Socialist MEPs turn up heat on Barroso in 'anti-gay' row


EU COMMISSION: The dispute surrounding the appointment of Mr Rocco Buttiglione as Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner deepened yesterday when the Socialist group of MEPs threatened to reject the entire Commission unless the conservative Italian is moved to a different post.

The leaders of the Socialist group, Mr Martin Schultz, reacted angrily to a statement by the incoming Commission President, Mr José Manuel Barroso, that offered full support to Mr Buttiglione. Mr Schultz said it was unacceptable for Mr Barroso to ignore the views of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, which rejected the Italian commissioner's nomination.

"Our position regarding Mr Buttiglione is well-known: his comments on women and gay people make him entirely unsuited to the role allocated to him by Mr Barroso. You cannot build a Europe for the 21st century based on 19th-century values ... We expect that Mr Barroso will take on board our views when he meets with Parliamentary leaders next week. A change in portfolio responsibilities regarding Mr Buttiglione is the absolute minimum we expect," Mr Schultz said.

Mr Buttiglione's spokesman yesterday denied that the Italian was thinking of withdrawing from the Commission. In a BBC interview yesterday morning, Mr Buttiglione said he would prefer to renounce a job in the Commission than to renounce his Catholic faith.

"There is no doubt, I think, it is better for the European Parliament and for Europe to have a man of conscience, but if I should be discriminated against because I am a Catholic, I prefer to remain a Catholic," he said.

Mr Buttiglione, who has opposed moves to reduce discrimination against gay people, yesterday defended his characterisation of homosexuality as sinful.

"I think that many people are sinners, including myself, and I don't think them to be worse sinners than myself. It is a theological issue and it should not interfere with our policies," he said.

The hardening of opposition towards Mr Buttiglione appears to be in response to Mr Barroso's unswerving approach to the dispute. Liberals and Greens have already indicated that they will reject the entire Commission unless Mr Buttiglione is moved and the Socialists, who are the parliament's second largest group, are now moving in the same direction. The three groups, along with Eurosceptics and the far-Left who are expected to vote against the Commission in any case, are in the majority.

British Labour MEP Ms Arlene McCarthy, warned yesterday that Mr Barroso's high-risk strategy was one he could lose. "The current mood in the group is for rejection," she said.