Roberta Metsola eyes the prize... farewell to Malta or BRB?

Would Metsola sacrifice her EU standing for a chance to become prime minister as leader of the beleaguered Nationalists? James Debono on the woman that could become too big for Maltese politics...

Roberta Metsola is currently the first Vice President of the European Parliament and is bidding to become the European People's Party's candidate for EP president
Roberta Metsola is currently the first Vice President of the European Parliament and is bidding to become the European People's Party's candidate for EP president

Top-level posts at EU level have forged a number of politicians whose profile and legitimacy were boosted by serving in EU institutions and becoming household names beyond their national constituencies.

In some cases they drifted from national politics to the EU and back home, as is the case with the Polish Donald Tusk, who was first prime minister, then served as President of the European Council, and then returned to the centre of Polish political life to lead Civic Platform, the centrist opposition to right-wing PiS which Tusk dubbed “an evil which rules Poland”.

Similarly, after serving as Italian PM between 1996 and 1998, economist Romano Prodi was appointed President of the European Commission, only to return as the leader of a wide coalition of Christian democratic and left-wing parties to defeat Silvio Berlusconi in 2006. More recently, economist Mario Monti led a technocratic government in Italy after serving as Commissioner; while Mario Draghi now leads another technocratic government after serving as President of the European Central Bank.

Parties have also been hungry for the legitimacy gained by EU politicos: in 1994, the French socialists attempted to persuade Jacques Delors, a former President of the Commission and architect of the Maastricht Treaty, to run for President of France.  Polls showed he had very good chance of defeating Jacques Chirac, but he declined, and his replacement Lionel Jospin was defeated in the 1995 elections. And Michel Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit chief negotiator, is now campaigning to become the centre-right’s presidential candidate.

So if Roberta Metsola does get elected President of the European Parliament, her incredible CV will inevitably boost her stature as the best placed candidate to take on Labour in 2027. But will she follow this trajectory? And what does her new profile mean for the PN and Labour?

The making of a future PN leader

Metsola’s now-iconic refusal to shake hands with disgraced Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in his 2019 meeting with a ‘rule of law’ delegation from the EP, solidified her hawkish credentials and endeared her with a PN sect loyal to the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Also highly symbolic was her expressive body language signifying total boredom during Adrian Delia’s first public speech as PN leader.

Re-elected in the 2019 European elections with a massive 38,000 votes, she has managed to appeal to both sides of the PN divide, as a competent, diligent and sober voice who did not shun Delia entirely. And crucially, she backed down from entering the fray by presenting herself as an alternative to Delia, effectively clearing the way for Bernard Grech, the man best placed to defeat Delia according to internal polls.

If Grech does manage to reduce the gap to Labour in 2022, Metsola can afford to bide her time as EP president before contemplating a return to Malta, fully knowing she could only come back as an aspirant PM and party leader. At 42 with four children still growing up, she can wait to take her chance with the PN at a later stage in life.

But what if Grech fails dismally and Robert Abela wins with an even larger margin than his predecessor? Metsola could face the greatest dilemma - serving in a new EU role while the PN will be voting in a leadership contest mandated by the party statute after the expected defeat. For a politician who has courted EU success, running a party on the brink of extinction, riven by insurmountable factional and ideological divides, this could be too much of a gamble. Yet by not answering the call in the hour of need, it could even spell an end to any local ambitions.

Running the PN would mean she has to redefine a party suffering from a chronic identity problem. Her European experience could mean she will want to articulate a more socially liberal and continental vision. But can she communicate as effectively with the working and lower middle-classes, which the PN needs to recover to have a chance of victory?

Metsola has strayed away from local controversies except for the anti-corruption crusade, revealing little about her ideological inclinations. Pragmatic and ambitious, she even turned a blind eye to the Bulgarian anti-corruption movement, not to alienate Bulgaria’s own EPP government.

A bitter pill for Abela to swallow

If she is elected to the EP as president, Robert Abela will be facing her in every European Council meeting, a situation redolent of the uneasy co-existence of Donald Tusk as Council president and Poland’s right-wing government.

Her European stature will also give legitimacy to any muted criticism she makes of the Labour administration, even if her new post inevitably makes her more cautious. Surely Abela can afford to appear magnanimous in promising his party’s unconditional but inconsequential support to get a Maltese elected to a top European post (while highlighting the contrast with the attitude of PN MEPs towards Labour nominees to European posts).

But Abela cannot afford to repeat his mistake of not congratulating Metsola on her appointment as First Vice-President of the EP in 2020. On that occasion he noted his  “reservations” on Metsola “due to her crusade against the citizenship by investment scheme.”

But with higher stakes this time around, Abela seems keen on rising above partisanship in line with his party’s patriotic stance. And still, Labour MEPs could end up defying the S&D party line to support Metsola, should the socialists insist on putting out their own candidate.

Abela’s greater challenge is justifying his conciliatory stance with the antipathy towards Metsola in his own party’s grassroots. These sentiments were first nurtured by Labour’s media machine, which branded Metsola a “traitor” for taking the national government to task at EU level, something which is the norm in Europe but alien to Maltese culture.

Labour runs a greater risk in giving greater legitimacy to an adversary who could come back to take on Labour in a future election. With Metsola as the face of Malta’s soft power in Europe, Abela will have to thread carefully – possibly even by finally commemorating Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose remembrance will inevitably mark the Metsola presidency.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

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 European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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