EU parliament elects anti-abortion Maltese MEP as president

A conservative Maltese lawyer who opposes abortion has been elected president of the European parliament, the first woman in 20 years to lead the assembly.

Roberta Metsola, who is celebrating her 43rd birthday on Tuesday, is the youngest-ever president of the European parliament, winning a comfortable majority to serve a two-and-a-half-year term.

A former civil servant first elected in 2013, she is the first person from Malta, the smallest member state, to lead any EU institution.

Metsola, a member of the centre-right European People’s party, had been serving as interim president after the untimely death of David Sassoli last week. Sassoli, a popular Italian Social Democrat, was due to end his term in this week’s midterm reshuffle of top jobs.

As the favourite to succeed Sassoli since her candidacy was announced last autumn, Metsola’s victory was never in doubt after the parliament’s three largest groups made a pact to support her on the eve of the vote.

She won 458 di 690 votes cast, easily beating three rivals from smaller groups: the Greens, the radical left and conservative nationalists.

The Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group behind the EPP, threw their weight behind Metsola to gain a bigger number of 14 vice-president posts. Also joining the alliance was the centrist Renew group led by Stéphane Séjourné, ally of the French president, [object Window].

The support of Renew was significant, as some French MEPs had voiced qualms about Metsola’s anti-abortion stance.

The former diplomat won round doubters by promising to represent the position of the parliament, rather than her personal views. “My position is that of the European parliament,” she told journalists. “And on this issue, this European parliament, on all sexual and reproductive health rights, it has been unambiguous, it has repeatedly called for these rights to be better protected.”

As vice-president of the parliament, lei disse, she had delivered a recent resolution condemning Poland’s anti-abortion law. “I promoted it and I presented it … That is exactly what I will do with all the positions that were taken in all this area in all the member states.”

Malta is the only EU country that completely bans abortion, a stance more hardline than Poland, which last year passed a law imposing heavy restrictions on a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Nel 2015 Metsola signed a statement with other Maltese centre-right MEPs declaring “we remain categorically against abortion”. At the start of the pandemic in April 2020, she voted against a resolution on EU action on Covid-19 that described abortion as a human right.

Explaining another no vote on the same issue in 2021, she claimed in an interview with the website Lovin Malta that Malta’s right to legislate for itself on abortion had been at stake. “The report did not respect Malta’s right to legislate itself on this issue and therefore I could not support the final version of it.”

Despite misgivings, left-leaning political opponents have praised Metsola’s stance in defence of the rule of law and migrants’ rights. Speaking to MEPs, the co-leader of the Greens, Philippe Lamberts, said Metsola had “many excellent qualities”. He noted their disagreements on abortion and reproductive rights, but “many points of agreement as well”, on democracy, the rule of law and refugees.

The Belgian Green MEP urged Metsola to reform European parliament rules by introducing a system of proportional representation to end the backroom deals on carving up top posts. “It’s not a very glorious process,” he told MEPs. “Because once again … there were certain appetites that had to be satisfied and this to the detriment of smaller groups in the European parliament.”

Nato a 1979, Metsola has said Malta’s accession to the EU sparked her interest in politics. The island nation joined the union in 2004, along with nine other mostly central and eastern European countries. She graduated from the elite College of Europe in Bruges, a training ground for EU officials, before going on to work for Malta’s government in Brussels and then the European Commission. A mother of four, she has described herself as part of the “Erasmus generation”, referring to the EU higher education exchange scheme.

Fino ad ora, only two women have served as European parliament president, in effect the speaker of the house. The former French minister Nicole Fontaine led the institution from 1999-2002. She was proceeded by another French woman, Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and celebrated minister, who led the fight to introduce abortion in France. Veil ran the parliament from 1979-1982.

Metsola said a in speech to MEPs in Strasbourg that she was standing on the shoulders of giants. The parliament mattered “to every woman in the union still fighting for their rights” she said, without mentioning the controversy over abortion.

She also referred to two journalists murdered for their investigative reporting, Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta and Ján Kuciak of Slovakia, declaring “to the families of Daphne and Ján … your fight for truth and justice is our fight”.

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