It was stalemate in Brussels tonight in the battle of political wills over the anti-gay commissioner.
Italian Rocco Buttiglione, who thinks homosexuality is a sin, is caught between centre-left Euro-MPs demanding his removal, and centre-right MEPs insisting he is the right man to run Europe’s policies on civil liberties, justice, asylum and immigration.
A tense meeting of European Parliament political chiefs failed to break the deadlock, and European Parliament President Josep Borrell said afterwards it was up to Mr Buttiglione’s boss, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, to make the next move.
Mr Barroso has publicly backed Mr Buttiglione, a staunch centre-right Catholic and close friend of the Pope, and says it is now up to President Borrell to make the next move.
The two men will meet for a showdown in Brussels next week, with a threat to throw out all 25 commissioners hanging over the talks.
Mr Barroso’s Commission team needs formal approval of a majority of Mr Borrell’s team of Euro-MPs in a final confirmation vote in a fortnight.
But the MEPs can only reject them all – they cannot single out Mr Buttiglione alone for the chop.
Tonight the question was whether a majority of MEPs would go for the nuclear option and sack the lot to get at the Italian or suffer Mr Buttiglione’s views on sex, women and asylum to avoid a Commission crisis.
The ability to sack an incoming Commission team is not new, but is generally seen as part of routine muscle-flexing by MEPs who want to be noticed.
This time, however, the threat is real, with even moderate MEPs warning it could happen unless Mr Barroso backs off and removes Mr Buttiglione.
The trouble has been sparked by the Italian’s frank admission during a hearing with MEPs that he thinks homosexuality is a “sin“, but that it should not be a crime, and that he believed the primary role of women is “to have children and be protected by their husbands”.
Mr Borrell made his own views clear on Tuesday: “I don’t think we can have such people in charge of justice – perhaps if he were in charge of beetroots, it wouldn’t be so serious.”
Today, after meeting Parliament’s political leaders, Mr Borrell merely said Parliament’s views on all the Commission nominees were being sent to Mr Barroso.
“It is now up to the Commission President to make an assessment, and I await his views when we meet on October 21,” said Mr Borrell.
“This process isn’t over yet. We are on virgin political ground and we will have to wait to see what happens.
“The rejection of one Commissioner (by MEPs) is not possible, but we have the option of sacking the whole Commission. We have come to no conclusions today. I await my meeting with Mr Barroso.”
The leader of the British Liberal Democrat MEPs Chris Davies insisted there had to be some recognition of the European Parliament’s concerns.
He said: “The ball is in Barroso’s court. We don’t want blood but we do require that our position is respected.
“If he wants to put his head in the sand and suppose that he can ignore the Parliament, he should not be surprised if MEPs vote down the entire Commission.”
Centre-right MEPs have expressed “full confidence” in Mr Buttiglione – but that might not be enough to swing a majority vote.
British Labour MEP Claude Moraes said: “So far we have the Socialists, the Liberal-Democrats, the Greens and other centre-left groupings opposing Mr Buttiglione and indicating a readiness to sack the whole Commission if Mr Barroso does not respond to our demands.
“That makes it a genuine possibility in a majority vote later this month.
“On the other hand most of us do not want to go down that path. We just want Mr Barroso to do as promised, and take note of MEPs’ objections to a particular Commissioner-designate. My betting is Barroso will have to move Buttiglione to a less sensitive portfolio.
Mr Barroso must now balance the wrath of MEPs if he continues to back Mr Buttiglione, against the wrath of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – who sent Mr Buttiglione to Brussels – if he moves him.
“The choice for Mr Barroso is between angering MEPs and risking the implosion of his new Commission team before it starts, or angering Mr Berlusconi and risking bad relations with Rome for years to come,” said one EU official.
“That’s why people like Barroso are paid so much money“.