No mention of Muscat for top EU job in ‘Brussels bubble’ survey

Malta’s PM was once mooted to be aspiring for the post of EU Council president: his name is still not making it to the ‘polls’

Top EU job for Joseph Muscat? The Brussels bubble thinks Dutch PM Mark Rutte is more likely to get the Council presidency
Top EU job for Joseph Muscat? The Brussels bubble thinks Dutch PM Mark Rutte is more likely to get the Council presidency

Over 1,000 members of the so-called ‘EU bubble’ and national civil servants surveyed by think-tank Votewatch, made little or no mention of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as a future leader of the EU institutions.

The survey asked respondents their views on the reallocation of top EU positions in 2019 – the presidencies of the European Commission, Parliament, Council and the European Central Bank.

But the absence of Muscat as a potential EU leader poured some cold water over reports that the Labour leader was vying for a Brussels post when his second term as prime minister ends, having already declared on more than one occasion that he will not contest a third general election.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was considered to be the most likely to get the position in 2019 (25% of respondents), closely followed by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė (20%) – a former European Commissioner.

“Quite interestingly, we have spotted different trends across professional segments of our surveyed population: the respondents from the private sector lean towards Rutte, while the top candidate among the civil servants working in the EU institutions is Grybauskaitė” – and these choices were also split across a West-East geography of respondents.

The liberal Rutte enjoys a strong political profile, having dealt with coalition-building in the fragmented Dutch political landscape, and could earn the support of the centre-right European People’s Party. But so is independent Grybauskaitė close to the EPP as well as Germany and Eastern European member states.

Also named by respondents were EPP prime ministers Leo Varadkar of Ireland (13%), Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (9%), while former Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni could be the choice among the potential S&D candidates (8%).

In other positions, the survey revealed former European Commissioner Michel Barnier, currently the chief negotiator on Brexit, as the favourite for EC boss (37%), as well as the current head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde (13%). Both are French nationals.

According to the “Spitzenkandidaten” process, the leading candidate of the political group winning the EP elections has a strong chance of becoming President of the European Commission – something the European People’s Party is expected to do, while the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) are expected to face damaging losses to minor parties.

Earlier this week, the EPP officially announced that its leader, the German MEP Manfred Weber, will be the lead candidate for the European Commission post – even though there is no guarantee that Weber automatically gets the post if he leads the EPP to victory in the European elections.

The jury is still out on whether French President Emanuel Macron moves closer to the European liberals (ALDE), which might present strong competition to the EPP in 2019, although polling numbers are still much lower than those for the EPP.

‘Bubblers’ saw smaller chances for a centre-left candidate to lead the European Commission, with worsening polling numbers: again, respondents here made no mention of Muscat in the published Votewatch findings, instead suggesting likely spitzenkandidat leaders like EC vice-president Frans Timmermans and the EC’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini.

Powerful Germans

Respondents to the Votewatch survey were evenly divided on the subject of whether German leaders and MEPs enjoy too much influence across the EU landscape.

50% argued that Germans held a fair amount of power at EU level, while 47% are convinced that German influence is over-represented.

“Notably, when excluding the German respondents, the view that ‘Germans are too powerful at the EU level’ becomes majoritarian among the respondents from the remaining countries,” Votewatch said.

“Not surprisingly, we observed strong correlations between the country of origin of the respondents and their views on German power. About 70% of respondents from Southern countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Greece) think that Germans are too powerful, while only 30% of respondents from Germany and Benelux countries agree with this statement.”

EU civil servants were more likely (52%) to say Germans held “too much power”, as did NGOs (49%) and permanent representatives (47%).

Not a bright future for socialists

The S&D was once the largest group in the EP until 1999, but it was eclipsed by the EPP – together these two groups have used their combined numbers to push through compromise solutions and break EU deadlocks.

But this will most likely change in 2019 because of decreasing support for the EPP and S&D combination, possibly taking them below 50% of seats next year.

46% of ‘bubble’ respondents expect that S&D will keep its position as the second largest group in the EP, but more than half of the respondents expect it to become the third, or even the fourth, largest group in the European Parliament in 2019, especially with the recent disappointing electoral results in Italy.

Again, the centre-ground will be determined by any moves Macron will make, where a new group will try to take some S&D members on board, to further diminish socialists’ likelihood to remain a top player after 2019.

In Italy, the 5 Star Movement (M5S) will try to repeat its extraordinary performance in the recent Italian election (32% of votes). But as the eurosceptic right-wing grouping EFDD is likely to collapse with the departure of the British UKIP MEPs, the M5S will consider moving elsewhere, possibly with another eurosceptic group.

Only 13% are willing to bet on a rumoured alliance between Macron and M5S. But the Italians have already been rejected by the ALDE grouping, which could be closer to Macron in European outlook.

How respondents were sampled

The survey was based on one of the biggest samples ever collected from among the EU experts and practitioners, showcasing a plurality of views on what 2019 has in store. The diversity of the respondents’ backgrounds and origins, which included Maltese views, produced a general balance of opinion, and included EU civil servants (36%), private sector experts (25%), academia and think tanks (11%), national governments (10%), NGOs (7%) and mass media (5%). 72% of respondents deal with EU policy-making every day.

While geographical composition was not perfectly balanced (Benelux and Nordic countries are over-represented to the detriment of CEE countries), the population of surveyed experts covers each Member State. The sample somewhat reflects the demographic composition of the EU, with a plurality of German respondents (15%), followed by French ones (12%).

Think-tank Votewatch, however, cautioned that the ‘EU bubble’ was not necessarily representative of the preferences of the overall EU population.

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