Meet Roberta Metsola, European Parliament's Newest President
On January 18 2022, Malta native Roberta Metsola was elected as the new European Parliament (EP) President after serving as vice-president and interim leader of the house. Her role as interim leader came when former president David Sassoli died on January 11—days before his term ended—after being hospitalized for a serious illness. Through a secret ballot, Metsola was elected with 485 votes out of 705 members of parliament (MEPs).
Metsola’s victory is historic; she’s the youngest president, the first from a small-member state, and the first female to take on the role in over 20 years. The new president has stressed her commitment to stand up for the EU’s “common values of democracy, dignity, justice, solidarity, equality, the rule of law, and fundamental rights.” However, she is faced with a belligerent Russian state, politically divided Europe, and a devastating pandemic.
Metsola has been a well-respected figure in European politics since the beginning of her career in government. Her interest in governance began when her country entered the EU in 2003, the same year she graduated from the University of Malta. As a college student, she was appointed as Secretary-General for the European Democrat Student organization.
After graduating, she continued her studies in European Law at the College of Europe in Bruges. It was in Brussels that Metsola began her career as a civil servant, working as a legal advisor to the EU’s former top diplomat Catherine Ashton. She became a legal attaché at the Maltese EU office from 2004 to 2012 before deciding to run for an MEP position at age 25. Metsola won her first election in 2013. She was then re-elected in 2014 and 2019. In November of 2020, she was elected as the first Vice-President of the EP. This position made her an influential female figure in her party, the European People’s Party (EPP).
The EPP, a center-right group, is the largest and oldest group in the European Parliament. It is committed to creating a strong and stable Europe with a focus on its people. Its main goal is to strengthen democracy and unite all European citizens by creating alliances and equal opportunities. In the past, the party has focused on bettering welfare systems, managing economic challenges through the creation of millions of jobs, and setting high environmental standards.
On November 24, 2021, the EPP chose Metsola as their presidential candidate with 112 out of 174 votes. At a press conference held immediately after the vote, Metsola promised to further her party’s goals. She mentioned the creation of alliances between parties and member states to get citizens of the EU “to believe in Europe” again.
The EP’s presidential election came sooner than expected when Sassoli died days before the end of his term. After serving as interim president, Metsola ran for the presidential position against two other female opponents, Swedish MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke from the Green Party & Spanish MEP Sira Rego. Metsola’s position was secured in a power-sharing deal between the EPP, the Socialist and Democratic (S&D) party, and the liberal Renew Europe party. The S&D previously backed Sassoli, a Democrat, but agreed to support Metsola after being assured a key position, usually held by the majority party, and 5 of Parliament’s 14 vice-presidential slots.
Though the S&Ds voted for Metsola, they expressed their concerns regarding her political stances, primarily her view on abortion. The leader of the party Iratxe García said her viewpoints on issues such as women rights, tax justice, rule of law, and social justice are “unacceptable.” As a Catholic and a Maltese, Metsola supports anti-abortion law. Anti-abortion law is widely supported by her home country, which is a predominantly Catholic nation. It is also the only country in the EU where it is still illegal to seek out an abortion.
In 2015, Metsola defended her stance in a statement with two other conservative EP colleagues, David Casa and Therese Comodini Cachia, saying they “fully support gender equality and [they] are committed to achieving this goal,” but that they remain “categorically against abortion.” The statement came after the EP voted on a non-legislative report that monitored the progress on equality between women and men in the EU in 2013. Metsola, Casa, and Cachia voted against the entire report because they believe that a women’s right to “ready access abortion” should be left to the Member States of the EU, not the Parliament.
Conservatives and liberals in the EP remain torn on the issue of abortion. The right-wing MEPs already outnumber left-wing MEPs, and Metsola's win decreases representation for liberal Renew Europe's Karen Melchoir is one of the liberal MEPs who has expressed concerns over Metsola's stances, especially after Metsola re-addressed her viewpoint against abortion in June. However, with a more prominent role in Parliament, Metsola assured the EP and citizens of the EU that she will represent the view of the majority in Parliament.
“I have always stood for the politics of moderation over extremism, for politics based on truth, justice and correctness, of fact-based not identity politics,” states Metsola on her official website. Though she is part of a conservative, right-leaning party, Metsola said she is committed to representing the values of the EP as a whole.
One of Metsola’s widely supported amongst MEPs, including socialists and those of the Green party, views is that of migration. During the 2016 migration of Syrians into Europe, Metsola called for the EU to take a “holistic approach” on the matter, citing human rights documents like the Geneva Convention, the UDHR, and several other UN documents on migrant and child rights. In a debate on the Migration and Asylum Pact, Metsola stated that the EU needed more solidarity regarding migrants. Her suggestion was that every member state shares in the responsibility of establishing safe returns for migrants without a right to stay and for adequate relocation systems for asylum-seeking migrants. To make sure that southern European countries don't have an overflow of migrants, relocation to other member states of the EU must be provided, she stated.
As a newly elected president, Metsola has addressed several important issues already, including the situation in Ukraine, pandemic recovery plans, and debate over the ‘rule of law’. She has also been widely supported for her stance on ending crime and corruption in Malta and in the EU as a whole. She stated on behalf of the EP: “we protect journalists everywhere and protect all those investigating corruption and criminality.” In February, Metsola visited the site of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination in Malta, who was attacked by a car bomb in 2017 for investigating corrupt politicians. The event led to concerns over Malta's rule of law, which has become a primary issue that Metsola plans to focus on as president.
At a recent meeting with Maltese President George Vella, Metsola expressed her goal of strengthening European democracy, stating that a strong EU is “the best way to move towards a free, prosperous, safe society with opportunities for everyone [in the EU].” Her focus, she said, is not only improving democratic practices in Malta but also in the EU. Her stance on European solidarity has strengthened due to Europe’s current challenges with the pandemic and with border crises. She plans to get EU institutions and member states to work together to end the pandemic and to find a resolution to the war in Ukraine.
Metsola’s plan for the pandemic is to advance her party's directives, one of which is to set up a new Parliamentary special committee dedicated to solving health issues. The socialists and liberals of the EP have agreed to this plan. The parties have yet to discuss details in a formal meeting, but, so far, they have agreed to set up a temporary COVID subcommittee.
As the new president, Metsola hopes to overcome the challenges of strengthening the EU's collective security, rule of law, free speech, and fundamental rights. Her main objective is to keep the EU united and make the EP "more relevant to people's lives" through its solutions to issues that plague Europe.