Last Monday the EU Commissioner for Health, Dr Tonio Borg, paid a visit to the Maltese Centre in Parkville to meet with members of the Maltese community in Melbourne. Dr Borg had last visited as Deputy Prime Minister of Malta in October 2011 prior to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that was held in Perth, Western Australia.
At the Maltese centre Dr Borg was greeted by the MCCV President Professor Maurice Cauchi, Consul General of Malta for Victoria Mr Victor Grech and members of the MCCV Executive.
Dr Borg said that he has been visiting Australia every two years since 2007 and this time his was visiting as EU Commissioner for Health. Sometimes to some people his role may be confusing. He had noticed a certain lack of knowledge about the EU structures and their workings even among the politicians. While his role is different from his previous roles, his experience as a minister has assisted him greatly in carrying out his current role.
Dr Borg explained that an EU Commissioner is basically equivalent to a minister with the important proviso that it is not quite the same because there is no commonwealth of Europe or United States of Europe. EU President Barroso calls it “a federation of sovereign states” which sounds like a contradiction in terms, because when a federation is formed, the member states do not remain sovereign.
Dr Borg said that every EU Commissioner has his or her own portfolio. Each member country nominates one EU Commissioner and the EU President allocates a portfolio to the Commissioners which defines the work that they will be responsible for. In his case, he has been assigned the Health portfolio which also includes food safety.
In the field of food safety, Dr Borg said that he often has issues with Australia that need to be addressed as the EU imports food from Australia and then exports it. He said that he came to Australia to address the international diabetes conference taking place in Melbourne. Diabetes is on the increase everywhere, including Australia. He felt that he needed to attend to give a political impetus to this initiative the aim of which is to ensure that all countries around the world fight this disease. Dr Borg also took this opportunity to meet with both the Australian federal and Victorian state health ministers.
One of the major differences from his previous roles in the Malta government is that his actions as EU Commission will impact 500 million people, the total population of EU member states, and not just 400,000 the population of Malta. So one needs to be even more careful, knowing that one’s work is being scrutinised by a much larger stakeholder group. There are many limitations on what an EU Commissioner can do: for example, there is always the issue of whether control on certain issues should be left with the member states or be handed over to the EU Commission in Brussels. On competition law, control is with Brussels, whereas in health, control is more with the member states.
Dr Borg spoke about an interesting EU Directive that came into effect on 25 October which enables EU citizens who pay employment insurance in an EU country to go to another EU country for medical treatment at their own expense, and then go back to their own country to make a claim for a refund of their expense. The refund will not consist of the whole expense but of an amount that the medical treatment would have cost had it been provided in their own country. This is not a blank cheque and one would need to get prior authorisation from the Health Minister in one’s own country before incurring the expense. So there is a certain procedure that one would need to follow. If the treatment that one requires cannot be provided with a reasonable period, then one would have the right to seek that treatment overseas.
Dr Borg said that the EU member states were not too happy about this, but the Directive was issued to give effect to judgments of the European Court which held that according to its interpretation of the existing laws this right (as now acknowledged in the Directive) already exists. The Directive gave it a framework to give effect to this right of treatment overseas.
Referring to the fight against smoking, Dr Borg said that the target of the EU is to reduce the number of smokers by two percent over the next five years, which means 2.4 million fewer smokers. To achieve this target one has two ways: first is by persuading smokers to stop smoking, which not easy, and second, more importantly, is to prevent those who are tempted to take up smoking not to do so. According to the statistics, 93% take up smoking under the age of 25 years and 70% under the age of 18 years.
Dr Borg said that Australia is at the forefront of this fight with the introduction of plain packaging. This ensures that all cigarette packages are all the same with health warnings and graphic photos of nicotine-infested lungs and other off-putting photos. These measures are effective. The EU will not be introducing but will be increasing pictorial warnings covering a larger percentage of the packet and prohibiting flavoured cigarettes aimed at the younger generations.
Refering to his previous visits, Dr Borg said that every time he visited Australia he tried to bring some good news. In 2007 he had announced the granting of Maltese citizenship to the first generation of Maltese born abroad. In 2009 he had visited with the then President of Malta, Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, and Dr Borg had announced that Maltese citizenship was being extended to subsequent generations of Maltese born overseas. In 2011 he had presented MCCV President Maurice Cauchi with a copy of the draft Bill which was being published in Malta on the same day, establishing the Council for Maltese Living Abroad (CMLA), which was subsequently passed by the Maltese Parliament by unanimous vote later that year. In one of his final activities before becoming EU Commissioner, Dr Borg convened the first meeting of the CMLA that was held in Malta in September 2012.
Dr Borg’s tenure as EU commissioner expires in November 2014.