Barroso backs commissioner in 'gay sin' controversy

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The Independent Online

The incoming European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was on a collision course yesterday with MEPs as he backed Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian commissioner designate who described homosexuality as a "sin".

The incoming European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was on a collision course yesterday with MEPs as he backed Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian commissioner designate who described homosexuality as a "sin".

Despite the storm of protest over the comments, and Mr Buttiglione's conservative views on marriage, the Italian government rallied behind him, and one minister described his political enemies as "queers".

On Monday, a key committee of the European Parliament voted by a narrow margin to reject Mr Buttiglione's candidature. The man who nominated him for the post, the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, said that decision smacked of "fundamentalism".

Mirko Tremaglia, the minister for Italians Abroad, said: Unfortunately, Buttiglione has lost. Poor Europe: the queers are in the majority," he said.

Mr Buttiglione, who is a friend of Pope John Paul II, was unrepentant, telling the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero that he "will not prostitute my conscience", and adding "I'm not going to sell [my ideas] short for a post as commissioner". He added: "They praised my cultured background ... But, because I'm a Catholic and a member of Berlusconi's government, they said that I couldn't be commissioner."

The row erupted after Mr Buttiglione's confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, at which he said: "I may think that homosexuality is a sin; this has no effect on politics unless I say that homosexuality is a crime."

The vote by MEPs against the Italian commissioner-designate is non-binding, although the European Parliament can reject the entire team of commissioners en masse. They are unlikely to pursue that "nuclear option", but the row could provoke the first crisis in relations between MEPs and Mr Barroso.

Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, his spokeswoman, said: "Mr Barroso maintains his confidence in the whole team, which of course includes Mr Buttiglione." She added that Mr Barroso will not make any judgement until the process of parliamentary hearings and recommendations has been completed.

The incoming commission president has discretion to offer or reshuffle portfolios. While he will not want to dilute his authority by reshuffling Mr Buttiglione from his sensitive justice and home affairs post, he is under pressure to offer some concessions to show that he has taken MEPs' views on board.

Many of the parties in parliament have condemned the comments, but the leader of the biggest bloc, the centre-right MEPs, Hans-Gert Pöttering, issued a statement defending Mr Buttiglione. Some suspect that his supporters will target a centre-left commissioner.

Though MEPs have not voted against other candidates, there has been criticism of the Czech Republic's Vladimir Spidla, the Netherlands' Neelie Kroes, Latvia's Ingrida Udre, Denmark's Mariann Fischer Boel and the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Laszlo Kovacs.

One possibility is that there will be further assurances of Mr Buttiglione's commitment to fundamental rights, and perhaps a pledge to review his performance at a later date. But if he stays in the job, he faces the prospect of guerrilla warfare when he holds regular consultations with the parliamentary committee that rejected him.

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