Europe’s top posts and Muscat’s chances

A look into the crystal ball ahead of tonight’s meeting of EU leaders tries to map out three scenarios for the bloc’s top posts and Joseph Muscat’s chances. Kurt Sansone reports.

It is an open secret that Joseph Muscat harbours ambitions to replace Donald Tusk as European Council president
It is an open secret that Joseph Muscat harbours ambitions to replace Donald Tusk as European Council president

It has been a busy June for Donald Tusk as he worked the telephones with EU leaders in a bid to find common accord on who should fill the EU’s top jobs.

European leaders meet tonight in Brussels after an inconclusive summit a couple of weeks ago to try and agree on the ‘dream team’ that will lead the EU’s various institutions over the next five years.

MaltaToday has spoken to various sources in government and Brussels in an attempt to try and map out the possible permutations being floated in the corridors of power. The three scenarios presented here are by no means the only ones that can develop but as always “anything is possible” in a bloc of 28 countries.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel supports the Spitzenkandidat process which could install Manfred Weber (pictured) as European Commission president
German Chancellor Angela Merkel supports the Spitzenkandidat process which could install Manfred Weber (pictured) as European Commission president

The scenarios do not take into consideration the post of EU ‘foreign minister’, which is often perceived as the least glamorous of the jobs that are up for grabs. The socialists had settled for this post last time around after being muscled out by the EPP in all other positions.

Sources close to the socialists insist that the group want more clout in the next legislative period and are unlikely to settle for the foreign minister post.

The situation is complicated because this race is about stars aligning for a set up that takes into consideration geography, political families, gender representation and the qualities of the candidates.

It is also a power struggle between the “big guns” in the EU – for which read Germany and France.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel yields a lot of power in Brussels and is an avid supporter of the Spitzenkandidat process that could install co-national Manfred Weber as European Commission president.

French President Emmanuel Macron opposes the process, which he claims is undemocratic. It is not clear who Macron wants for the top jobs, but he has struck a deal with the liberals in parliament – the third largest grouping.

The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is negotiating on behalf of the socialists is known to be pushing for a socialist candidate for the Commission’s top job.

Frans Timmermans (pictured) would have to overcome strong opposition from eastern bloc countries were he to become European Commission president
Frans Timmermans (pictured) would have to overcome strong opposition from eastern bloc countries were he to become European Commission president

But there are the geographical blocs that will yield power to varying degrees in the final decision.

These include the Visegrad group of countries made up of Hungary, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party Fidesz was suspended from the European People’s Party, has made it known he does not want Weber to become the next Commission president.

There is also the Southern bloc of countries that met in Malta just over two weeks ago that can have a say in proceedings. Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta have their fair share of combined influence.

But very strong influencers in the process are the Benelux countries – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte having registered some interest in a post for himself.

A number of EU leaders are participating at the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan where most of the horse-trading is being done.

This is a disadvantage for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat since Malta does not participate in the gathering of the most influential countries in the world.

It is an open secret that Muscat harbours the ambition to take up the post of European Council president instead of Tusk.

Malta was the target in a vote by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe this week after it approved a damning report that called for an independent inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. This is something that cannot be ignored.

Within this complex context, the chances of Muscat to clinch a top post are slim, albeit still alive as European leaders head to Brussels for their Sunday evening pow wow.

The permutations

Scenario 1

European Commission – Socialist

European Council – Liberals

European Parliament – EPP

In this scenario the most likely names that emerge as favourites are:

Frans Timmermans – Socialist – Netherlands (Benelux group)

Charles Michel – Liberal – Belgium (Benelux group)

Manfred Weber – EPP – Germany

This would mean a defeat for Merkel, but also for Macron because in this scenario the socialist lead candidate Frans Timmermans would get the Commission while the EPP would get Manfred Weber to preside the parliament.

However, it could be testament to Merkel’s compromising attitude by keeping the Spitzenkandidat process she supports, while ensuring the conservatives retain the top job in parliament.

Timmermans, however, would have to overcome strong opposition from eastern bloc countries, most notably Poland and Hungary.

This scenario would give the Benelux countries two of the top posts after having had already a Commission president from Luxembourg (Jean-Claude Juncker) and a Council president (Herman Van Rompuy) in the past two legislatures. Germany would get a marginal seat with the parliament, which is viewed as the smallest of prizes.

This scenario sees the socialists taking the top job and it is almost 100% certain they will not get any other post. This means Muscat will be out of the equation.

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt could be the alternative to Joseph Muscat for European Council president under one of the possible scenarios
Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt could be the alternative to Joseph Muscat for European Council president under one of the possible scenarios

Scenario 2

European Commission – EPP

European Council – Socialists

European Parliament – Liberals

In this scenario, the most likely names that emerge as favourites are:

Manfred Weber/Michel Barnier/Kristalina Giorgieva – EPP – Germany/France/Bulgaria

Joseph Muscat/Helle Thorning Schmidt – Socialists – Malta/Denmark

Guy Verhofstadt – Liberals – Belgium

Merkel would have made the biggest win as she would have got her candidate to the European Commission. Weber’s choice would depend on how big the opposition to his candidacy is among EU leaders, most notably the French President and the Visegrad group of countries.

This scenario would clear the way for socialists to take the European Council seat. This would limit the choice to only two or three likely socialist candidates, including Muscat and the former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt.

Muscat will be in pole position because he is the most senior socialist prime minister, having under his belt a European election victory with the largest majority of all European parties. Thorning Schmidt has been out of the European Council for five years but the fact that she would tick the ‘female’ box would slightly increase her odds. The Spanish could also push their own candidate, possibly foreign minister Josep Borrell.

Geographically this option seems to provide a reasonable balance.

Another, albeit unlikely scenario, would see Joseph Muscat or Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković getting the European Council presidency post
Another, albeit unlikely scenario, would see Joseph Muscat or Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković getting the European Council presidency post

Scenario 3

European Commission – Liberals

European Council – Socialists/EPP

European Parliament – Socialists/EPP

In this scenario, the most likely names that emerge as favourites are:

Liberals – Margrethe Vestager – Denmark

Socialist – Joseph Muscat – Malta  or  EPP – Andrej Plenkovic – Croatia

Socialist – Frans Timmermans – Netherlands  or  EPP – Manfred Weber – Germany

This is an unlikely scenario since the liberals who are only the third party would take the top post.  However, there is a chance that this would represent the Spitzenkandidat process since Vestager was the liberals’ first choice candidate.

In this set up there is also space for the Socialists and EPP to take one of the top jobs between the Council and the Commission.

If the Socialists take the Council, this would mean that Muscat would be in pole position. If the EPP get the Council than his chances are all but dead.

This option would provide gender representation but would inverse the electoral result giving the smallest party the largest prize.

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