Queen’s gambit: Roberta Metsola courted for European Commission president

As EPP boss flirts with European hard right in build-up to 2024 campaign, Roberta Metsola could be a compromise ‘lead candidate’ for a shot at president of the European Commission

Manfred Weber (centre) thinks getting Italian hard-right party Fratelli d’Italia on board for a 2024 coalition is key to the EPP’s victory, with Roberta Metsola as possible lead candidate and the next president of the European Commission
Manfred Weber (centre) thinks getting Italian hard-right party Fratelli d’Italia on board for a 2024 coalition is key to the EPP’s victory, with Roberta Metsola as possible lead candidate and the next president of the European Commission

Roberta Metsola could be set to become the European People’s Party lead candidate in the 2024 European elections, a key role that could mean she will be tipped for President of the European Commission should the European People’s Party claim victory at the polls.

But that political course is fraught with challenges - for Metsola, for the EPP’s leader Manfred Weber, and possibly for even the Maltese prime minister himself, Robert Abela.

Metsola this week was described by Weber – the EPP’s own lead candidate in 2019 but denied the role of EC boss when Europe’s leaders chose Ursula von der Leyen over him – as one of the centre-right’s “two very capable women in top positions” that could be “excellent frontrunners” for ‘spitzenkandidat’ in 2024.

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Indeed, Metsola might well be Weber’s preferred choice, a factor that also depends on Von der Leyen’s forthcoming decision whether to contest or not. “I see my main task as leading the EPP and facilitating the selection process,” Weber told the German press this week... reminding them how he was denied the top job five years earlier despite the EPP’s victory.

And in selecting Metsola as a possible ‘spitzenkandidat’ for the EPP, Weber is hoping he can guarantee incontrovertible victory by brokering some sort of controversial alliance with the hard right ECR (Europe of Conservatives and Reformists), which hosts Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party Fratelli d’Italia.

That is a path that enrages not only many moderates in the EPP, but also socialists and democrats who feel Europe must keep extremists out. And for someone like Labour prime minister Robert Abela, whose own choice for commissioner in 2024 could be deputy PM Chris Fearne, would an EPP victory with Metsola at the helm force him into a magnanimous concession to instate a Maltese boss of the EU’s executive?

EPP leader Manfred Weber
EPP leader Manfred Weber

Weber’s super-right alliance

It is not just the star power that Metsola commands as the EPP’s rising star and compromise candidate for the liberals of French president Emmanuel Macron, that makes her a prime candidate for head of the European Commission.

By some polling data, the EPP could stand to suffer in the 2024 elections, without as yet taking into account the Qatargate effect on the socialists, largely seen as necessary allies in a ‘grand coalition’ that keeps Europe in the sane hands of moderates and democrats, and as far as possible from extremists.

But the EPP has suffered a downward trend that has them today at 176 MEPs from their 1999 high of 295. That decline might be stemmed, some think, with a tricky compromise deal with the hard right – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which include members like the Italian far-right Fratelli d’Italia, whose leader Giorgia Meloni is Prime Minister of Italy.

The EPP has long been a star in decline: Europe’s major heads of government are not right-wing – take Olaf Scholz in Germany (SPD), Macron in France (LRM), Pedro Sanchez in Spain (PSOE), Antonio Costa in Portugal (PS), or the hard-right Mateusz Morawiecki (PiS) in Poland and of course Meloni (FdL) in Italy. Weber needs to start planning a 2024 campaign that can shore up the EPP’s luck.

It is no surprise that FdL MEPs like Nicola Procaccini are name-dropping Metsola as the kind of spitzenkandidat that would bridge the EPP of Manfred Weber, with the ECR. The Meloni government is a coalition that includes EPP members Forza Italia, and whose ministers include the former President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, a key figure who is also tight with the Maltese Nationalist Party’s luminaries inside Brussels. “Metsola is a bridge figure [with the EPP] at the level of values,” Procaccini told Politico. “She’s a conservative and it comes easily to find in her the point of balance between our group and the EPP.”

Giorgia Meloni (left) with European Parliament president Roberta Metsola
Giorgia Meloni (left) with European Parliament president Roberta Metsola

Just like Italy’s coalition includes minor EPP member parties, so could forthcoming elections in Europe deliver right-wing governments with a combination of both European right-wing groups: in Spain, the Partido Popular (EPP) could have to rely on the populist Vox (ECR); in Sweden, the right-wing Sweden Democrats (ECR) are in a minority government with the Christian Democrats; Greek press reports suggest that the populist right Greek Solution (ECR) could be a last-resort coalition partner of the ruling New Democracy (EPP) after the 2023 elections, to avoid being overthrown by a coalition of progressive forces between leftist Syriza and socialists Pasok.

Weber can now either poach rightwing parties to the EPP, or carve an alliance for 2024 with the ECR.

But striking that kind of a deal would have to overcome opposition from key people like former European Council president Donald Tusk, at war with the Polish hard-right Law and Justice Party (PiS). Tusk wants to win the Polish elections against PiS. He would not accept such an alliance. Even PiS politicians are themselves averse to the EPP, ruling out any form of cooperation.

Not even German CDU-CSU officials have countenanced any possible European alliances with the party that hosts the far-right Alternatif fur Deutschland (Afd).

Donald Tusk
Donald Tusk

Two weeks ago, Manfred Weber met Meloni after the funeral of Pope Benedict in Rome, to further talks on a possible alliance. A key middleman is Meloni’s right-hand man, the minister for EU affairs Raffaele Fitto. The talk of town is of a ‘super-right’ with Metsola as spitzenkandidat, with victory at the 2024 polls meaning there would no longer be any need for compromise with the socialist S&D, the other major European bloc, to instal the next Commission president.

While the socialists and liberals Renew have openly accused the EPP of looking to the right to succour their ailing voter base, Weber has had no qualms in 2022 campaigning for Forza Italia as a minority partner in the far-right Italian coalition, even while at the same time, Metsola’s message to voters remained resolutely pro-Europe and in favour of stronger transatlantic relations, even critical of extremists “who want to destroy Europe” – a dig at FdL.

Metsola remains the more recognisable face for Europe than either of the other two institutional leaders of the bloc. In early 2022, she stole the show immediately after her election by being the first in Ukraine to visit Volydymyr Zelenskyy days after the Russian invasion. Her tour of the European capitals, and even two main interviews in the popular Italian show Che Tempo Che Fa, have cemented this appeal. Her shortcoming is a lack of government experience, and – sources believe – a simmering rivalry with the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who has not yet decided about seeking a second term. That is a decision that Von der Leyen must take by summer 2023, by declaring her candidature for the EP with the Christian-Democrat Union (CDU).

Ursula von der Leyen (right)
Ursula von der Leyen (right)

And in this game of football-like transfers – with Weber hoping to win defectors from the right – there is also talk of attracting right-wing stragglers from the liberal Renew, which today is under the influence of French president Emmanuel Macron. After all, the EPP’s traditional parties such as the Républicains in France, just like Forza Italia in Italy, no longer command the influence they once had.

Even here, Roberta Metsola can be an important factor – Renew backed her nomination for the presidency in the run-off vote, and Metsola fell in line with French demands to uphold the EP’s historic pro-choice position by signing the Simone Veil pact, against all expectations. Ever the career politician, Metsola can only look up.

Progessives sound alert

Europe’s socialists have noted Weber’s overtures to Europe’s nationalists, with the secretary-general of the Party of European Socialists (the European party for the S&D group in the EP) accusing the German MEP of shifting the EPP into a political space that has nothing to do with Christian democratic values.

“He bears responsibility... The alliances he encouraged in Italy and Sweden, and may well promote in Spain too, were not surprising; after all, he was the one defending Viktor Orbán for so many years,” Giacomo Filibeck told Euractiv.com, warning against the ECR getting a greater say in steering the EU’s direction.

Udo Bullmann, a German social democrat MEP from the SPD, told Euractive that Weber was single-minded in his quest to safeguard the EPP’s domination of European politics. “That dominates everything. And to reach that goal, they go way too far... The EPP is about power. It is not about the project of the future,” Bullman warned, likening it to the United States’s Republican Party’s cosying up to the far right. “This attempt did not lead to the dominance of the centre-right elements in the Republican Party, but rather to the defeat of democratic values in this party.”

And to go by the rumours in the Finnish press, it appears that the prospect of a Metsola spitzenkandidat could push the socialists to present Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin as their own lead candidate in the 2024 elections – largely seen as a liberal, untarnished candidate, with a hard line against Russia, who could give the S&D some reprieve following the Qatargate embarrassment. Marin’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) is in coalition with the Centre Party, the Green League, Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party, and could be poised for re-election in April 2023.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin could be a possible spitzenkandidat for the European socialists
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin could be a possible spitzenkandidat for the European socialists

The Malta situation

Even if Metsola had to be crowned the EPP’s spitzenkandidat, the road to European Commission president would be fraught with obstacles.

First up, her absence fronting the Nationalist Party’s campaign in 2024 while she tours the European mainland drumming up support for EPP lists, might weaken the embattled PN’s appeal in an election where they are expected to capitalise on any shortcomings of the Labour Party (an upside for some hopeful candidates for Brussels – less Metsola at home, more room for them on the campaign front).

Whether this looks good for party leader Bernard Grech, with the party having lost its third seat in 2019, is another issue. Metsola’s appeal as outgoing EP president would be crucial in garnering votes from Labour ‘switchers’ or pale-red voters and raise the overall national vote count for the PN – not a mean feat with the party down 60,000 votes in 2019.

Secondly, even if the EPP, or an EPPECR alliance wins the European elections, there is no automatic recognition that the spitzenkandidat gets to be European Commission president. That is a matter negotiated between the prime ministers of Europe in the Council – the same Council that ruled out lead candidate Manfred Weber in 2019 despite the support of German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photos: Ray Attard/Mediatoday)
Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photos: Ray Attard/Mediatoday)

The question would depend on the political composition of the Council of Ministers in 2024, and whether that would have a bearing on Maltese prime minister Robert Abela, whose Labour Party has ruled undefeated since 2013. It is Abela who would have to accept to have Metsola as his own country’s nominee for the Commission, scuppering a potential Labour nomination, his deputy PM and former leadership rival, Chris Fearne.

Leaving aside the kind of grassroots disgust at seeing a Labour leader showing magnanimity to a reviled Nationalist figure (a flipside to the 2009 decision by Nationalist MP Lawrence Gonzi to appoint Abela’s father George as President of the Republic), Abela would have to consider whether a Maltese president of the European Commission offers him any political gains; whether his S&D colleagues are backing the move or turning their backs on compromise with a hard-right backed candidate; and whether a recomposed Council of Ministers with stronger right-wing backing in 2024 would be too influential to oppose.

Abela’s first concern is not Metsola: in 2024 it will be staying on the crest of the wave with a strong showing for Labour in terms of votes. Would he even want to have a Nationalist prime-minister-in-waiting with 10 times his power on EU policy? Or would Metsola be partial to Maltese interests on such matters as the EU’s migration policy?

In the two months that follow the European elections in May, Abela will have a choice to make, and that choice might turn out to be determined by the forces of European politics and the power interests of other political parties.

If a reinvigorated right-wing clinches victory at the European elections, it gets first dibs on the European Commission boss; if that lead candidate is Metsola, Abela has to consider how to extract maximum leverage on such a political ‘concession’.