Europe’s newest power couple: the Metsolas

One is the President of the European Parliament, the other a major player in the international cruise liner industry lobby – the Metsolas’ careers have now reached a new peak

Successful careers: Ukko Metsola is a public affairs consultant for Royal Caribbean, as vice-president government relations. He had run for MEP in 2009 after a stint inside the office of the Finnish prime minister (Photo: Roberta Metsola/Instagram)
Successful careers: Ukko Metsola is a public affairs consultant for Royal Caribbean, as vice-president government relations. He had run for MEP in 2009 after a stint inside the office of the Finnish prime minister (Photo: Roberta Metsola/Instagram)

In the summer of 2009, at the end of the European elections in which neither of them managed to get elected, the Metsola couple Ukko and Roberta sat at a table at a seafront restaurant in Malta. Deflated and tired from their campaign, the two commiserated, tears in their eyes; their careers had been placed on hold, so much personal money spent into their difficult campaigns – Ukko in Finland, Metsola in Malta – the parents of two young boys living in their respective home countries for most of the campaign. It was a difficult moment for the aspiring Maltese politician.

For Metsola, it had been her second attempt – in 2004, she managed to gain 5,205 first-count votes. She met her husband Ukko at a Studenti Demokritjani Maltin (SDM) event in 1999. He was an aspiring Finnish politician who at one point held a senior role within the Finnish Office of the Prime Minister; one of their first dates was actually a protest in Helsinki against Belarus ruler Alexander Lukashenko. “We met in politics and grew up in politics, so for us this is a natural step. Running together in different countries is an experience and has introduced a certain humour and good natured rivalry,” she had said in 2009 when the couple became the first married set of candidates to run in a European election.

They married in 2005, when Roberta Metsola moved to Brussels to work as an expert on Justice and Home Affairs at Malta’s Permanent Representation to the EU. In 2009, while campaigning, her son Alec had just turned one. But privately, the Metsolas made a deal among each other that if either of them were to get elected, the other would leave politics for good.

Metsola finally got elected to the European Parliament in 2013, ten years after she first got into EU politics, after Simon Busuttil relinquished his MEP post to become leader of the Nationalist Party.

Ukko stood by his promise and left politics. The Metsolas would go on to have four boys in all.

In 2014, Roberta retained her seat after winning over 32,000 first-count votes at the next MEP election, making her the PN’s most popular candidate and the second most popular national candidate.

Far less is known in Malta about Ukko Metsola, a 47-year-old public affairs and Fulbright scholar at Harvard Kennedy School, who for just over a year since September 2020, was appointed director-general of the Cruise Liner International Association, the international lobby for the cruise liner industry. At end-2021, he returned to his previous post as Royal Caribbean’s vice-president for government relations for Europe and Asia-Pacific.

It will be interesting to witness the continued ‘political’ development of both husband and wife: at her inauguration speech, Roberta Metsola spoke of Europe’s Green Deal pledge to the first carbon-free continent and “to impress on the rest of the world that the fight against climate change is a common destiny.” Will this zeal, indeed a precondition for the EPP-S&D-Renew compact, conflict with her husband’s own lobbying?

Ukko’s business is one of the most harmful forms of travel for the environment, with business practices that have put the climate and public health of coastal communities and marine ecosystems at risk. The next big challenge for the cruise industry now is driving down its egregious carbon emissions under the EU Green Deal and the Fit for 55 legislative proposal from the European Commission.

Cruise ships are responsible for significant marine sewage and air pollution from diesel engines that provide electrical power to passengers and crew, both onshore and at sea. Friends of the Earth says an average cruise ship at sea emits more sulphur oxide than 13 million cars and more soot than 1 million cars.

Ukko Metsola has called the Fit For 55 proposals an “unprecedented regulatory tsunami” for his industry, with Europe wanting to cut emissions by 55% by 2030. He has called the target “hugely ambitious” – “We don’t disagree with the long-term need to decarbonise, we want to be fully sustainable.” That means the industry, which must have zero emissions when berthed in European ports by 2030, must seek alternative marine fuels, and new sources of power from fuel cells and shore power, all investments that will cost billions for both EU states and the cruise industry. Metsola is also a supporter of public funding for ports that can use EU Recovery Fund cash for decarbonisation and green initiatives.

Roberta Metsola is expected not to vote on many of the EP’s motions and reports. Her role as President of the European Parliament also places her side by side with European leaders in Council summits – including the Labour prime minister Robert Abela. Now the Nationalist Party’s highest-ranking representative internationally, she eclipses her own party leader in stature; and in the next two-and-half years, her influence inside European circles will grow exponentially.

It will be another moment of agony for the PN when voters start asking when Metsola will return from Brussels. A general election before June this year is expected to be yet another resounding Labour victory, but if Bernard Grech chips into Labour’s super-majority convincingly, he will stand for re-election as PN leader.

But PN veterans know that Metsola’s star power in Brussels could make her unbeatable in Malta, especially in a creaky boys’ club that turns its nose up to female aspirants for power. The only variable is assuming the leadership – how and when.

She could already be changing the Nationalist Party, by force of her role – the chief European among Europeans as it were. Her election by 74% of the EP’s plenary reflects a power-sharing deal between Christian democrats, socialists and liberals. Metsola is no longer “a Maltese MEP” proudly waving a tattered flag of Catholic ‘exceptionalism’ on matters like reproductive rights.

She now represents the European Parliament’s positions entirely, a force that no confessional badge of identity can resist – hence her assent to sign Renew’s Simone Veil pact guaranteeing abortion rights to women, announced the day after her election in a press conference with French president Emanuel Macron, whose party En Marche is part of Renew.

As a politician who credits herself as having always stood for “fact-based not identity politics”, Metsola’s Europeanist destiny could free her up from the provincial shackles that make Maltese politics such a confrontational arena. In Brussels, where it is the strength of the argument that counts, Metsola built majorities across various parties. To return to Malta and settle for its zero-sum power game would undermine the talent that has made her such a force of nature in Brussels.

But Metsola could well teach the Nationalists, who saw EU accession as the island’s ‘Manifest Destiny’, that rather than use it as cudgel against the forces of progress, conservatism can also be courageous, enlightened, and cooperative – something that is often lacking in the Maltese political scene.

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 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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