Looking at 2018 | What will Joseph Muscat do next?

 Looking at 2018 | He said he will not run for another election, but has Muscat’s plan to take Donald Tusk’s post been rumbled?

Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, overcome political obstacles to  take charge of the body of heads of government. Joseph Muscat could be set to take his post if everything works out in his favour
Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, overcome political obstacles to take charge of the body of heads of government. Joseph Muscat could be set to take his post if everything works out in his favour

Last June, a few days after the Labour Party was re-elected in government with an emphatic victory, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat declared that the election just won would be his last.

While the news caught many by surprise, it was not the first suggestion that Muscat might exit the local political scene sooner rather than later.

In fact, ever since a December 2016 Politico article named Muscat as one of three candidates being considered by the Progressive Alliance of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) to replace European Council President Donald Tusk who was up for re-election in March 2017, the notion that Muscat might not see two legislatures through has seemed more plausible than ever to political observers.

Read also:  Heir apparent, the search for Muscat’s successor

As it turned out, rather than seeking the position for himself, Muscat played an instrumental role in getting Tusk – who hails from the rival European People’s Party (EPP) – elected to a second term.

Following Tusk’s re-election, the Prime Minister’s assertion that he would step down before Malta’s next election seemed to add credence to the belief that some kind of agreement had been reached that would see Muscat succeed Tusk as Council president in return for his efforts.

The socialists taking a stand on the issue of tax avoidance within the EU, and the current negative public perception do not bode well for Muscat

The European Council is the institution that defines the EU’s political direction and its president represents the union on the world stage. The heads of government of each member state collectively make up the Council, and it is their role to elect a president.

Having started his career in Brussels, Muscat has perhaps a better understanding of how the EU and its different institutions function than many politicians. Both at home and abroad, Muscat has adopted a no-nonsense, results-oriented approach to problems, and has earned a reputation for being able to find common ground at the negotiating table.

The fact that Malta currently enjoys record low unemployment and economic growth while the government has reached hitherto unseen levels of efficiency in its day to day functioning, are further additions to his CV.

In order to position himself for the role of European Council president, Muscat could seek to become the socialists’ candidate for European Commission president to eventually replace Jean Claude Juncker when his term expires in May 2019.

The job is unlikely to go to a socialist, given that the EPP will probably retain its majority in the European Parliament, but being named the socialists’ candidate would significantly boost Muscat’s chances as European Council president when the position comes up for grabs a few months down the line.

Having been elected Malta’s Prime Minister in 2013, Muscat has been a member of the council longer than all but nine of its current members, of whom four will face elections between now and 2019.

A further 14 of the current crop of heads of government will also need to be re-elected over the coming two years.

Besides the backing of the European Council, a potential bid for presidency of the institution would also require the support of his party, the S&D, without the support of which Muscat is unlikely to stand a chance, and this is where he could suffer.

Since rumours of Muscat’s European ambitions first emerged, Malta has been through a tumultuous year.

The island’s impressive handling of the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe was overshadowed by successive allegations of corruption and abuse, which culminated when the late Daphne Caruana Galizia claimed that the Panamanian company Egrant Inc. belonged to Muscat’s wife Michelle and was being used to receive kick-backs from corrupt deals.

After going to the polls a year early, the Prime Minister strengthened his position by winning a larger electoral mandate than had ever been seen in Maltese history, and looked set to continue with his programme for the country, which would also have doubled as his European platform.

But when Caruana Galizia, whom he called his “harshest critic”, was brutally assassinated in October 2017, Muscat was faced with protests, accusations and even calls for his resignation from some members of society, including the leader of the Opposition.

While Muscat still enjoys widespread support among the electorate - a MaltaToday survey last week found that more than half of the population had faith in the Prime Minister - it is the sectors of society that have been so vociferous in their criticism of the Muscat administration that will influence how he is perceived in Europe.

Although there was a level of subjectivity to the facts surrounding the Egrant allegations made by Caruana Galizia, the murder of a journalist outside her home is impossible to ignore. The fact that the two happened within months of each other, and that the attack was the sixth car bomb in a 13-month period makes for a convincing narrative, especially when viewed from a distance.

In fact, the European Parliament has held two debates on the situation in Malta since the killing, with one MEP even comparing Malta, albeit unfairly, to Colombia at the height of its war against drug cartels.

In both debates, support from large sections of socialist MEPs was lacking, most notably in the vote on a resolution about the rule of law in Malta. Earlier this month, the S&D even proposed an amendment to the PANA committee’s final report calling on the European Commission to classify Malta as a tax haven.

The socialists taking a stand on the issue of tax avoidance within the EU, and the current negative public perception do not bode well for Muscat, however, he is still a highly respected figure within the S&D and with just under two years to go there is still all to play for.

By 2019, when the Europe’s top jobs will be up for grabs again, the composition of both the European Parliament and European Council could be significantly different than they are today, leaving some room for manoeuvre.

On the domestic front, the outcome of the Caruana Galizia murder investigations, the Egrant and Panama Papers inquiries, as well as Muscat’s relationship with the media and civil society will be crucial if he hopes to rehabilitate his image among a wider European audience.   

With the spotlight firmly on Malta, it will matter little to Europe how long institutional problems have existed if the government doesn’t sufficiently address them in the present circumstances. 

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