Tonio Borg | The quintessential Nationalist

RAPHAEL VASSALLO revisits the political career of Tonio Borg: mild-mannered lawyer from Lija; European Commissioner-designate; self-appointed scourge of the ‘liberal elite’; and among the Nationalist Party’s more seasoned generals to boot.

Quintessentially a Nationalist: Tonio Borg. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.
Quintessentially a Nationalist: Tonio Borg. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.

When Charles Mangion fatefully quipped about the 'Nationalist Party DNA' ahead of the 2008 election, he might have had Dr Tonio Borg, LLD, in mind as a prime example.

Even at a cursory glance, the former deputy PN leader immediately ticks off all the right boxes: a lawyer by profession; staunchly conservative (some would say 'extremist') on social/moral issues; a hardliner on the law and order front... all served up with a side order of political savoir-faire, that has turned the soft-spoken and otherwise inconspicuous Lija lawyer into one of the PN's foremost strategic thinkers.

The human rights stuff

Borg's formative years with the PN unfolded in the 'trenches', so to speak - i.e., when the party was in opposition in the turbulent 1980s.

Having graduated from the University of Malta with a law degree in 1979, Borg went on to specialise in human rights, and led the legal charge against the excesses of the 1971-1987 Labour administration.

That, at any rate, is the legend according to the Nationalist Party's take on recent history. Under closer scrutiny, Borg's sorties into the human rights arena turn out to be somewhat smaller in scale than they have recently been reported. He was part of a legal team that represented former 'Il-Banana' editor Charles Demicoli at the European Court of Human Rights: after he had been hauled before Parliament and threatened with prison over a breach of parliamentary privilege.

The ECHR ruling proved instrumental in reforming parliamentary procedure, but the underlying issue of libel as a criminal offence remains unchanged to this day: even though Tonio Borg has been both Home Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the 25 years since that ruling, and has therefore had every opportunity to address this legal anomaly on a permanent basis.

Having said this, Borg's human rights credentials go beyond that one particular case. In 1990 he was appointed a member of the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading treatment; and in that capacity he went on a tour of European prisons, visiting facilities in Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria and beyond.

Ironically, Borg himself would later be the recipient of savagely critical reports drawn up by the same CPT - both with regard to the conditions at Malta's detention centres (for which he was responsible between 2000 and 2008), and also in the Corradino prison.

Cog in the party machine

But if the jury is still out on Tonio Borg's 1980s human rights credentials, his 2004 elevation to deputy PN Leader (and subsequently Leader of the House) allowed for a few lesser known personality traits to come to the fore.

Among these was a natural affinity for the complexities of Malta's Byzantine parliamentary procedure. As House leader, Borg was responsible for setting the agenda for parliamentary discussion, at a time when the House was literally inundated with bills and motions calling for the resignation of various government officials (among other potentially fatal blows to the present administration).

Borg's juggling of these items may not have saved the neck of his own successor Carm Mifsud Bonnici... but he undeniably helped his government to successfully steer through one parliamentary crisis after another: with the upshot that it is still in power today, despite not having enjoyed a clear parliamentary majority since last December.

Borg can take at least part of the credit for this... though his success also came at a personal cost. Among the casualties was his own reputation for political honesty - when he found himself accused of deliberately distorting Labour MP Justyne Caruana's vote on a seminal bill, in order to engineer an artificial situation of 'parity' between the two sides of the House (thereby saving government's face for the umpteenth time).

Scourge of the 'liberal elite'

But Tonio Borg's otherwise pragmatic approach to politics sits uneasily alongside a broader reputation as a rather extreme conservative hard-liner.

Borg has on various occasions crossed swords with Malta's (admittedly tiny) liberal/secular population, and has often been lampooned as 'Monsignor Borg' for his pains. The antagonism has been entirely mutual, too: Borg has been positively scathing in his own attacks on what he himself famously termed (in a 2005 press article) "the liberal elite": accusing his detractors of conspiring against the country's 'fundamental values'; and often implying that their ultimate aim was the introduction of abortion to Malta... a devastating political card to play, in a country where 'female reproductive health' is still widely regarded as an insurmountable taboo.

In fact it was largely on account of his views on abortion that much of this controversy arose in the first place. In 2004, he personally endorsed (and to an extent adopted) an NGO campaign to entrench Malta's abortion ban into the Constitution. This endeavour would ultimately prove unsuccessful, though Borg's sheer determination set alarm bells ringing even among the PN's staunchest allies in the government-friendly press.

For a spell in 2005, Borg's own office at the home affairs ministry doubled up as a campaign headquarters for the Constitutional amendment drive: sending out thousands of personalised letters inviting 'civil society' to approve the initiative.

Admittedly there was no "or else" written anywhere in those letters: but the underlying implications were not lost on Malta's 'liberal elite'. Government (through Tonio Borg) expected endorsement of this initiative... which it duly received, at least from Malta's assorted martial arts federations, ballroom dancing clubs and flower arranging societies, among others.

But the manoeuvre was too strongly reminiscent of a Joseph McCarthy-style witch-hunt, aimed at both flushing pro-choice activists out into the open, and also pre-emptively quashing any future discussion of the abortion issue. Ultimately, Prime Minister felt compelled to step in and tone down Borg's involvement in the project... which would eventually be sheepishly withdrawn.

All that now remains are echoes of Borg's often eyebrow-raising statements from that period. For instance, when he lashed out at 'foreign interference' by European liberals and feminists: "Is [the entrenchment campaign] 'fundamentalist' or 'bizarre', as pro-choice campaigner Emma Bonino recently told a local newspaper keen on publishing her pro-abortion views on this local pro-life initiative?" he wrote in 2005.

In the same article he even attempted to forge a link between abortion and paedophilia: "The abominable crime of paedophilia is universally recognised as a crime punishable with imprisonment in all countries around the globe... Abortion is not. Indeed most countries permit legalised abortion but prohibit paedophilia..."

Nor was such outspokenness on 'moral' issues limited only to abortion. In 2008 Tonio Borg raised the ire of the local gay community, by openly pooh-poohing a suggestion that homosexual couples should be eligible for housing as part of the proposed revision of rent laws in 2008: "That's all we need now, to have to put up with gays, too!" was his stark response to Labour's demands for a more inclusive law.

These and other incidents cemented his personal reputation as a Catholic apologist par excellence. And he would pass up no opportunity to build on that reputation in future: for instance, by leading a cavalry charge to overturn the European Court of Human Rights' verdict in the Italian 'crucifix' case (Lautsi versus Italy), and of course by voting against divorce even after it was approved in a nationwide referendum.

Immigration hard-liner

Nonetheless, the one issue with which Tonio Borg's name is more commonly associated remains irregular immigration, for which he was politically responsible throughout most of his career as home affairs minister. Immediately the same Borg who preached Catholic values surprised many observers by adopting a hardliner approach to this phenomenon: in the form of a policy of forced, indefinite detention that would prove absolutely non-negotiable. It was only following numerous complaints by the CPT that a limit of 18 months' detention was eventually imposed in 2004.

Borg also attained a certain notoriety in 2002, over the forced repatriation of over 200 Eritrean asylum seekers, despite numerous warnings that their lives would be in danger as a result.

When it later emerged that many of the deportees had been imprisoned, tortured and in some cases killed, Borg defended himself by insisting that he had scrupulously adhered to the law throughout proceedings: insinuating in the process that the blame lay with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, for failing to properly flag the danger. 

The deportation was eventually cleared in a magisterial inquiry; but in any case the national mood was decidedly in his favour on this issue... so while his own human rights credentials may have been tarnished, his street-cred with Malta's growing far-right population arguably skyrocketed as a result.

Throughout this period Borg was also responsible for Malta's prison system, the law-courts and the police: and his policies have proved contentious in all three areas. He would adamantly resist and delay the introduction of essential rights to persons in police custody: including the right to legal assistance while under interrogation. Meanwhile, when the recent Josette Bickle trial lifted the lid on an 'institutionalised' drug trafficking operation ensconced within the female section of Malta's prison, Borg's reaction was to simply disclaim all knowledge of the matter. He was almost immediately contradicted by a former prison director, who revealed that the issue of drugs in prison had been regularly discussed at meetings with the minister throughout the time in question.

All these incidents have contributed to a rather contradictory impression of Tonio Borg: on one hand, he is credited with administrative efficiency in party-political matters; yet on the other, he is perceived as rather ineffectual on matters concerning his own responsibilities as Cabinet minister.

Diplomatic diligence

For all this, Tonio Borg has proved a surprisingly versatile politician. And if doubts hover over his stint as minister for justice and home affairs, by all accounts he has made a success of his more recent role as foreign affairs minister since 2008.

Almost immediately, the otherwise inconspicuous portfolio was catapulted into the limelight as a result of last year's Libyan crisis: which necessitated the co-ordination of a large-scale and problematic evacuation. Displaying the same efficiency and procedural calm with which he successfully negotiated Malta's parliamentary labyrinth, Tonio Borg earned widespread international praise for his quiet, low-key but highly incisive response to the crisis.

Raphael, have they tamed your sting?