So, there you have it. Roberta Metsola has won the race for parliament presidential candidature by a landslide. She is now expected to secure the highest-ranking European role for a Maltese politician. Such an achievement by one of Malta’s daughters should be lauded and praised.
But, apart from the lauding and the praise, this turn of events should also be analysed and dissected in order to properly underline the consequences – positive and negative – that such a scenario now gives our country for the next two and a half years.
Is it a done deal?
Firstly, one must ask, is this a done deal? Will Metsola actually be voted in as the President of the European Parliament? Metsola’s rise to the Parliament presidency would be a major shift for the EPP and Parliament itself, where powerful positions typically have gone to MEPs from big countries like Germany, Spain or Poland.
Last month, the President of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, announced he would backtrack from an initial plan to run as European Parliament president himself. Instead, he secured his re-election as group leader and announced he would also seek to become president of the EPP’s pan-European political operation next April, when current EPP President Donald Tusk’s term ends.
Weber’s decision to seek the dual-hat role — coming two years after failing to be elected European Commission president — was seen by some as a further attempt to keep control of the EPP, and by others as a stepping stone to seek the Commission presidency again.
“Weber does not have the courage to run for the Parliament presidency,” a senior Parliament official was quoted to have said by the influential Politico. “But instead, he is taking control of the candidacies, and Metsola will be the easiest to control.”
While it is expected that the presidency will go to the EPP’s candidate, there is rumbling that Sassoli, from the Socialists & Democrats group, may want to seek a second term. The argument goes that the pandemic overshadowed his term and that the deal to install an EPP president was made with the understanding it would be Weber, not just any EPP member.
The Labour Party in government forms part of the Socialists & Democrats group. The latter see this development from the EPP to be merely an orchestration of the conservative Germans within the EPP to consolidate power within the EU structures, even though the EPP does not enjoy a majority within the EU structures. Labour’s position was rightly explained by Prime Minister Robert Abela himself in the most direct simple, logical and simultaneously poetic statement that I have heard recently. “If I did not support her nomination, I would be doing exactly what she did to our country. So the response is obvious: yes, I support I her,” he said.
The German Connection
But there is more to this Metsola manoeuvre than meets the eye. Keep in mind that after a sixteen year reign in Germany with Angela Merkel at the helm, German conservatives have lost power within their own country. But they’re doing their best to cling to it in the European Parliament. EPP leader Manfred Weber, himself a German, has been a part of the negotiations. The same Manfred Weber who organised and executed failed Malta opposition leader Simon Busuttil’s position as EPP Secretary General.
Without Weber and the support of senior German MEPs, it would have been impossible for Metsola, an MEP from a tiny country EPP delegation with only 2 MEPs, to rise to such a high-ranking position. The brewing arrangement has revived criticism within the EPP that German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MEPs are vying to keep control of the European conservative family, despite having just suffered the party’s worst general election result since World War II — reverting to horse-trading and rewarding party loyalists in the process.
After a sixteen year reign in Germany with Angela Merkel at the helm, German conservatives have lost power within their own country.
The package deal, officials said, would include recruiting Michael Alexander Speiser, a German Parliament official and the husband of Weber’s current chief of Cabinet Ouarda Bensouag (a close ally of Simon Busutttil), as Metsola’s future head of Cabinet. It would also involve placing senior German MEPs like Rainer Wieland in several of the Parliament’s 14 vice-president slots.
EU Officials have said to Politico that the package would entail securing jobs for German MEPs and others who come from big delegations as a way to compensate for electing a small country’s MEP. It would include keeping both Wieland, a senior and popular German MEP, and Kopacz as Parliament vice-presidents. It also would ensure French MEP Anne Sander keeps her job as one of the five quaestors of the Parliament, who usually meet once a month to deal with MEPs’ administrative and financial matters.
To further boost Metsola’s chances, Malta’s other EPP MEP, David Casa, has said he will relinquish his own quaestor post to avoid having two high-ranking Maltese MEPs. Officials said under such a package, he would be replaced by Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev, who represents the EPP’s large Bulgarian delegation. Far from it being a patriotic move from Casa, this move indeed strengthens the Bulgarian position within the EU, the latter being given a very hard time by the European Parliament who repeatedly called this country to task for its brazen shortcomings, but who are widely seen to be protected by the German delegation due to so many lucrative contracts and tenders being dished out by Bulgaria to German mammoth companies.
Bulgarian Balbuljata and German Synergy
At this stage, a flashback would immediately throw light on this scenario. Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola had been subjected to a torrent of abuse two years ago about moving amendments to a resolution in the European Parliament on rule of law concerns in Bulgaria. The Nationalist MEP acted in her capacity as coordinator of the European People’s Party and with Weber’s blessing and orchestration. Bulgarian citizens accused her of siding with the Bulgarian government, which had been facing protests over corruption for months. They accused Metsola of interfering in internal politics in an attempt to water down the resolution against the Bulgarian government.
Metsola’s amendments were ultimately defeated and MEPs backed the original resolution with a majority of 358 to 277.
I have already written articles on The Journal on how corruption and shady dealings in Germany have been rampant and unabated throughout these decades. A series of corruption scandals has recently shaken Germany, leading to the resignation of several parliamentarians from the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the biggest electoral loss for the German conservatives since WW2. Some of the MPs exposed had been taking financial payments from authoritarian regimes such as Azerbaijan and North Macedonia to lobby for them in both Berlin and Brussels.
A tight web of interests exists around relationships between some politicians in Germany, on the one hand, and, on the other, authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, to name just some. This can take the form of lucrative contracts for individual politicians, or via influence through party groups in the European Parliament. Whatever the vehicle of influence, autocrats from within and outside the European Union have long been able to exploit loopholes in German law and weak spots in financial oversight to water down European positions on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.
A tight web of interests exists around relationships between some politicians in Germany, on the one hand, and, on the other, authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes.
One widespread practice is the use of dubious ‘consultancies’ affiliated with members of parliament and former top-level politicians. Fees received for such activities are generally uncapped, and there are no legal requirements for MPs to declare this income to the Bundestag. In many cases, parliamentarians engaged in such activity ran into trouble only if they sought to evade taxes.
One of the recent scandals includes revelations about payments made during the time in office of former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. In 2016, Gruevski’s government hired a consultancy owned by Conservative MP Tobias Zech to reportedly organise meetings for the then prime minister in Berlin and Munich. This lobbying aimed to marshal political support for the regime prior to elections. It took place at a time when Gruevski’s government was already known to be responsible for mass democratic and human rights violations. It also happened in the aftermath of major scandals that exposed high levels of corruption and criminality in his government. One example from 2015 was the wiretapping of telephone conversations of 20,000 Macedonian journalists, politicians, and religious figures and political interference in the judiciary, media, and the administration.
Other ways to acquire influence in Germany include setting up organisations such as the “environmental foundation” created by the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to lobby for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Revelations around this foundation have stirred up a similar debate about the inadequacy of existing compliance and transparency rules. The foundation is de facto controlled by Gazprom, and promises both lucrative posts as well as financial resources to advocate the interests of the Russian state-owned company (and the Kremlin in general).
A further channel for illicit foreign influence exists in the form of top-level politicians moving easily from high-level government jobs to executive positions in corporations owned by authoritarian regimes. The poster-child for such influence is former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who sits on the board of Russian oil company Rosneft, capitalising on his reputation as a highly regarded politician to promote controversial Russian state-sponsored projects.
Foreign politicians have also been able to exercise considerable influence by trading favours in the EU institutions. Hungary’s prime minister has long defended the interests of German car manufacturers in the European Council in order to strengthen his ties to the CDU and its habitual coalition partner, the Christian Social Union. Critics say these ties are maintained in exchange for tolerance of increasing repression and democratic backsliding in Hungary by the European People’s Party (EPP) and specifically its group in the European Parliament. While Fidesz was suspended from the EPP in 2019, before leaving it for good in March 2021, the failure to act earlier has facilitated the process of democratic erosion in Hungary.
Now the EU has a member state no longer considered a democracy, which not only tries to dilute the EU’s human rights policies, but also serves as a hub for Russian and Chinese influence in Europe. Today, in a similar manner, the EPP lends respectability to politicians inside the EU such as Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa but also EPP politicians from outside the EU such as Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, each of whom is responsible for presiding over democratic backsliding in their own countries.
Quo Vadis, Metsola und Deutschland?
There are many other similar examples. And this by the same people who pontificate to others about the rule of law. But why should we be worried as a country at this stage?
It has been increasingly obvious that Germany above all literally loathes our fiscal regime initiatives which were essential in introducing to Malta so many millions of foreign investment due to our country’s tax legislation and benefits. Indeed, Malta’s initiatives in this sector throughout the years created the bedrock for a sound financial services and other related sectors which have thrived within our economy. An attack on this sector will be fatal to our economy. And, whilst politically wooing Simon Busuttil, Roberta Metsola and David Casa, Germany’s EPP MEPs and their allies have been vocal advocates throughout in trying to dissect and contain the sectors and legislation in question of countries such as Malta.
These are the same MEPs and their allies who have foisted Metsola to such an elevated chair within the EU structures. When push comes to shove, where will Metsola be? Protecting her country’s interests or protecting the interests of those who put her up there? Time will tell.