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Horses for EU courses

Last month’s European Parliament (EP) election result – its meaning for Europe – has often been interpreted wrongly. One consequence: failing to understand just why Joseph Muscat only has a very long shot at one of the top posts, while not having a bad chance of being voted in as EU Commissioner, despite the EP’s cross-party criticism.

The election has been widely interpreted as containing the right-wing nationalist vote. The right-wing grouping, Identity and Democracy, is only the fifth largest, trailing even the Greens. But that’s hardly the whole picture.

The full meaning of this year’s result lies in the degree to which right-wing populism, running nationalist campaigns, has infiltrated the mainstream groupings.

The European Conservatives and Reformists, the sixth largest grouping, are now barely a mainstream group. Originally founded at the behest of Britain’s Tories, today they include the right-wing nationalist Brethren of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Sweden Democrats.

But the infiltration can also be found in the supposedly centrist groupings: the European People’s Party (EPP), the liberal group Reform Europe (RE), and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

The EPP has Hungary’s Fidesz, whose leader, Viktor Orbán, rails against liberal democracy. Although Fidesz is currently suspended from the EPP, its seats boost the EPP total.

The liberals have the Czech party, ANO 2011, whose leader, Andrej Babiš, is currently defying an EU audit and resisting a criminal investigation. Prague is on the verge of seeing the biggest public protests in three decades of democracy.

And the Socialists have Malta’s own Labour Party.

No, that’s not me gratuitously throwing the name into the mix. It’s the Financial Times. Plus a media-prominent academic expert on European affairs, who tweeted out Muscat’s name while commenting on what he calls Europe’s pet autocrats.

Just before the EP vote, the Financial Times Magazine carried an article called, ‘Can Europe Solve Its Autocrat Problem?’ Its subheading: ‘A union built to protect democracy faces authoritarian creep.’ (That’s ‘creep’ as a verb, not as a description of a political leader.)

The article was mainly about the problems posed by the likes of Hungary, Poland, Romania and Italy. But in interviewing Frans Timmermans, the Socialist candidate for European Commission President, the FT asked about his visit to Malta. Timmermans got defensive: “Timmermans insists he raised all the issues pertaining to the rule of law [and] the prosecution of the murderers of Daphne Caruana Galizia”.

But it’s not just the FT. Daniel Kelemen is a US-based academic, who holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University, and whose views are often sought by the media. Just this week he conducted a public exchange on Twitter with Reinhard Bütikofer, a leading German Green MEP.

Here’s what Kelemen tweeted to the world about Joseph Muscat:

“And re: Babiš and Muscat, it would be great if Europarties would demand of one another (as condition of coalition) that each drop its most problematic national member Parties. I would note that Greens are the most principled party in that (to my knowledge) they have no pet autocrats.”

Unfair? That’s beside the point. Just note how casually Muscat is paired with Babiš, and how defensive Timmermans gets about urging a vote for Muscat in Malta.

That’s the context of the horse-trading for the top EU posts. Muscat’s chances were always slim, given that he comes from the smallest Member State. They got slimmer with the excellent EP performance put in by the Spanish Socialists since, by boosting the weight of the S&D, they strengthened their claims for one of the posts.

But Muscat was always going to find it difficult. Europe’s mainstream political parties are aware that populist nationalism isn’t just baying at the gates; it has representatives embedded within. The last thing they want to do is draw more attention to their problematic members, given that some of the leading media organisations are already asking pesky questions.

That said, the same factors that minimise Muscat’s chances for a top job also bolster his chances of getting a Commissioner post without being botched by the European Parliament.

It is true that Muscat has attracted strong cross-party criticism in the EP. But posts for Commissioner are agreed as part of a package between the main groupings. Precisely because the top three groups each have problematic members, they will not turn on each other. The Greens are still free to vote on principle, but they are also eyeing the Presidency of the EP and the environment portfolio in the Commission.

Whatever happens to the top jobs, do not count Muscat out for the Commission. Would he want it? I don’t read minds. But all former Prime Ministers are automatically ranked as Vice-Presidents of the Commission.

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