By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament backed a devout Catholic as EU health commissioner on Wednesday, brushing off critics who fear the Maltese politician could row back on EU policies on stem cell research, abortion and gay rights.
Greens, Liberals and Socialists in the European Parliament had said they would vote against Tonio Borg, a former foreign and justice minister in Malta, saying his beliefs could influence EU policy.
As commissioner, Borg's remit would include access to healthcare and contraception and the control of sexually transmitted diseases.
Borg, who was in Malta on the day of the vote according to an EU Commission official, told EU lawmakers before the vote that his personal views would not affect his role as health commissioner.
"This is a victory of reason over intolerance and ideological partisanship," Richard Seeber, a lawmaker in the parliament's center-right EPP group, said in a statement.
"Tonio Borg's professional competences and his commitment to European values is decisive for us."
The 386-281 vote in parliament is not binding, as the 27 EU member states have final say. Twenty-eight lawmakers abstained.
If the European Council, which represents EU member states, decides to fast-track Borg's appointment, he could take office as early as next week, officials said.
Borg was put forward to replace John Dalli, a Maltese politician who quit in October after an anti-fraud investigation linked him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.
A non-smoker, Borg told an earlier European Parliament hearing that his priority as commissioner would be to get tougher anti-tobacco laws onto the statute book by January.
Earlier drafts of Commission proposals indicate the laws could require larger health warnings on cigarette packets and, possibly, brand-free.
Addressing concerns that he might interfere with funding for stem cell research, Borg told lawmakers at the hearing that he would not jeopardize ongoing or planned projects.
But Borg's opponents remained dissatisfied.
"There are serious reservations surrounding his appointment, as he failed to dispel concerns about his convictions on core moral issues related to his portfolio," said the co-presidents of the Green and European Free Alliance group in the parliament.
"He must now be proactive in promoting policies based on core EU values - such as respect for minorities and women's rights."
(Additional reporting by Sebastian Moffett and Silvia Antonioli)
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