Barrosso resists pressure over Buttiglione
The incoming Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, will today seek to head-off a disastrous parliamentary vote of no-confidence in his team of Commissioners by offering fresh pledges on anti-discrimination measures.
But Mr Barroso will resist pressure to reshuffle Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian Commissioner-designate for justice and home affairs, who infuriated Euro-MPs by describing homosexuality as "a sin".
When he addresses MEPs this morning Mr Barroso will stress that he has taken personal charge of efforts to root out discrimination - an area for which Mr Buttiglione is partly responsible - and may offer an new action programme or legislation.
Peter Mandelson, Britain's Commissioner-designate and an ally of the new Commission president, said: "My sense is that Mr Barroso is heading towards an understanding with the European Parliament. He understands their concerns and wants to be responsive but he cannot start reconstructing his Commission.
"It is unreasonable to expect him to do so. Both sides have a responsibility to help each other to fund a way out of this dispute and I feel confidence that this will happen."
Hopes that an unprecedented crisis can be avoided were raised yesterday by Graham Watson, leader of the 88-strong Alliance of Liberal Democrats in Europe, which is likely to prove pivotal in deciding the outcome of the vote.
Mr Watson said his group realised that Mr Barroso has limited room for manoeuvre, and left the door open for a compromise.
He argued: "There may be things he [Mr Barroso] can do short of moving Mr Buttiglione which will convince us that this Commission is committed to the active promotion of fundamental rights in the European Union."
Last week the incoming Commission president promised to set up a supervisory committee to oversee Mr Buttiglione?s work on fundamental rights. But he also sought to avoid causing offence in Rome by saying that there was no change to Mr Buttiglione?s responsibilities, and minimising his own role.
With socialists, Liberal Democrats and Green MEPs threatening to vote against him, Mr Barroso knows he needs to change his rhetoric, and may also offer to propose a new anti-discrimination directive.
Officials said that negotiations were still ongoing about new concessions that could be offered. They are reluctant to take away all Mr Buttiglione's competences on fundamental rights because that would mean his dossier would focus exclusively on "repressive", without any libertarian counterbalance.
With the vote in the parliament too close to call, it remains unclear whether Mr Barroso's reassurances will be sufficient. Yesterday the outgoing Commission president, Romano Prodi, said that he would be willing to act as a caretaker if MEPs refused to approve Mr Barroso's team on Wednesday.
"I really hole it will not be the case," said Mr Prodi who added: "we are ready for any emergency."
The crisis was sparked when Mr Buttiglione, who is a close friend of Pope John Paul, told a committee of the parliament that, while gays should not suffer discrimination, he considers homosexuality "a sin". He also said marriage existed "to enable women to have children and to have the protection of a man".
The parliament's civil liberties committee voted to reject his candidature, but that decision was non-binding. However, while MEPs cannot block an individual, they can vote down the entire Commission.
Mr Barroso said yesterday that it was important for Europe to avoid a "power vacuum" and said he is confident of winning MEPs' support.
But the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, suggested more concessions may be needed to secure a 'yes' vote. He told the French daily, Les Echos: "You don't have to possess divine powers to imagine that if the president [of the Commission, Mr Barroso] does not draw any lessons from this episode the vote will be very close.
All possibilities are open."
Yesterday the gay rights group Outrage! issued a dossier of comments from Mr Buttiglione. In it he is quoted as saying in 2001: "All are free to call me a bigot and intolerant, but I very freely define homosexual behaviour as an indicator of moral disorder."
In another quotation, dated 1989, Mr Buttiglione is cited as saying that AIDS is "divine punishment for homosexuality and drug use."