly, thousands of appointments made by the US President are subject to Senate nomination hearings where appointees are grilled intrusively about personal and family matters, as well as potential political and policy conflicts.
In Malta, we are so alien to proper investigation of candidates for high-profile jobs that we feel there is something wrong when this is done in other countries or institutions.
We pity the nominees concerned and take the view that the investigators have a hidden agenda or ulterior motives. This same white-glove treatment of high-profile officials and politicians, both elected or not, then extends to their absolution from paying the ultimate price by resigning when they or their functionaries fail in their responsibilities. To us, a minister’s resignation because a minor official lost some important files is anathema; in other countries, it is normal.