We cannot allow immigration to be used as a weapon | Roberta Metsola

European Parliament vice-president ROBERTA METSOLA warns that the EU cannot afford to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses: especially when they threaten the security of the EU as a whole

European Parliament vice-president Roberta Metsola
European Parliament vice-president Roberta Metsola

Last week, the European People’s Party officially approved your candidature for the role of President of the European Parliament. First of all: how does it feel to have been successful in your campaign?

Right now, I am in the European Parliament in Strasbourg: it is a day dominated by the news that – with humility – I achieved that success within the European People’s Party, after a very long campaign.

As you know, I was competing against two colleagues – one from Austria, and the other from the Netherlands – so you could say that this was a battle, an internal discussion, in which the final outcome was far from clear.

But now that the result is known – and apart from the personal satisfaction, and all the thanks I owe to the people of Malta and Gozo for all their support – the real work has to begin, to negotiate with all the other groups so that the vote can be taken by mid-January.

The role itself is a very prestigious one: technically, there is no real guarantee that you will be approved, when it comes to the final vote. There is, however, an agreement for a rotating presidency of the European parliament. What is this agreement, exactly, and how does it work in practice?

More than ‘prestigious’ – a word which suggests that the role is somehow non-political – the Presidency of the European Parliament is, and always was, very much a political position. Its purpose is to create majorities within the parliament: at committee level; at group level; and also in the plenary. And this is the basis we will be working on, also when it comes to campaigning.

For as you rightly said, my approval as EP President is not guaranteed. Nothing is ever guaranteed, in politics. Decisions are always taken on the basis of negotiations; and that is the work that now has to begin.

As for the [rotating presidency] agreement: after each MEP election, what happens is that the main groups will reach an agreement over ‘who gets what’. In 2019, it was decided that the EPP would take the Commission Presidency (hence the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen); the Socialists took the EP Presidency (David Sassoli), and also the EU’s High Representative, which is roughly the equivalent of a ‘minister for foreign affairs’; while the Liberals took the Presidency of the European Council (Charles Michel).

At the time, it was decided – as is always the case – that the EP Presidency would change every two and a half years; and that the new President would hail from the group indicated by this agreement. So it’s there, written in black on white, that the next EP President should be from the European People’s Party: the group that I am a member of.

Recently, you co-authored a report about threat posed to freedom of speech by SLAPP libel cases. This report proposes a mechanism whereby such cases can be dismissed by the courts, if there is a clear imbalance of resources between the parties concerned. What is the next step, however? How long will it be, before the Commission issues a directive to that effect?

By coincidence, I have only just had a meeting with the European Commission Vice President, Vera Jourova, on this very subject. As you are aware, a lot of very intensive work has been done this year – on the initiative of the European Parliament, I might add; and no one else. Together with my German colleague from the Socialist group, Tiemo Wölken – and conscious of the need to assemble the largest possible EP majority – we discussed the issue with lawyers, specialists and other experts; as well as journalists from all European countries.

That includes MaltaToday, incidentally: we held meetings with your colleagues, to find what out what sort of experiences they encounter in their line of work; and what sort of cases Maltese journalists have to contend with in general.

The next step, however, is for the European Commission to come out with a directive. This is something we expect to happen late – hopefully, not too late – next year; because a directive of this nature will always need at least a year, to get negotiated.

We hope that it will be an ambitious directive: which will, among other things, address the issue you brought up in your question. That is, the pre-emptive dismissal of any a case that has been filed for the obvious purpose of either gagging, or financially intimidating, journalists: or preventing them from publishing stories that are intended to uncover the truth.

At the same time, however, we made it clear in our report that we are only targeting abusive practices… and not legitimate cases, where people resort to the law-courts because they genuinely feel they have been libelled, or that their reputation has been sullied.

There is a balance that has to be respected here: we are not proposing to completely remove libel cases; but only to ensure that the system is not abused to silence the free press.

That is one of the proposals we would like to see enshrined in the Commission’s directive. But there are others: for instance, the creation of a specific fund to assist small media houses, or individual journalists, facing this sort of libel threat: especially when it comes to the practice referred to as ‘libel shopping’. In other words, when a case is filed in an expensive foreign jurisdiction, where journalists will not have the financial means to defend themselves. This practice has to stop.

On its part, the European Commission understands that there is a gap – or a vacuum, if you like – within the laws of both the European Union, and the individual member states: including Malta. So I do believe that we will end up with a very good proposal; but it will still have to be discussed by the various governments, because the European Parliament does not legislate on its own, but in conjunction with the Council of Ministers.

The report certainly marks an important step; but while it recognises the financial difficulties faced by many media houses, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic… it does not seem to include any tangible measures to address this issue. Are there any plans to introduce a financial package, in this regard?

This is something that is currently being discussed... the European Union recognises that the traditional media are facing consistent revenue losses, in a context where social media – and the way we consume the news – is growing ever more accessible, and popular.

As such, there is a need for the EU to assist the traditional media; because the truth is that our entire democracy rests on that all-important pillar… just as it also rests on the independence of the judiciary; or the distinction between ‘government’ and ‘parliament’.

The media, too, form part of a system of checks and balances that is fundamental to our Constitutional model. It follows, then, that the traditional media must also be protected.

To this end, a number of specific measures have already been adopted, within the EU Budget, specifically to address the problem that we have with ‘disinformation’: in other words, ‘fake news’, and the ‘post-truth’ scenario.

The European Union has just proposed fresh sanction against neighbouring country Belarus: after accusing its government of ‘using immigrants as political pawns’, by allowing free passage across its borders into Poland. But isn’t there a contradiction in the EU’s stand against Belarus? After all, certain EU member states have also been known to ‘use immigrants as political pawns’…

First of all, when we talk about the ‘government of Belarus’… we must be clear that we are referring to an illegitimate government: headed by a dictator who has no legitimacy whatsoever; and who has incarcerated thousands of his country’s own citizens as ‘political prisoners’… among various other human rights infringements.

Moreover, the situation regarding Belarus is very different from the immigration situations we are more accustomed to: such as, for instance, the influxes experienced in the Mediterranean.

For example: many of the migrants pouring into Greece, Lampedusa, or Malta, will be fleeing from war or persecution. Others may be seeking a better life in Europe: and in those cases, we must distinguish between those who are refugees – or eligible for humanitarian protection – and those who have no genuine asylum eligibility at all, and should be repatriated.

That, in a nutshell, is the EU’s general migration policy. Once you cross the border into the EU, there will be an asylum process to determine your eligibility for protection. If you qualify, you can stay; if not, you have to be sent back.

What’s happening in Belarus, however, is something completely different. The people pouring into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania across the Belarus border, were all encouraged – invited, even – by means of ‘tourist visas’ offered to people from Istanbul, Baghdad, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Those people each pay around E5,000, on the promise that they will be ‘taken to Germany’.

When they arrive in Minsk, however, they are loaded onto military convoys – operated by either the Belarus army, or by mercenaries – and this is how they are literally being pushed into Europe.

Faced with this situation, the EU’s response had to be clear. Here we have a dictator, who is making a lot of money by exploiting vulnerable people under a guise of a fraudulent ‘tourism’ scheme. This is why there are ongoing discussions, within the EU, on how to strengthen and protect the Union’s external borders.

Naturally, as politicians we are also insisting that even EU member states must abide by their international law obligations. We have already criticised Poland, for instance, for leaving asylum seekers – including children - in conditions of extreme cold. This is not happening in Belarus, but in an EU member state.

Having said this: the situation in Belarus cannot be compared to the sort of humanitarian crisis that we are more familiar with. It is more of what we refer to as a ‘hybrid threat’: in which a neighbouring country is abusing a frontier that is not as secure as it should be… in order to destabilise the European Union.

The reality is that immigration, in this instance, is actually being used as a weapon against the EU. And our response to this threat has to be crystal-clear: we cannot allow dictators to drive a wedge between us, in the way we react…

But the contradiction remains: in the sense that, on one hand, the EU tries to project a ‘humanitarian’ image; but when it comes down to hard facts, it does everything in its power to prevent immigrants from entering the bloc. How, then, can the EU be credible, on the subject of immigration?

I disagree with that assessment; and I’ll tell you why. Lithuania, for example, has given protection to around 4,000 immigrants coming from Belarus. These people all went through, or are still going through, the EU’s asylum process: some have proven eligible for asylum; others have not, and are currently being repatriated with the collaboration of Frontex.

But the entire process is governed by the Fundamental Rights Monitor – a law which I wrote – that offers protection to all those who apply for asylum, and ensures that their fundamental rights are respected at all stages of the process.

To come back to your question, however: the fact remains that it is necessary to have an immigration policy in place. We cannot have a situation where everyone who wants to come and live in Europe, can simply do so without any proper asylum procedures. There has to be a system of commonly accepted rules and regulations; that is the only way you can possibly have an immigration policy that is coherent, and consistent.

This does not mean that there isn’t room for improvement, however. If we look at the situation in Malta: many of the asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, will end up not being eligible for protection. So why don’t we consider a different model – as proposed, among others, by the UNHCR – whereby those people can apply for asylum in their own country of origin? Or, if that is not possible, at least in the country to which they originally fled? If someone from Somalia (for argument’s sake) ends up fleeing into, say, Egypt… why can’t the asylum process be carried out there?

By the same token, it is (or should be) possible to create ‘humanitarian corridors’, so that asylum seekers would not need to be physically present in the EU to apply for asylum. This is something we have been working on for many years now.

But – and here is where you may well have a point – not all EU member states agree, or are willing to co-operate towards this goal. And yes; this does expose a certain level of hypocrisy.

Nonetheless, the EU’s policy on migration remains clear: the question of whether asylum seekers are given protection or not, will always depend on the actual application process.

But the fundamental human rights of all those people must be respected, in all cases, and at all stages.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

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 European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

More in Ewropej