Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s aides are telling Labour officials to go slow on a succession plan because he had to decide whether or not to step down, the Times of Malta is informed.
The officials were told decisions were most likely to be made according to the outcome of Saturday’s European election, sources close to the party said.
Insiders told the Times of Malta that, apart from the Malta election results which are expected to be another personal triumph for Dr Muscat, he would be keeping a close eye on the results elsewhere in the EU and the composition of the new European Parliament.
“It is an open secret Dr Muscat has been lobbying within EU circles for a top post. Saturday’s results Europe-wide will be crucial for him to determine his next move,” a senior Labour official said.
Signals were sent to the Cabinet ministers and MEPs who made it obvious they were interested in succeeding Dr Muscat to take it easy, an insider said.
“He may leave come November or, alternatively, he could also announce he will be staying on. After all, many party insiders do not want him to go,” an official said, insisting on anonymity.
One of the most plausible avenues Dr Muscat could be seriously exploring is his own nomination as Malta’s next member of the European Commission.
Five years ago, when Labour in government named its first European commissioner, Dr Muscat acted quickly, using the occasion to carry out a mini-reshuffle in his Cabinet, announcing Karmenu Vella’s nomination in April 2014, months before the European election.
Observers noted this had not happened this time round, fuelling speculation that Dr Muscat might be “keeping the option open for himself”.
The Office of the Prime Minister was asked why the government had not yet announced who would be nominated to sit on the European Commission and if the Prime Minister was interested in the job but no replies were forthcoming at the time of writing.
When asked the same question a few days ago and what would happen after May 25, Dr Muscat only replied that “May 26 will follow May 25”.
All major EU jobs will be up for grabs this November. The European Parliament election will start the process to renew the EU institutions, culminating in a new European Commission, headed by a new president, a new EU Council president, a new European Parliament president and a new foreign policy chief.
The media is rife with speculation that Dr Muscat is mostly interested in replacing Italian Federica Mogherini as the EU’s de facto foreign minister. However, it is unlikely he would refuse the post of European Council president, currently occupied by Polish Donald Tusk, if it were offered to him.
Political observers noted that Dr Muscat’s nomination to, and possible endorsement by the European Parliament of, one of these top jobs in Brussels would be his “perfect exit point” from Maltese politics.
Crucial MEP elections
Saturday’s elections will determine which political groupings and parties in the EU’s political sphere are most relevant.
Apart from the composition of the new Parliament, which will have a determining role in approving the next European Commission, EU leaders will most probably decide on who will take the other top jobs according to the election results.
The parties that fare well, and the respective heads of state and prime ministers sitting on the EU Council, will align their ambitions according to the results.
Thus, it would be crucial for Dr Muscat that the Socialists and their allies, including French President Emanuel Macron’s La République En Marche and the Liberals fare well. It will be even better if the European People’s Party gets a drubbing.
Most likely scenario
So far, it seems the EPP will remain the largest party in the European Parliament, followed by the Socialists, although their numbers will be drastically chipped by populist parties and the Liberals.
In this scenario, the Socialists will most probably be able to secure only one of the EU top posts and this will most likely be either that of the foreign policy chief or president of the European Parliament.
Technically, the European Parliament can vote against Dr Muscat’s nomination and, had it been the present Parliament, that would be the most likely scenario given the negative image both he and his government have in Brussels. However, the new Parliament could adopt a different view.
Also, in the case of the foreign policy chief, which Dr Muscat seems to be eyeing, it is the heads of state and government who make the selection and MEPs normally ‘rubber-stamp’ the decision. The other senior posts also need the approval of MEPs.
“This scenario will be favourable to Dr Muscat as he would have to face Parliament in a pre-determined scenario, which includes the approval of the other positions occupied by members of other political alliances,” the insiders said.
If he fails
Dr Muscat will know by November if he can secure a top EU job or not. If, by testing the waters, he thinks a Brussels job is possible, he would very likely take the plunge and go for it, observers say.
If not, he would most probably make “a major announcement” saying he had decided to stay as Prime Minister for another term “in the interests of Malta”.
A petition launched by Labour activists for him to remain was launched recently.
Prime minister’s chances
EU observers in Brussels do not rule out anything at this stage. Describing Dr Muscat’s possibilities as “ambitious and remote”, they conceded it was still rather early to say.
“Horse-trading between political alliances will take place in late summer and it will be a long, hot one for Dr Muscat if he decided to go for one of the top posts,” an observer noted.
If the Socialists lobby for a top position, their most probable candidates could be either Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez or his Foreign Minister, a former European Parliament president Josep Borrell.
Frans Timmermans, the current Socialist candidate for the Commission presidency, could not be ruled out either, the observers said.
“However, Joseph Muscat could also be the compromise candidate if the heavyweights do not agree,” they said.
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