The man who once derided the 'liberal elite' of Malta has overcome a liberal backlash from inside the European Parliament, to become the EU's commissioner for health and consumer policy.
Tonio Borg's controversial nomination was approved by secret ballot in Strasbourg at 12:30pm today Wednesday, with 386 votes in favour and 281 votes against and 28 abstentions.
Borg overcame general opposition from gay rights groups, liberals, green MEPs, and left-wing MEPs who at the last minute appeared bolstered by an announcement from the EP's socialists' group that it was calling for a rejection of Borg as commissioner.
His grilling a week before was followed by a request from the public health committee that he gives further guarantees on seven items, to which Borg - whose conservative views on same-sex rights, abortion, and divorce hit the wrong note inside Brussels - acquiesced with a public letter to all MEPs.
"I thank everyone who supported my nomination. It was a difficult decision but it would be unfair to say otherwise," Borg told MaltaToday shortly after his official approval by MEPs.
"Many said I did well during the hearing. I would like to thank the Prime Minister and Opposition leader that, despite the pressure against my nomination, they always supported and believed in my nomination. I also thank [Maltese MEPs] Louis Grech, Edward Scicluna, John Attard Montalto, Joseph Cuschieri, Simon Busuttil and David Casa for their support."
Borg also said that the fact his nomination was approved showed that not all MEPs believed in certain misconceptions about Malta, which by extension of his nomination was painted as a backwards island in the grip of conservative forces.
"This vote shows that Malta can have certain opinions but it doesn't mean that they do not accept our opinions. It shows the maturity of MEPs who didn't base their vote on hearsay and misconceptions but accepted Malta as a modern country with its beliefs."
Borg said nobody was expecting a full vote in his favour - his nomination had to be approved by a simple majority of the 754 MEPs - but said that he wanted to bridge with those MEPs who voted against him.
"I want to meet with those groups who expressed reservations. Because at the end of the day I have to work with the European Parliament as no law can be approved without its consent. And I am ready to work with them."
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi expressed his satisfaction at the EP vote. "Borg showed himself to be competent, a man of integrity, and a serious choice. He will honour Malta."
One of his most vocal supporters, MEP Simon Busuttil tweeted: "WE DID IT! Well done Tonio Borg. I am proud to be Maltese. I am proud to be European!"
The chairman of the European People's Party, Joseph Daul, said Borg's approval was a victory for common sense.
"His professional record, his convincing presentation during the European Parliament's hearing and his personal engagement qualify him to take up such an important post. I am happy that common sense has prevailed over the double standards of those who used ideological narrow-mindedness to attack the candidate."
Richard Seeber MEP, the EPP group coordinator in the public health committee said: "This is a victory of reason over intolerance and ideological partisanship. Tonio Borg's professional competences and his commitment to European values is decisive for us."
Borg's Nationalist Party said his approval had made Malta proud. "Borg convinced the EP that he was a competent person of integrity, a man of principle. He had a difficult exam to face, but he never succumbed to pressure or gave up on his principles. He is an assiduous defender of human rights, a convinced European,” the PN said.
In Malta, the Labour Party congratulated Borg on his appointment as European Commissioner. Labour said that while Borg's nomination had been "problematic", as Opposition leader Joseph Muscat had stated at the outset, the PL had supported Borg's nomination in the national interest.
Labour said its MEPs played a major role in seeing that a minority within the Socialist and Democrats group votes in favour of Tonio Borg. "The votes of this minority turned out to be decisive. It was not easy for the PL to support Borg, as it could have easily hindered the nomination just to score political points. But these kind of games are not the politics we believe in. Instead we chose to safeguard the national interest."
Soon after his approval, the S&D leader Hannes Swoboda tweeted: "We respect the majority vote. Now it is up to #BorgEU to win broad support through his actions."
On the other hand, Green MEP for Luxembourg Claude Turmes pointed out that Borg had received a weak majority, in a tweet:
"#BorgEU: Very weak majority for Borg as EU Commissioner in EP (386/281). Voted against. No to homophobic and ultraright commissioner!"
Malta's Green Party, Alternattiva Demokratika said the European Union had voted for another "conservative" Commissioner as it urged Borg to promote European values and principles.
"The approval of Tonio Borg means that the European Commission will have another conservative commissioner, which, in turn reflects the conservative majority in the European parliament," AD chairperson Michael Briguglio said.
He said that AD had opposed Borg's nomination from the very beginning because of his position on LGBT rights, his decisions on migration and his parliamentary vote against divorce despite the result of Malta's referendum were problematic.
"In a democracy, Tonio Borg is entitled to his beliefs, but we hope that the controversy surrounding his approval will lead to action on his part which respects basic European values and principles," Briguglio added.
On the other hand, AD's spokesman for the EU Arnold Cassola said that Malta and its citizens were subject to "humiliating treatment" because of the choice of "a controversial and problematic candidate", nominated by the Prime Minister and supported by the leader of the Opposition. "All this because of their limited egoistic party interests," Cassola said as he insisted that in the furture, Malta needs to nominate a "consensual non-divisive candidate, who respects European values."
"Malta now needs to make up for the severe damage caused to its image during the past four weeks," Cassola added.
The Alliance of Liberal Democats said that now that Borg had gained a majority of support in the House, "he must now be careful not to allow his views to get in the way of rational judgment on sensitive issues of health and reproductive rights."
Liberal MEP Chris Davies said: "We recognise that Dr Borg gave a professional performance at his hearing and we have no reason to doubt that he is competent and able. However, his views on homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and the scientific use of tissues and cells have been well reported and, while he stated his opposition to discrimination and support for human rights, Dr Borg made no attempt to deny his opinions on social issues of great importance. The health portfolio embraces a range of issues where impartiality is crucial. and we are not assured that the necessary impartiality would prevail. Accordingly we withheld our support for the confirmation of the Commissioner-designate with regard to the particular portfolio for which he has been nominated. If he remains in charge of public health we will be scrutinising his decisions and statements on these areas very closely."