EU Health Leadership Still Hanging in the Balance

Nov 12, 2012

The Dalli-gate saga continues to preoccupy everyone with an interest in European healthcare policy, and to make headlines even against tough competition from other concerns over the economic fate of Greece, Spain and the euro.

Brussels is now waiting expectantly for the next chapter in the saga, which will be played out over the next couple of weeks in the battle to win acceptance being fought by the candidate to replace the European Union's disgraced and dismissed health commissioner, John Dalli.

On November 13 Tonio Borg, Malta's foreign minister, will face members of the European Parliament with particular expertise in health and consumer affairs. He will have to convince them that he has the skills and experience to take over where his compatriot Dalli left off. The following week, the view formed by those MEPs will be conveyed to the European Parliament as a whole, which will vote on whether to give its approval or not to the nomination.

The auguries are not entirely favourable. It is not just that Borg has virtually no experience of health matters. There are more personal reasons for questioning his suitability for such a sensitive post. "There are a number of concerns about the candidacy of Tonio Borg, notably his views on minorities, women's rights and reproductive health and rights", says the group of Green MEPs in the parliament. They insist "clarification is needed on these issues before the parliament can approve his appointment."

The Greens are expressing politely what many MEPs - and influential health campaigners - have been saying ever since Borg was nominated within days of Dalli's dismissal. Borg has strong - and hostile - views on abortion and on homosexuality. These are the sort of views that saw the parliament trigger rejection of another candidate commissioner in 2004 - Berlusconi's friend and political ally Rocco Buttiglione.

The leader of the Socialist group in the parliament, Hannes Swoboda, said his party intends to question Borg on these issues. “If he is not committed to the values and principles of the EU, including the charter of fundamental rights, then I have no reason to support him,” he has stated.

And Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal MEP, said last week that Borg should not under any circumstances be allowed to become a European commissioner - not because of his ultra-conservatism, or his lack of relevant experience, but because of alleged associations with criminality. Krahmer says that European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was wrong to have accepted Borg as candidate, because there are unanswered questions over a Kazakh citizen who was granted residency in Malta at a time when Kazakhstan was seeking his extradition. "Either Malta withdraws Borg as candidate or Barroso must reject him, even before Borg's hearing in the European Parliament next week," said Krahmer.

Meanwhile, in advance of his hearing, Borg has submitted a written statement to the parliament on his plans and his principles. He says, "An appropriate regulatory framework is of critical importance for certain key sectors of the EU economy, notably food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, cosmetics and consumer protection in general". His emphasis, he says, would include ensuring "proper implementation of the recently adopted laws on pharmaceuticals, and to work together with the Parliament and the Council to pursue the review of the legislation such as on medical devices or clinical trials".

The next few days will reveal whether he will get the chance to do so - or whether the European Union faces months more of uncertainty over its health leadership.