It was her country’s European Union accession process that took European Parliament First Vice-President Roberta Metsola fully into politics. Having joined the youth wing of the Christian-Democrat Partit Nazzjonalista, the debate about whether Malta should join the European Union, at its peak in 2003, galvanised her activism.
“I chose to fight - and I chose the word fight consciously - for my country to enter the EU. There was a big debate going on at that time, and my generation was convinced that the only way to ensure we had the best opportunities was to be at the table with the rest of the decision makers.”
“I think, this parliament’s role is a legislative one but it’s also a political one, which means that if we want the right buttons to be pushed and the right questions to be asked or answered, then the parliament needs to be much more”
Having won the argument, she promptly stood as a candidate for the EP in the 2004 European election, in her early twenties, under her maiden name Tedesco Triccas. Her lifelong battle for gender equality was blessed with inspiration at the time, because “my two grandmothers were my biggest supporters during the election campaign”.
She wasn’t successful but that did not deter her or spoil her love for politics. When she tried again in 2009, she wasn’t elected but - by then married to Finnish politician Ukko Metsola - the couple made history by being the first husband and wife team representing different countries to stand in the same European elections.
In 2013, Metsola did enter the European Parliament, becoming one of the first female deputies from her country. “We went from zero women to three. That was such a positive development”, she remembers, adding, “taking Malta from one of the worst EU Member States in terms of gender equal representation to one of the best.”
The fight against gender inequality and discrimination has remained one of her closest political concerns. She was the EPP Group’s shadow rapporteur on the 2014 own initiative ‘EU roadmap against homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity’, which went on to inspire recent anti-discrimination laws.
Today, she sums up her ideal equality policy with the phrase “Empowered women, empower women”. “I want to see more women at all levels within the private sector and in the public sector. We in politics need to be leaders in pushing for that reform.”
Not convinced of the need for “hard quotas” in every scenario, she believes that grass-roots work, in particular with young women, is the key to progress: “I go to schools a lot, and I don’t talk about partisan politics, I talk about the importance and the privilege that you have by virtue of being elected”.
Her first cover interview for the Parliament Magazine, however, focussed entirely on a different issue, one that was particularly pressing at the time. That took place almost exactly six years ago, at the height of the refugee crisis, just as the shocking image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Greek shore, had finally stirred Europe’s conscience.
Metsola was then working on Parliament’s report on the situation in the Mediterranean, which underlined the need for a common and holistic approach to migration. She supported the European Commission’s plan for a quota system for the distribution of 120,000 refugees across the Union.
As neither a common policy nor a fully working quota system has yet transpired, looking back at this provides her, unsurprisingly, with little comfort. “It’s painful to see that. It’s really sad to see that from a European Parliament perspective or European Union perspective.
We go from one crisis to another and try to mitigate that crisis when we’re faced with it up front. Then spend the rest of the time conveniently ignoring it.” But she has remained optimistic. There is a new Migration Pact on the table, and she has faith in the Commissioner and the Vice-President in charge, Ylva Johansson and Margaritis Schinas, who are “trying to use this momentum that we have today.”
The cause for this momentum lies, in Metsola’s view, with two developments. First, the ‘tragic situation’ in Afghanistan with the threat to women, in particular, by the Taliban regime clear to everyone.
And second, the new hybrid threat posed by the regime in Belarus, weaponising vulnerable migrants by flying them in from Iraq and pushing them across the EU’s borders in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The latter has, to her mind, fundamentally changed the idea of what a frontline state is.
“It’s no longer just the Mediterranean. If you’re from another part of the Union, you cannot say anymore, “oh, I have nothing to do with that and just throw money at the problem”. We are talking about real challenges that are being faced by a lot of Member States at the same time. I think we’re starting to see the political reality dawning on those Member States that this is a shared challenge that requires shared responsibility - and must also include safe third countries, enabling people to also find protection closer to their home.”
Metsola is enthusiastic about the role her institution is currently playing in devising a European migration policy, with a “fantastic set of rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs from all political groups”.
“There’s great teamwork”, she stresses, confident that majorities will be found and solutions will be reached in Parliament. However, the big question is, “are Member States ready to come to the table and discuss such solutions? What I would like to see, is a Council that pushes Member States to come to an agreement with the majority and not use a veto where there should not be”.
Because, Metsola argues, “this is really a European challenge that needs European solutions, and we’re still trying to hide behind a certain resistance to do that”. We need to find a way forward that allows for strong border management polices but that is also fair with those in need of protection, firm with those who are not eligible and harsh against the trafficking networks exploiting the vulnerable. We are not there yet.”
At least some important steps have been taken recently, she insists, notably with the Blue Card Directive on attracting highly qualified migrants, and with the establishment of the European Asylum Agency, fittingly, in her home country.
The shocking murder, four years ago, of an investigative journalist in her home country prompted Metsola to take up another political fight, one for a media that is free to work in safety.
“After the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia, there was this idea between all political groups in this parliament who came together and said there is an issue, a gap in our legislative tool box that needs to be filled. And if it is not filled at Member State level, then it has to be filled at European level.”
In her State of the Union speech in early September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had made a point of safeguarding a free media as well as journalists themselves. As a first step, recommendations to Member States were issued by the Commission later the same month, but legislative steps have also been announced.
Parliament, meanwhile, is drafting its proposals in parallel, a way of working that has gained more ground in recent years. For Metsola, this is a move in the right direction. “I think, this Parliament’s role is a legislative one but it’s also a political one, which means that if we want the right buttons pushed and the right questions asked or answered, then the Parliament needs to be much more proactive.”
The particular legislative gap in the realm of media freedom that she is tackling is the infamous strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. Together with her German Social Democrat colleague Tiemo Wölken, representing the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), and Metsola the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), she aims to find effective ways to stop this serious, and growing threat to freedom of expression, posed by companies or individuals with vast amounts of funds fuelling such lawsuits.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of them”, she says, “by these people who have in their mind, let’s say, the means to shut somebody up or scare them into not writing anything by filing vexatious, frivolous lawsuits that seek only to intimidate and silence”.
“My basic guiding principle is that I believe in Europe. And this parliament will ensure that Europe comes back, that people re-capture that sense of promise that our project has”
And often enough, as she explains, it works for them, because journalists are unprotected and scared. “They’re left alone, sometimes even by their own state and have to face years of legal challenges that they definitely cannot afford. So, the first instinct is to stop writing”.
In their work on the report, Metsola, Wölken and their shadow rapporteur colleagues have met with “extremely courageous journalists and media houses that have fought back”. And they are determined to provide journalists and civil society activists with the cover they need and to have a text that balances the need to fight abusive lawsuits while protecting legitimate claims.
They have discussed, and are still in the period of discussing, what kind of measures to suggest, but one aspect is going to be a judicial approach, so that a SLAPP can be dismissed at an early stage to avoid running up large legal costs. Another idea is setting up funds to cover potential legal costs for journalists, media houses and editorial content holders.
There are also good examples from across the world that have addressed the issue which Metsola and her colleagues have looked at, she reports. “These are all issues that we are discussing at the moment and we’re coming quite close to finding proper measures, which we will be tabling very soon. My colleague Tiemo and I are pretty optimistic that, even though a lot of work iremains for us to do, we will find a good majority in this house and one that is suitably robust”, she concludes.
By way of a send off the Parliament Magazine after our conversation, Metsola gave us her outlook for the rest of the legislature. “My basic guiding principle is that I believe in Europe. And this parliament will ensure that Europe comes back, that people re-capture that sense of promise that our project has. Our vision is to really get this institution right at the centre of a pro-European vision, that so many people have asked us to deliver. We have two and a half years left to do that”.