Nato post mulled for Ursula von der Leyen keeps rumour mill running on Metsola future

Italian press report that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen could be touted to succeed Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, reopen yet again prospect of the European People’s Party considering Roberta Metsola as its lead candidate

Roberta Metsola with Ursula von der Leyen
Roberta Metsola with Ursula von der Leyen

Rumours that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen could be touted to succeed Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, have reopened yet again the prospect of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) considering Roberta Metsola as its lead candidate.

It is a prospect that lies in a grey area of Brussels gossip and political speculation. But as one of the most high-profile MEPs in recent years, in Malta the future of Metsola is framed as either potential spitzenkandidat for the EPP, or a grand return home to take back the PN in power as leader.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that incumbent European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen could have a ‘plan B’ lined up her own future, to take up the Nato top job, with full backing of home country Germany and US President Joe Biden.

Stoltenberg’s mandate expired last year, and was extended after the start of the war in Ukraine. As former German defence minister, Von der Leyen could be a consensus candidate, but her mandate in Brussels ends in the summer of 2024. And she has yet to commit herself to seek reappointment as EC president, which involves actually running in the European elections of May 2024 as the EPP’s lead candidate, or spitzenkandidat, and clinching the Council’s approval.

The Italian and Brussels press believes EPP leader Manfred Weber has namedropped Roberta Metsola as a potential lead candidate, because she can bridge a broad right-wing coalition that includes the hard-right European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR), with a nod of approval from Italian far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni. Weber’s quest: ensure a resounding victory in the 2024 elections for the EPP, to scotch the need for a consensus candidate at the EC, a proper red rag to socialists, greens and left-wing groups.

Flattering though the prospect might be, aides to Metsola have told MaltaToday that she remains bound – politically – by her position as president of the Parliament that probes the activities of the Commission, not to be seen as entertaining the offer. As the face of the elected body that represents European citizens and which scrutinises all legislation and decision-making bodies in the EU, she cannot actively lobby for such a position. “She has already declared her position on this matter in Dublin,” says one of her close aides – “she is not considering the option.”

Which does not rule out the odds of any last-minute change of plans. Yet unlike previous lead candidates – Luxembourgish PM Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 or German defence minister Von der Leyen in 2019 – never has a sitting EP president ran for re-election under the recent spitzenkandidat process – which is a political race that is not even legally-binding on the European Council, which appoints the Commission.

Indeed, Weber in 2019 was the EPP’s lead candidate, but Europe’s prime ministers rebuffed him and agreed on Von der Leyen as president of the Commission.

And in May 2024 with the European elections underway, Metsola’s mandate would have yet to expire July – an awkward situation where the EPP’s lead candidate is still the EP president but tipped to be Commission boss. Too difficult perhaps, even due to her lack of government experience that is often necessary for elevation to EC president – a decision ultimately taken by the EU’s prime ministers, harder.

Labour insiders want to show they are ruling out the prospect of prime minister Robert Abela approving a Maltese spitzenkandidat from the centre-right as head of the European Commission. But these claims are also part of the playbook on partisan grandstanding – a Maltese at the head of the EC could give Malta the rare privilege to have an early start on major policies often crafted by the Germans and French.

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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