Europe’s outgoing Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs tonight backed anti-gay Italian Rocco Buttiglione to take over the job as planned and not step down because of his personal views.
Portuguese Socialist Antonio Vitorino said he did not agree with the anti-gay opinions of the staunch Catholic Italian right-winger, but said personal moral beliefs should not interfere with the Commission’s handling of issues of fundamental rights and civil liberties.
The support came after Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso moved to quell a European Parliament rebellion against his new Commission team because of Mr Buttiglione’s views.
The Italian has condemned homosexuality as a “sin”, described women’s primary role as having children and being protected by the male, and attacked single mothers as “not very good people”.
Despite that, Mr Barroso resisted centre-left European Parliament pressure to move him to a less sensitive job than dealing with justice, civil liberties and fundamental rights.
Mr Barroso told talks with MEP leaders that Mr Buttiglione was entitled to his views and was staying.
It was for all the Commissioners to agree on policy, and the personal views of just one member of the group had no effect on policy: “There may be 25 opinions, but there is only one policy,” he said.
However, he said he was now “raising the profile” of civil liberties and fundamental rights issues within the Commission by setting up an inner core of Commissioners to tackle them, overseen by Mr Barroso himself.
The concession did not go far enough for many MEPs who tonight were still threatening to use their “nuclear option” next week and vote down the entire incoming Commission team just a few days before they take office.
Without the ability to pick off just one of the 25, many say they are prepared to trigger a full-scale crisis by booting out the lot just to get rid of Mr Buttiglione.
But centre-right MEPs said they would vote “solidly” for Mr Barroso’s selected Commissioner, including the outspoken Italian.
The fact that Mr Buttiglione predecessor has now thrown his weight behind Mr Buttiglione may discourage some centre-left MEPs from taking drastic action in next Wednesday’s vote.
Mr Vitorino issued a statement saying he was in total agreement with Mr Barroso’s opinion “that personal moral beliefs should not interfere in the definition of the Commission’s policy in the area of fundamental rights which will ultimately be the responsibility of the entire Commission under the personal leadership of President Barroso.”
Mr Vitorino added: “In spite of not sharing the personal beliefs of Rocco Buttiglione on anti-discrimination, I consider that, in the overall framework defined by President Barroso, it will be possible to pursue the project of a European area of freedom, security and justice as stated in the Treaties.”
Tonight, Socialists, Greens and other centre-left groups in the European Parliament were lining up to say “no” to the Commission team in next week’s vote. But the centre-right were firmly backing the team and the Liberal Democrats were keeping their powder dry until next week.
That makes the likely outcome too close to call, with the Liberal Democrats’ decision crucial.
Leader of the British Labour MEPs Gary Titley said Mr Barroso had not done enough to take account of Euro-MPs’ views: “He has to take the Parliament seriously on this matter and I am disappointed that he does not seem to be doing so.
"Mr Buttiglione has to be moved to a less sensitive political area or replaced altogether.”
British Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson said: “We regret that Mr Barroso has not followed our advice to move Mr Buttiglione. Nonetheless Mr Barroso’s proposals show that he has listened to Parliament’s concerns and is prepared to act on them.
"The Parliament expressed serious concerns and today we got a serious answer. When we meet in Strasbourg next Monday night we will discuss our response.”
Fellow Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford MEP, said the compromise put forward by Mr Barroso was “an inadequate and unacceptable non-solution”.
But Centre-right leader Hans-Gert Poettering said the changes offered by Mr Barroso, and the wider responsibility planned for policies on fundamental rights ands civil liberties, were guarantee enough of the Commission’s accountability.
Michael Cashman, British Labour MEP for the West Midlands and a member of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said: “Buttiglione does not have the confidence of the majority of MEPs.
"Unless there are major changes, and Buttiglione is moved, it is very likely that the entire Commission will be voted down.
“Mr Barroso is making a serious miscalculation if he thinks that MEPs are going to go away or back down. Together with the Greens and Liberals, the Party of European Socialists is determined to see this through unless Barroso moves quickly.
“I have never known a major political group so determined as the Party of European Socialists is over this issue.
“Barroso promised to work with the European Parliament and, at the moment, it looks like he is going to fall at the first hurdle. He has to listen to MEPs, even when they disagree with him. If he doesn’t, then he’ll find that his whole Commission voted down.”