From ‘grazzi’ to ‘vive l’Europe’: Metsola’s giant step

ANALYSIS | From the tragedies of murdered ordinary Europeans to the high stakes politics of war, Roberta Metsola’s acceptance speech at the European Parliament had an unmistakably European outlook with a human touch.

Roberta Metsola was elected president of the European Parliament with 74% of the vote
Roberta Metsola was elected president of the European Parliament with 74% of the vote

Roberta Metsola emphasised diversity in her first speech as president of the European Parliament and this was amply reflected in her delivery.

It was a speech made in four languages that started in Maltese, her mother tongue, and ended with the French rallying call ‘Vive l’Europe’.

The rest of the speech was in English but she also dropped in a couple of sentences in Italian when commemorating her predecessor David Sassoli and included two quotes in French.

The short speech had all the makings of a Maltese woman with an unmistakably European outlook.

Daphne and Paulina

The murder of Polish national Paulina Dembska in Malta has recast the spotlight on inequality and misogyny
The murder of Polish national Paulina Dembska in Malta has recast the spotlight on inequality and misogyny

References to the murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Polish student Paulina Dembska were testament to Metsola’s Maltese roots but she grounded them in a European context.

Along with Caruana Galizia she highlighted the murder of another journalist, Jan Kuciak, telling their families the fight for “truth and justice” was also parliament’s.

The reference to Paulina, also included a mention of murdered teacher Ashling Murphy in Ireland. “I stand on the shoulders of giants… the shoulders of the millions of nameless women who endured so much… the shoulders of Ashling, Paulina and all the other women whose lives have already been stolen this year,” Metsola said 

But another ‘giant’ Metsola highlighted was Simone Veil, a French politician who was the first woman to occupy the role of EP president between 1979 and 1982.

Abortion

A holocaust survivor, Veil was also health minister in several French governments and is remembered for advancing women’s rights in France, particularly the 1975 law legalising abortion, which is still known today as Loi Veil after her.

Metsola’s reference to Veil was to highlight how she “tore off the shackles” of the holocaust to “blaze a path through ceilings as the first woman to be EP president”.

But in focussing on Veil, Metsola was also pandering to French MEPs, most of who were sceptical of the Maltese MEP’s anti-abortion stand.

The EP has consistently championed women’s reproductive rights, including access to safe abortion services.

Metsola avoided a direct mention of abortion in her speech but she did say that the EP “matters to every woman still fighting for her rights”.

In the press conference afterwards, when asked on her position on abortion, Metsola insisted her position was that of the EP.

Beyond the overtures to the French, Metsola also traversed the various issues of concern across the European continent.

Russian threat

Ukrainian soldiers walk at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk
Ukrainian soldiers walk at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk

“The world around us is less friendly than it was a generation ago,” Metsola told MEPs, positing collective security as a common challenge. “The unacceptable attacks on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the dangerous situation in Belarus are prime examples of this.”

It was her way of allaying concerns of the EU’s eastern-most countries that share a border with Russia and have been warning that Russian hostility could destabilise the region.

Metsola also reached out to Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which remains a divided island after the Turkish invasion of 1974. 

“We can never be truly whole while Cyprus remains split,” she told MEPs to applause. Metsola pushed for greater EU efforts to end the separation in Cyprus “under the auspices of the UN plan”.

Cyprus came the closest to unification just before the island joined the EU in 2004 but a UN-brokered plan, known as the Annan Plan, was rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum.

Metsola made it clear throughout her speech that the EP will stand for a united Europe and its common values of “democracy, dignity, justice, solidarity, equality, rule of law and fundamental rights”.

“I want people to recapture a sense of belief and enthusiasm for our project. A belief to make our shared space safer, fairer, more just and more equal… We must fight back against the anti-EU narrative that takes hold so easily and so quickly,” she said.

Cheap solutions

Rallying against the “cheap solutions” of nationalism, authoritarianism, protectionism and isolationism, Metsola called for a Europe that stands up for one another.

But in voicing these high ideals, Metsola called on fellow MEPs to “burst through the Strasbourg and Brussels bubble” and deliver Europe to people across the continent. 

The reference was an attempt to reach out to ordinary European citizens, who see the parliament and other EU institutions as cut off from their everyday reality.

Whether her call will fall on deaf ears has to be seen but she did list a number of issues MEPs should work on.

She mentioned the urgency of climate change to which the European Green deal is “the right answer”.

“And we must continue to show that you cannot decouple the environment and the economy,” she said, adding businesses need less bureaucracy and more chances to take the risks that will see Europe regain its competitive edge.

She emphasised the importance of the Recovery and Resilience Fund to help the EU relaunch after the pandemic.

Europe is back

Metsola's term ends in June 2024
Metsola's term ends in June 2024

In a final rallying call, Metsola boldly declared that “Europe is back… Europe is the future”, before rounding up in French: “Vive l’Europe!”

French President Emmanuel Macron would have loved that final call, which matches his own vision for a European response to the health, security and climate challenges the EU faces.

Whether Metsola had Macron in mind may be a moot point but it is evident that she tried to bridge with the French liberals.

Metsola now starts her term as EP president that will end in June 2024 when European elections are held across the continent. 

It has to be seen how Metsola, a conservative MEP from tiny Malta, will perform at the highest echelons of European power. Metsola has built a reputation of being a bridge-builder but irrespective of how she will be judged, the Nationalist MEP has taken a giant step in her political career.

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.

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