Tonio Borg was confirmed by European lawmakers in Strasbourg today (21 November) but the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group was left divided after its decision to reject the Maltese candidate for the job of EU health Commissioner was ignored by MEPs.

Borg’s confirmation was accepted by 386 MEPs, with 281 voting against and 28 abstentions.

The European People’s Party’s 270 MEPs decided to vote for Borg following his hearing before the Parliament in Brussels last week, leaving the other parties' votes critical to secure a majority.

Both the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), and the Greens/European Free Alliance settled to oppose Borg. At a meeting held on Tuesday evening (20 November), the S&D Group voted 2-1 against confirming Borg, whose conservative views on abortion and gay marriage disquieted delegates.

Worst split for Socialists since nuclear issue

The level of disagreement between MEPs at the meeting left the party’s president, Hannes Swoboda (Austria) no option but to allow them a free vote, since the ballot was held in secret and delegates could otherwise easily have disobeyed the party line.

A parliamentary official told EurActiv that the split had been the worst in the S&D group since the issue of nuclear power revealed deep divisions between lawmakers.

“Usually the S&D group does all it can to remain united, and usually it is one of the most successful groups in this respect,” said the official.

“One of the questions posed by S&D MEPs in favour of Borg was: ‘Who will you find from Malta who is more progressive on the issue of abortion?’” the official added.

French S&D MEPs – who decided separately to vote en bloc against Borg’s confirmation – were agitated by his views on gay cohabitation at a time when there is a push in France to gain further rights for gay cohabitees, the official said.

Borg sailed through a three-hour Parliamentary vetting on 13 November despite repeated questioning about his views on abortion and gay rights by MEPs from the Parliament's committees for the environment, the internal market and agriculture.

>> Read: Malta's Borg sails through parliamentary hearing

Borg’s performance to be scrutinised by opponents

MEPs representing the parties which opposed the confirmation of the Maltese deputy prime minister and foreign minister said that his narrow confirmation called for stringent scrutiny of his performance, to ensure that their concerns were not warranted.

“Having gained a majority of support, he must now be careful not to allow his views to get in the way of rational judgment on sensitive issues of health and reproductive rights,” said ALDE’s Chris Davies (UK).

Davies said ALDE MEPs “will be scrutinising his decisions and statements on these areas very closely”.

“We fought to prevent this outcome, but now we must move on to the job of ensuring he upholds his declarations at parliament's hearing, and adheres to his duty to respect non-discrimination in health and consumer policy, and to defend the treaties,” said German MEP Gabi Zimmer, president of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group.

Borg's approval should now be finalised by the Council in the coming days; he will then be able to take up his post as Commissioner, replacing John Dalli.