EU lawmakers challenge Catholic nominee for top health job

Tue Nov 13, 2012 8:37am EST

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* Devout Maltese Catholic nominated for top EU health job

* Borg's views on abortion, homosexuality worry MEPs

By Robin Emmott and Claire Davenport

BRUSSELS, Nov 13 (Reuters) - European lawmakers are challenging Malta's nominee for the EU's top health job because of his contempt for homosexuals and opposition to abortion, after his predecessor quit over an investigation linking him to bribery.

European Greens, Liberals and Socialists, who have spoken out against Tonio Borg, Malta's foreign minister and a devout Catholic, make up half of the parliament. The Conservatives, who are more likely to back him, have just under half of the legislature, with independents making up the rest.

"The question is really to what extent he is willing to openly and publicly disassociate himself from his previous statements," said Franziska Brantner, a Green member of the European Parliament ahead of a non-binding vote on Borg's nomination from 1400 GMT in Brussels.

Borg, who will be at the hearing on Tuesday, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The controversy threatens to further embarrass the European Commission after Malta's previous commissioner John Dalli resigned last month in a tobacco lobbying scandal.

It also casts doubt on selection procedures at the EU executive which places officials in unelected posts that shape regulation across Europe at a time when many Europeans question the Commission's democratic legitimacy.

Borg's personal views matter because the EU health commissioner oversees sensitive policy on issues such as access to healthcare, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and stem cell research, lawmakers and rights groups say.

"The European Union has always been deeply committed to the promotion of human rights... There are serious doubts as to whether Mr Tonio Borg shares this commitment," rights group the European Humanist Federation wrote in a letter on Oct. 30 to the Commission's president Jose Manuel Barroso.

Borg has lobbied against abortion in Malta, a position many EU lawmakers say they cannot accept from a health commissioner.

"THAT'S ALL WE NEED NOW"

Christian groups say Borg is being unfairly targeted for his Catholic faith. Borg, who is also Malta's deputy prime minister, has insisted his views are not extremist and that he champions everyone's right to their own opinions.

His comments from 2009 during a debate in the Maltese parliament on rent laws have caused the most fuss among liberals in Brussels and in Malta. Borg is reported to have said gay couples could not expect to be eligible for social housing.

"That's all we need now. After we've finally decided to limit inheritance to married couples and children, now we are expected to extend this protection to those who decide to go and live with someone of the same sex," Borg is cited saying in 2009, according to an Oct. 29 European Parliament report.

Malta is a conservative country and in June, the tiny island nation of 410,000 inhabitants wanted the Commission to stop funding stem cell research that used human embryos, which is allowed in some EU countries.

Britain is running trials of human embryonic stem cell treatment for a type of blindness called Stargardts disease.

The parliament's decision to reject Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione in 2004, because he said he believed homosexuality was a sin, forced Italy to put forward someone else.

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