By Robin Emmott and Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European lawmakers challenged Malta's nominee for the EU's top health job on Tuesday 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 make up half the parliament, spoke out against Tonio Borg, Malta's foreign minister and a devout Catholic who has lobbied against abortion in his home country.
"I don't doubt your ability but I do question your views," British Liberal Democrat Chris Davies told Borg during a three-hour hearing on his nomination.
A 50-strong group of EU lawmakers pressed Borg for at least an hour to either defend his views on abortion and homosexuality or repeal them. They will cast a non-binding vote on Borg's nomination by secret ballot next week.
Borg avoided being drawn. "These are matters to be exclusively decided by member states. It has been the standard answer and that will be my standard answer," he added.
Conservatives, who are likely to back Borg's nomination, make up a little less than half the parliament, with independents holding the remaining seats.
The controversy threatens to further embarrass the European Commission after the previous health commissioner, Malta's 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.
At least one rights group, the European Humanist Federation, has written to the Commission's president Jose Manuel Barroso to protest Borg's nomination.
In 2004, the parliament's decision to reject Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, who said he believed homosexuality was a sin, forced Italy to put forward someone else for the post of justice 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 property 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 October 29 European Parliament report.
Malta is a conservative country and in June the island nation said it wanted the Commission to stop funding stem cell research using human embryos, which is allowed in some EU countries.
The former commissioner Dalli was questioned by police in Malta on Tuesday, local media reported, over the tobacco corruption scandal which forced his resignation.
(Additional reporting by Christopher Scicluna in Malta; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Rosalind Russell)