Roberta Metsola has not publicly expressed any desire to head the European Commission, but her name was potentially thrown into the arena after her political group leader said she would make a fine president.
Sources told Times of Malta her chances to replace Ursula von der Leyen right now are “remote”, but while it is still early days, Metsola could start to make useful inroads.
The road ahead is arduous however, and her party – the European People’s Party (EPP) – must secure alliances with other groups and be convinced that Metsola is better than incumbent von der Leyen, who is the preferred selection so far should she express interest in a second term.
Furthermore, her future could actually impact Prime Minister Robert Abela.
How does it work?
The three main institutions of the EU are the parliament – currently headed by Metsola, the commission – headed by von der Leyen and the European Council – with Charles Michel at the helm.
MEPs in the parliament and commissioners in the commission serve for a term of five years, which ends next year, when the Europeans will be asked to vote.
After all MEPs are elected, the winning party in parliament pushes forward its choice for president of the EU Commission – known as the spitzenkandidat – simply translated as ‘the lead candidate’ – who is then approved by the heads of states in the European Council. But they can also decide not to approve the spitzenkandidat.
Polls show that the EPP will likely get the majority in the MEP elections, meaning the candidate chosen by party leader Manfred Weber stands a very good chance at becoming commission president.
The commission president is arguably the most powerful person in the EU because it holds executive power.
Speaking to German media last week, Weber mentioned both von der Leyen and Metsola as two very good candidates for the position, and that is when speculation on the Maltese MEP’s future began to make the rounds.
How do the stars need to align?
Metsola could be propelled onto the stage if von der Leyen announces she is not interested in a second term.
There is nothing stopping Brussels from re-appointing her for another term – former president José Manuel Barroso held the seat for two terms between 2004 and 2014 – but she is 64 and she could very well call it a day after her time is up next year.
Publicly, the German official said she has not made up her mind yet, but sources say she is likely interested in serving for a second term.
In that case, Metsola will probably back away. The fact that Metsola is younger – she turned 44 two weeks ago – could make her a more attractive candidate, especially among liberals, but that would hardly push her over the winning line.
For one thing, von der Leyen has executive experience. She served as defence minister in Germany and as commission president, her job is very similar to a prime minister’s.
By comparison, Metsola was never in cabinet and never served as prime minister. While Metsola has one of the top and most powerful jobs in the EU (she is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year term), it is von der Leyen’s team of EU commissioners that makes the executive calls.
Weber was turned down for the commission presidency after the last election.
Despite being the EPP’s choice, the European Council (made up of member states’ prime ministers) felt he would not be the ideal pick because he did not have executive experience. That is when they agreed on nominating von der Leyen to the job.
Von der Leyen also remains the preferred choice because she has the support of the governing party in Germany, whereas Metsola does not.
It would, therefore, be safer for the EPP to go with von der Leyen as its spitzenkandidat, knowing the German government is less likely to oppose the appointment.
But this does not mean Metsola does not stand a chance.
“The fact that Weber mentioned her as a good candidate in the media indicated he has already floated the idea by her and he probably already has an indication that she might accept the job,” one source in Brussels said.
“Otherwise he would not have mentioned her name.”
The EPP will likely announce its spitzenkandidat during the first quarter of next year, and if it is Metsola, then the possibility of her becoming commission president will increase significantly.
Metsola would then spend the months before the election campaigning in several EU countries and would be pushed as the new commission president if her party – the EPP – gets the majority in the MEP elections.
Metsola would then need the final green light from prime ministers in the European Council.
The sources said the EPP is currently forging alliances with the Europe of Conservatives and Reformists party (ECR), which includes Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Fratelli d’Italia.
The EPP will likely also seek support from Emanuel Macron’s liberal party Renew.
If the coalition then decides to appoint Metsola as its spitzenkandidat, her appointment to the presidency would become even more likely, because more heads of state in the European Council would be willing to support the EPP’s choice.
A problem for Robert Abela?
But there is one more person closely eyeing what is happening – and that is Prime Minister Robert Abela.
The closer Metsola inches towards the commission, the more precarious it becomes for the Maltese prime minister. If she manages to get her foot anywhere inside the commission – as president or even as vice-president – Abela would lose his chance of appointing a commissioner from Malta.
Each member state is only allowed one appointee as commissioner, and if Metsola takes a seat in the commission, Abela would lose his chance at appointing someone else.
However, the sources said it would be wise for Abela to accept Metsola’s appointment as commission president because her position would be of utmost benefit for the island.
But that would also spell the end of the road for the front-liners being cited for the post, including Health Minister Chris Fearne.
It would also be the end of the road – at least temporarily – for Metsola to potentially be elected as the PN’s next leader, should a vacancy arise.