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Roberta Metsola cements rise to European Parliament presidency

by editor

Roberta Metsola will surge to the European Parliament presidency on Tuesday, capping off a campaign where she pitched herself as a young but experienced female leader who can inspire and build consensus across Europe’s fractious political divides. 

Yet it took until the final moments for the 42-year-old Maltese politician to guarantee she would be elected, as a cohort of socialist MEPs continued to express fears their newly gained power in Europe would not be fairly represented under Metsola and that her more conservative record on abortion was out of step with the Continent’s political direction.

Ultimately, the path cleared Monday afternoon after the socialists were promised a slate of prominent positions in return for backing Metsola.

The deal cements Metsola’s rise through Parliament, where she is already a well-known name as first vice president and the body’s interim leader since the sudden death last week of former President David Sassoli. Her ascent was buoyed by strong backing from the Parliament’s large center-right and conservative contingent, as well as from many centrists.

“Metsola is the only serious contender for the post,” one senior Parliament official said. “She is seen as a ‘safe pair of hands.’”

The result is that Metsola will take control of the EU’s legislative body for two and a half years at a delicate moment — vaulted into the presidency by the large conservative bloc but facing increasingly empowered socialist and center-left groups as Parliament heads toward the 2024 elections. Taking over in the wake of the well-liked Sassoli’s passing will also present its own challenges. 

She’ll be navigating these dynamics as the Parliament tackles some of its most contentious issues: Slashing carbon emissions, digitizing the economy, bolstering the bloc’s military and toughening the EU’s rule-of-law compliance.

“The next two and a half years will be amongst the most critical for the European Parliament as we emerge from a devastating pandemic,” Metsola told journalists in November after the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, the Parliament’s largest, tapped her as its candidate. “It will fall onto the constructive forces of this house to plug the holes in our foundations.”

Getting to the election

Metsola’s election — conducted by secret ballot Tuesday — is largely prebaked after Monday’s power-sharing deal between her EPP, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the legislature’s second-largest group, and the liberal Renew Europe, the body’s third-ranking group.

S&D leaders agreed to back Metsola in return for a commitment on political priorities with the EPP and Renew Europe. The S&D was also assured five of the Parliament’s 14 vice-presidential slots, as well as the head of the Conference of Committee Chairs, a key position traditionally held by the EPP that coordinates work across the Parliament’s various panels.

Still, Metsola, a former civil servant who built most of her political career in Brussels, is not running unopposed.

The Greens are running Swedish MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke, The Left is putting forward Spanish MEP Sira Rego, while the European Conservatives and Reformists are running Polish MEP Kosma Złotowski.

Renew Europe opted against backing its own candidate. The group’s pro-European MEPs are instead expected to support Metsola. 

Since announcing her decision to run, Metsola — a former lawyer and graduate of the College of Europe — has endlessly made the rounds, trying to convince other groups she would strengthen the Parliament’s pro-European centrist majority.

Her goal, she said in November, is to “help get people in our member states to believe in Europe.” And her approach, she added, “is to create alliances, to build bridges with constructive pro-European forces in this house.”

Metsola has become one of the assembly’s most influential female MEPs since being elected in 2013 — serving in the EPP’s Bureau, which helps prepare for plenary sessions, and eventually as the Parliament’s first vice president. She will be the third woman to head the Parliament and the first Maltese to serve as one of the EU’s three presidents.

For the EPP, Metsola is a reliable vote, backing her group’s stance just over 90 percent of the time in the current legislative term. But she has also worked across ideological camps on a number of issues, from migration to corruption to LGBTQ+ rights. 

One Renew Europe official called Metsola “rather impressive” on numerous EU files during a recent campaign hearing in the group.

In addition to her legislative work, the EPP has marketed Metsola as a mother steeped in political activism. It funded a documentary called “The First Vice” that features her cooking chicken for her four young boys, while her Finnish husband, Ukko, recalls dealing with his wife’s absence when she first campaigned to become an MEP.

Metsola also has a deep history within the Brussels bubble, working as a legal attaché at the Maltese EU office from 2004 to 2012 after serving as a legal adviser to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s former top diplomat.

The points of contention

One place where Metsola has struggled to build bridges is abortion. 

In Malta, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, abortion is still illegal — the only EU country where that remains the case — and the population widely supports the ban. 

In Brussels, Metsola has opposed several reports and resolutions calling for women to have access to safe abortion services and condemning legislative moves to restrict such access. In 2015, she even issued a statement with other Maltese EPP MEPs saying they remained “categorically against abortion.”

This past July, she defended her stance after voting against a report defining abortion as a human right. “Without the approval of our national parliament, the EU institutions cannot impose any legislation on Malta in this area,” Metsola told the Maltese website Lovin Malta.

Her comments caused outrage among many center-left MEPs who have fought to preserve abortion rights across the EU. 

“While several member states in the EU are currently putting our fundamental values into question, any candidate for the Parliament presidency must not leave room for doubt when it comes to his or her stance on women’s and human rights,” said Evelyn Regner, an Austrian socialist MEP who chairs the Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. 

Metsola’s voting record on abortion and women’s health, Regner said, “went against the clear majority of MEPs in this house.” 

That can’t be the case for the president, she argued: “The stance of the European Parliament leadership needs to remain clear: Denying access to health care, of which abortions are a part, is a human rights violation.”

Renew Europe MEP Karen Melchior agreed, saying Metsola has also been “totally unclear” on the topic during her recent campaign hearings. 

One official close to Metsola disputed the allegation. Metsola, the official said, “has made clear in all her campaign hearings that she would represent the majority” on women’s rights, setting aside her personal views. 

In those hearings, Metsola also pointed to a clause negotiated ahead of Malta’s 2004 entrance into the EU, which stated EU law would not change Malta’s abortion laws. 

The other issues

Aside from abortion, Metsola’s colleagues expressed respect for her work on other thorny issues.

Some pointed to migration. As the former EPP coordinator on the subject and a member of the Parliament’s powerful civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE) committee, Metsola pushed for migrant relocation within the bloc — a subject important to Malta, a Mediterranean island nation. The stance was at odds with some of the EPP’s more conservative members, like French MEP François-Xavier Bellamy, who called relocation “a nonsensical idea.”

In 2016, amid a migrant surge from Syria, Metsola drafted a report calling for the EU to take a “holistic approach” to the issue. In the five years since, however, the bloc has failed repeatedly to strike any sort of larger deal on processing and relocating migrants. A new pact on migration and asylum is now under examination.

Still, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish Socialist MEP who chairs the LIBE committee, argues Metsola deserves credit.

“I can recall that resolution and that so-called ‘holistic’ approach because it has become some kind of mantra whenever we insist on the need for a comprehensive and global approach to migration policies,” he said. “Roberta is eloquent, experienced and she’s got all the assets for the job.”

Later, Metsola helped oversee Parliament’s work to both expand Frontex, the EU’s border agency, and then investigate the agency when it was accused of illegally turning away migrants at the bloc’s border. 

“I have always had a very good working relationship with her,” said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP who co-chairs the working group probing Frontex.

The other Malta connection

Back in Malta, Metsola has also earned recognition for her outspoken criticism of the socialist government in the wake of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death in 2017. Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb as she was investigating rampant corruption that reached the highest echelons of Malta’s government. 

“Roberta was one of a handful of Maltese politicians who I instinctively knew I could trust after my mother’s assassination,” said Andrew Caruana Galizia, Caruana Galizia’s son and the acting deputy head of Europe and Eurasia at the World Economic Forum. 

“She continued to campaign for justice for my mother and for accountability for the corruption she uncovered,” he added, “despite attempts by her own party leader at the time to stop her talking about my mother’s case.”

Her firm stance caught even broader attention in 2019, when a photo of her refusing to shake Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s hand went viral.

“Get out now, before you do irreparable damage to the country,” she tweeted at the time.

Some in Malta saw her corruption crusading as a bit selective. One Maltese politician noted that Metsola voted against a Parliament report illustrating rule-of-law deficiencies in Slovenia and argued she “took a mild stance” when corruption accusations arose against the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borissov. 

“She was very vocal when it came to the rule of law in Malta and it’s a good thing,” the politician said. “However, you should be doing the same with other countries.”

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