Partisan, petty... purposeful? Why Abela does not congratulate Metsola

What stops the Prime Minister from congratulating Roberta Metsola after being elected First Vice President of the European Parliament last week?

Robert Abela’s inability to rise above the partisan divide by congratulating Roberta Metsola on her appointment as first Vice President of the European Parliament remains inexplicable. But it certainly made the headlines this week.

His steadfastness however contrasted with Labour’s inclusive pitch when led by Joseph Muscat, as was the case when it supported the confirmation of Tonio Borg for European Commissioner before the 2013 election. Yet Abela continues to snub Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola, justifying his failure to offer congratulations for her appointment by citing differences on the golden passport scheme. Metsola immediately reacted, describing Abela as “too weak, too insecure and too blinkered.”

But what has stopped Abela from congratulating her while still flagging disagreements?

Abela is keen on not giving any ground to a PN faction which in the psyche of Labour’s grassroots is associated with the Caruana Galizia legacy

One consistent trait in Robert Abela has been his open hostility to the PN faction associated with former PN leader Simon Busuttil, particularly towards the two MEPs constantly derided in Labour media for “working against Malta” – both Casa and Metsola actively participated in MEP delegations which expressed a damning judgement on the culture of impunity that characterised the Muscat government response to Panamagate and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Significantly, Abela – who is distancing himself from this aspect of Muscat’s government – has not singled out Metsola for her stance on rule of law issues but for her stance on the IIP, which although dubious from an ethical standpoint, is a major generator of revenue for the nation’s coffers and to charities like Puttinu Cares; but also one  that exposes a dependency of welfare services on the sale of passports to oligarchs.

By hitting at Metsola, Abela is keen on driving a wedge between rival PN factions. Just weeks ago in his budget speech, Abela warned Grech that Metsola could do to him what he did to Delia. Yet within the PN, Metsola, who kept a low profile in the PN’s internal battles, enjoys wide support. Her focus on European affairs where she comes across as well-prepared, especially on migration issues, lifts her profile among M.O.R. voters. Surely her ascent in European politics did come with embarrassing compromises, with her dovish position on rule of law in Bulgaria (run by an EPP aligned government) contrasting with her hawkish stance on the same issues in Malta.

Still, nothing stood in the way of Abela congratulating Metsola while still flagging disagreements on issues like the IIP and calling on her to use her new position to further Malta’s interests. This is what government whip Glenn Bedingfield did in parliament, hours after Abela insisted on not congratulating her. Short of Abela being petty-minded and obtuse, his refusal to congratulate Metsola suggests that he is deliberately making a political point by not congratulating the PN MEP.

Abela may want to look firm with Labour partisans while taking substantial steps to distance himself from his predecessor. Not congratulating Metsola gained him points among this intransigent faction on the eve of an imminent cabinet reshuffle

Abela can’t afford to be soft with the Opposition, particularly its most reviled segment, in this critical juncture where the party’s most intransigent elements are increasingly nervous about the fate of former Labour Joseph Muscat and his two closest associates, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, both of which were recently held by the police for questioning.

Metsola, whose gesture of rebuffing an attempt at a handshake by former PM Joseph Muscat during an MEPs’ visit in the December crisis, stands as a powerful symbol of antagonism which increased grassroots hostility towards Metsola. In his balancing act between continuity and change, Abela may well be sacrificing run-of-the-mill political decency to keep Muscat loyalists happy by giving them their pound of flesh. The cost is that such pettiness does not go down well with M.O.R. voters and has only served to build up Metsola’s profile.

Yet Abela’s calculation may be that he can still win favour among these voters by breaking with the cycle of impunity characterising the Muscat days. Abela’s intransigence on Metsola coincides with an impending Cabinet reshuffle which may create ripples inside Labour. Abela’s strategy remains that of emphasising verbal continuity – in this case by behaving in a more divisive way than Muscat – while going further than expected in holding Muscat’s closest allies to account.

It’s a dangerous game for Abela, who not only promised continuity with Muscat, but benefitted from his support in the contest pitting him against Chris Fearne.

Abela may perceive Metsola as a potential future rival

Abela’s budget speech insinuation of a plot by the PN establishment to replace Grech with Metsola after the next election comes across as sheer propaganda, aimed at throwing salt on the PN’s wounds before these heal. But it may also be the case that Abela perceives the MEP candidate as a powerful adversary whose stature may be enhanced by this international appointment.

Still this consideration may not be the primary one, as Abela could still have congratulated her while hitting out at her on other occasions. His failure to congratulate her actually may have backfired, endearing the Nationalist MEP to M.O.R. voters irked by Abela’s impoliteness. Ironically, the spat between Abela and Metsola has eclipsed new PN leader Bernard Grech.

Abela may be wary that Metsola’s international clout will give her more opportunities to embarrass Labour

Metsola’s prestige in European circles may give her added clout in her criticism of government policies like the IIP, even if the charge against the programme is now being led by the liberal group on which Metsola has little influence.

Abela could have thrown the ball in Metsola’s court by congratulating her while asking her not to harm the country’s interests. He could have urged her to push harder on responsibility-sharing in migration in the EU, a bipartisan approach far more effective than Abela’s “full up” mantra which is unlikely to create any ripples at EU level.

In this sense Abela may have lost an opportunity to push for the kind of bipartisan approach on migration, which could win him points, especially in a new global climate where Trumpism is in retreat and where voters are starting to shun divisive politics.