Metsola could be the woman to break another glass ceiling in Brussels

Roberta Metsola is on the cusp of clinching one of the EU’s three institutional leadership posts if the EPP agrees on her nomination, making her the first woman to hold the post of EP president since 1999

This week Metsola (top) was catapulted into a rehearsal for the role of EP president after David Sassoli was taken ill.
This week Metsola (top) was catapulted into a rehearsal for the role of EP president after David Sassoli was taken ill.

In the space of just two weeks, the Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola was catapulted on a trajectory to clinch one of the most powerful posts in the European Union.

With an election for the European Parliament president slated to happen in January 2022 – for half of the five-year legislature that started in 2019 – it is expected, though not taken for granted, that an MEP from the European People’s Party be elected to the post currently held by the Italian social-democrat David Sassoli.

That role could well be entrusted to Metsola if she emerges as a strong nominee by the EPP group, and finds consensus among liberals, greens and the socialists themselves.

Only this week she was catapulted into a rehearsal for the role itself, when illness struck Sassoli from the key date of the European Parliament calendar: the State of the EU address by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Vice-president Roberta Metsola stepped in to preside over the important sitting, all eyes on one of the papabili for the role.

The week before, the Süddeutsche Zeitung snapped her standing right behind German chancellor Angela Merkel as the EPP group applauded the outgoing for 16 years at the helm as de facto leader of Europe. In her tribute to Merkel as a woman who “smashed ceilings to blaze a trail for the world to follow”, Metsola’s message was as telling as the photo’s chorus of men centred around the two women: more ceilings can be yet broken.

To have a Maltese become the first woman president of the European Parliament since 1999, in a female one-two on the Union’s podium of power with Von der Leyen, would be momentous in itself.

For Malta, the opportunity of so much soft power captured by having a Maltese woman as head of the EP, brings yet again a chance of showcasing it reputation as an honest broker – a reputation held in various international fora, as recently as its 2017 presidency of the European Council.

If elected, it will also place Metsola first in line to speak to visiting heads of state at the European Parliament, a kind of audience few Maltese politicians could dream of having.

Certainly enough, the stars have aligned themselves for Metsola’s possible next adventure in European politics.

The leaders of the EU agreed at the beginning of the legislature that the presidency of the EC could go to the centre-right, the Counc il to the Liberals (Charles Michel), and the EP to the social-democrats for the first half of the term.

But the European People’s Party president of its European parliamentary group, the German MEP Manfred Weber, has now decided he would forgo a bid for the role, realising that MEPs might squirm at the notion of so much institutional power being held in German hands: him and Von der Leyen. Weber decided he will run again for head of the MEPs’ group, but also the EPP umbrella group of national parties, when Donald Tusk steps down in April 2022.

Secondly, Weber’s number two, the Spanish vice-president Esteban Gonzalez Pons this week also confirmed he will not be a candidate for the January 2022 election for the EP presidency, instead calling for a “consensus” candidate that is supported by “pro-European” forces across all the parliament.

This has opened up the route for EP vice-president Roberta Metsola or the Dutch MEP Esther de Lange as the two candidates who might be selected for the nomination.

Inside the European Parliament, with so much talk about the urgent need to have more women in decision-making positions, the choice for a female candidate is likely to be shared across many of the MEP groups.

Metsola is also a known quantity: vice-president of the EP, she worked on one of the toughest migration dossiers that further sealed her reputation as a knowledgeable MEP who can work with other groups, and also sitting squarely in the political centre.

Not so her Dutch colleague, De Lange, considered more of a hawkish candidate, and hailing from one of the ‘frugal’ EU member states which demand more fiscal discipline from the EU’s southern members: would the socialists consent to this kind of candidate in the post-pandemic climate?

Metsola might represent a safe bet, as a Maltese from a country whose international role also does not harbour any problematic foreign or intra-European agendas, unlike some of the EU’s boisterous member states.

Silent pact

The social democrats have not ruled out retaining Sassoli for the rest of the legislature. Whether or not the rotation deal is respected is a question many journalists have tried asking the Spanish socialist leader of the S&D, Iratxe García, who tried hard to dance around the issue this week.

They might be placated by the prospective election of the German SPD to power in Germany, placing the centre-left at the heart of European power together with the socialist Josep Borrell – a former president of the EP – as current head of Europe’s foreign relations.

But S&D president Iratxe Garcia Perez was this week especially pressed by journalists to declare her party’s stance on the silent pact. Garcia Perez insisted that the S&D had not yet taken a position on the matter, skirting a clear yes or no on whether the socialists would respect the rotation of the presidency.

Garcia Perez said Sassoli had been “an extraordinary” president for the European Parliament during a difficult year. “We are talking about the future of an institution, not the person here, and how the socialist group can ensure this future. When we will broach this debate, we’ll bear all this in mind.”

But elsewhere, it seemed the mood is for a woman to take charge.

The co-president of the Greens, German MEP Ska Keller, said her group supported a mid-term election for a president but expressed caution on statements by political groups “which think they own this position” – a dig at the EPP.

“There is no group that owns this position, neither at the beginning nor at the end of the term. The EP must decide on its own who it wants the president to be.”

But Keller also said the Greens wanted any EP president to be a “good president, who can represent the institution, who strengthens internal democracy” and commented that it was a “huge pity” that few women have been at the helm of the institution.

And the Renew president Dacian Ciolos also said the liberals favoured more women to stand for the post: “We would be happy to see women candidates as well… We in principle abide by the 2019 agreement, but we expect the same from our partners...”

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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