Muscat pitches alliance with Emmanuel Macron for 2019 MEP elections

Centre-left leaders mull Macron alliance that could also keep Muscat in running for post of Council president

Macron and Muscat enjoy a very strong personal relationship and a regular dialogue, according to a senior government source
Macron and Muscat enjoy a very strong personal relationship and a regular dialogue, according to a senior government source

Muscat is heading into a meeting of socialist leaders this week in Salzburg which could decide whether a selection of European centre-left parties will be attempting an alliance with French President Emmanuel Macron.

It could well be the decision that spells out the chances for Muscat to seek a European post of influence, possibly at the head of one of the European institutions, after the 2019 elections for MEPs.

Sources in Brussels from both centre-right and centre-left positions of influence who spoke with MaltaToday this week confirmed that Muscat remains “in the running” as a possible candidate to become head of the European Council – even though the factors influencing this choice remain highly complex.

The 2019 elections are widely expected to punish parties from the family of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with the departure of British Labour MEPs after Brexit dealing a further blow to the European centre-left.

But Muscat is one of the leaders who is seeking an alliance with Emmanuel Macron, who has not aligned with any European political group since his resounding victory in 2017.

“Spain, Portugal and also Matteo Renzi’s grouping in the Italian left want to seek an alliance with Macron before the elections,” a highly-placed source told MaltaToday.

“And this week’s discussion is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – when it comes to whether S&D parties should campaign on one platform now, or seek an alliance after the elections. It is a discussion that has divided leaders and has yet to be concluded.”

It is this key difference that is separating party leaders, but also one that impinges upon Muscat’s success to seek a European posting: entering Macron’s slipstream could be beneficial to his chances of the Council post.

Macron’s La République En Marche has already said it will not support any European political group that backs the so-called Spitzenkandidat – the “favoured candidate” process that awards the European Commission presidency to the party that wins the most seats in the European Parliament election. But the S&D is avowedly loyal to the concept.

The centre-right European People’s Party is likely to back the German MEP Manfred Weber, and is already poised to win the 2019 elections. The S&D’s hopefuls are Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Maros Sefcovic.

“In the last 2014 elections, it was a done deal between the two major parties, that after winning the race to become president of the EC – in this case Jean-Claude Juncker for the EPP – the centre-left would get to put in its own man as head of the European Council, in this case Donald Tusk,” a source close to the EPP in Brussels told MaltaToday.

In the coming election, there is a chance that the centre-left is eclipsed by the rising liberal-democrats.

“Despite the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Panama Papers, there is no doubt Muscat is still in the running for the post. When he meets socialists he is building good will. He has asked people for their support. He is seen as having the charisma that befits the role,” the source, a centre-right ally, said.

“The big question is whether the S&D agree that their Spitzenkandidat, given their electoral chances in 2019, gets to be proposed for Council president. In that case, Muscat will have to reveal his hand.”

The disagreement over the Spitzenkandidat process inside the S&D is likely to feature in this week’s meeting in Salzburg. Macron’s own party has already said it does not “wish to engage with anyone who would support the approach of a Spitzenkandidat”, with Macron’s party CEO Christophe Castaner calling it “a real democratic anomaly”.

Castaner has already been working to forge a “progressive force” for the 2019 elections, taking on board Spain’s centrist Ciudadanos party. 

But the S&D and its German leader Udo Bullman are loyal to the Spitzenkandidat. Which is why MaltaToday’s sources said the major difference in opinion inside the S&D between its northern and southern members, hints at Muscat’s own plans to warm up to the French President.

“Macron and Muscat enjoy a very strong personal relationship and a regular dialogue,” a senior source in government said of the two leaders.

“They are both centrists with a progressive agenda, coming from a centre-left base which has not prevented them from luring support from traditional conservative voters back at home. It is a well known fact that they share and discuss ideas ahead of 2019 elections in terms of a broad progressive alliance, as outlined by [Greek PM] Alexis Tsipras this week in Strasbourg, and institutional implications.”

MaltaToday’s other source, a centre-right ally, pointed out that Muscat was “status-building” by proposing ad hoc solutions to immigration feuds together with Macron and Spanish centre-left ally Pedro Sanchez. “In Council conclusions on migration, the Germans won crucial language on concerns with the ‘secondary movements’ of migrants, who register in one EU country and then cross into another. That’s the kind of thing that hurts a country like Malta.”

But the government source refused suggestions that the migration deals were designed to benefit Muscat’s chance of clinching Macron’s favour for the post of Council president.

“The immigration deals are a product of this relationship and their common belief in European solutions, which has proven more effective than isolationist attitudes adopted by others.”

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