Victory for Malta in Europe
Soon after Tonio Borg was proposed as Malta’s next European commissioner, his nomination met with controversy. A number of organisations working both within and outside the European Parliament got wind of certain reports in the Maltese media making reference to incidents in Borg’s long-standing political career that were perceived as being inconsistent with the conduct of a European commissioner.
The truth is that the reported incidents had been taken out of context, were badly translated or conveyed only half-truths that, when clarified, proved to be no impediment at all. Unfortunately, however, the premature launch of an attack against Borg by leftist voices within Parliament made it very difficult for them to backtrack on their initial reactions once these issues were ironed out and the necessary clarifications had been made.
Historically, the European Parliament started off as a consultative body and, over the years, it has been gaining a great deal of power due to its democratic credentials. Members of the European Parliament hence like to flex their muscles and the appointment of a new commissioner is an opportunity to do just that.
Only last month, Yves Mersch, candidate for the executive board of the ECB, was rejected by MEPs in Strasbourg. This was merely a symbolic gesture in reaction to the fact that no female candidates were put forward for the post.
After his nomination, Borg immediately started the unenviable task of gaining thorough knowledge of the subject matter of his portfolio. In addition, coordinated by Simon Busuttil and supported by myself, an intensive lobbying campaign was launched within Parliament.
Such exercises are always necessary but gained particular importance in this case as a concurrent campaign calling for the rejection of Borg’s nomination was in full swing.
All those who met with Borg seemed to have been won over. Many were impressed by his understanding of issues related to his portfolio, even at this early stage.
They also felt assured that he is far from the fundamentalist he was being portrayed as.
Going through this lobbying process allowed Borg to understand the different priorities of MEPs from the various political groups but also to develop a rapport with the members who would be grilling him in the hearing in the days that followed.
Facing a parliamentary hearing is a daunting and potentially humiliating exercise.
Even the set-up of the room seems to be designed for intimidation, with the commissioner-designate on a small school-like desk, his back to the high panel far above him, facing the elevated rows of MEPs prepared to take him to task.
Under normal circumstances, all commissioner-designates undergo the hearing process at the same time. Back in January 2010, when our last commissioner underwent this process, the hearings of the other 26 candidates took place at the same time.
This meant that the focus and the media attention that every single one of them received was somewhat diluted, dimming the likelihood of any commissioner-designate becoming the sacrificial lamb of MEPs.
But on the afternoon of November 13 all eyes were on Borg. Throughout the three-hour long hearing, I felt honestly honoured and incredibly proud to be a Maltese national.
The commissioner-designate proved knowledgeable on the subject matter and handled any questions related to his personal beliefs with intelligence, tact and, occasionally, even with a dash of humour.
Reactions to the hearing were overwhelmingly positive – to the extent that even Borg’s most forceful critics backtracked to a certain degree in the hours that followed. But the statements that had been made previously, as well as the incorrect reports by the media, created a snowball effect that was impossible to reverse.
Despite his stellar performance, the week ahead saw the Liberal and Green parties within Parliament position themselves against Borg’s confirmation.
This was hardly surprising, given the verdict that loud MEPs within these groups had delivered, on the basis of incomplete information, even before the hearing itself.
The hope, however, was that the Socialists would back Borg. After all, it is highly abnormal for a European political group not to support the position taken by the party in the member state. And the Labour Party declared its support for Borg and gave its four MEPs the job of making a case for his confirmation in the interests of the country.
News that the Socialist position would be a “no” came Tuesday late afternoon – only half a day before the scheduled vote in a plenary sitting.
A change of strategy was in order. We, therefore, looked at the numbers and, understanding that every vote would count at this point, we focused on MEPs that we had previously ignored. I have nothing but praise for Busuttil and the way he handled this setback.
Making use of personal connections, we tilted the balance in our favour and, in the case of the EFD (a smaller far right group), for instance, the majority of its MEPs voted to confirm Borg.
The result constitutes a reconfirmation that the European ideal of unity in diversity holds true and, more importantly, it is a victory for Malta as we demonstrated that, despite not being among the large member states, we can still overcome potentially insurmountable hurdles.
Hats off to Busuttil for his efforts throughout the preparation phase and for his strategic intuition when all seemed lost.
I would also like to mention our political advisers – Andrew Formosa from my office and Jan Micallef from Busuttil’s – whose expertise and support make our work a whole lot more manageable affair.
David Casa is a Nationalist MEP.