Roberta Metsola is standing on the edge of something special.
Nominated by the European People’s Party for the post of EU Parliament president, the 42-year-old is on the verge of landing the most prestigious political role a Maltese person has ever held.
Yet Metsola’s journey to the top of European politics hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
Born in 1979 and raised in Gżira, Metsola studied law at the University of Malta, which is were she also got her first taste of politics, becoming secretary-general of SDM, a student group which is loosely affiliated with the Nationalist Party.
It was during her time in student politics that she met her eventual husband Ukko Metsola, an aspiring Finnish politician who at one point held a senior role within the Finnish Office of the Prime Minister.
Roberta and Ukko Metsola would go on to have four boys together.
In the Lovin Malta documentary ‘The First Vice’, the Metsolas revealed that one of their first dates was actually a protest in Helsinki against Belarus’ longstanding president Alexander Lukashenko.
But Metsola’s ambitions didn’t stop at activism.
Invigorated by Malta’s accession to the EU, the then 25-year-old decided to contest Malta’s first-ever European Parliament election in 2004.
Contesting on the PN ticket, she failed to get elected, ultimately finishing fourth out of eight candidates on her party list, decent enough for a political debut.
And Metsola would still have a role to play in Malta’s newfound place in the EU, becoming the country’s Legal and Judicial Cooperation Attaché within the Permeant Representation of Malta to the EU.
In 2009 she decided to face the people of Malta again, only this time with a uniquely emotional twist to her campaign.
All the way over in Finland, Ukko Metsola was contesting the same election for the National Coalition Party, making the Metsolas the first-ever married couple to run the same European Parliament election from two different member states.
Privately, they made a deal among each other that if either of them were to get elected, the other would leave politics for good.
Metsola threw everything but the kitchen sink at the election, taking paid leave and moving in with her mother and two children so as to allow her as much time as possible to her campaign.
But as the votes came in, it became clear that voters had chosen to retain Simon Busuttil and David Casa as the PN’s two MEPs.
“I was close in the surveys but of course you never factor in the importance of the alphabet in our electoral system,” Metsola would tell Lovin Malta years later, a reference to how her surname was lower down the list than Casa’s.
Ukko had failed to get elected too, and the feeling of joint excitement quickly soured into one of deflation.
“I remember me and him with tears falling down both our eyes; we tried so hard but we didn’t manage,” Metsola said. “There was a sense of realisation of how much of our personal money we had spent [on the campaign] and it took some months to recover.”
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.
A year later, she 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.
As an MEP, Metsola focused heavily on irregular migration, warning that the current EU system was unfair to countries like Malta, which had to process proportionately far more claims than other EU countries due to the fact that it is geographically closer to Libya.
She called on the EU to set up disembarkation locations in safe third countries, where all asylum claims would be processed. Those eligible for asylum would be resettled to EU countries as per a fair mechanism while those ineligible would be sent back.
Yet her calls largely fell on deaf ears, with EU governments unable to reach an agreement.
Metsola also tackled topics ranging from LGBT+ rights and AI regulation to media freedom and foreign affairs, once again taking on her old nemesis Lukashenko, only this time from a more powerful platform.
She didn’t shy away from using her EU platform to address local controversies either, criticising Malta’s sale-of-citizenship scheme on the grounds that “European citizenship confers certain rights which should simply never just be put up for sale”.
At one point, she even refused a request by the scheme’s concessionaire Henley & Partners for a conciliatory meeting, warning there would be little to discuss.
Metsola was also critical of the Maltese government in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal and the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
In an EP debate soon after Caruana Galizia’s murder in 2017, she accused the authorities of “pillaging our children’s legacy and destroying Malta’s reputation” and hailed the European Parliament as her country’s “last bastion of hope”.
“Joining the EU was our way of ensuring that no politician with delusions of grandeur will ever again trample on our rights without our European partners stepping in to help us,” she said.
“Daphne Caruana Galizia was executed and her killing exposed the urgency of the situation in Malta where the ruling party has used its majority to run roughshod over the rule of law.”
However, her speeches also prompted accusations from home that she was trying to score political points by damaging her own country’s reputation.
“It is difficult not to hate this sick woman,” film director Mario Azzopardi tweeted once. “How can she sleep at night knowing that the country hates her with a passion?”
Metsola countered that she would be betraying Malta if she were to defend crime and corruption, but the warnings that she and MEP David Casa were betraying and attacking Malta overseas proved a powerful campaign narrative for the Labour Party at the 2019 European Parliament election.
Although the PN lost this election dismally, losing one of its three seats to Labour, the election proved to be an unprecedented personal success for Metsola, who increased her vote share to 38,000.
For the second European Parliament election in a row, she was her party’s most popular candidate.
In November 2019, Malta was plunged into a political crisis after Yorgen Fenech, a businessman whose company owned the tallest building in the country, was charged with the murder of Caruana Galizia.
Metsola’s warnings in the European Parliament suddenly took on a new dimension and she represented the EPP as part of a delegation of MEPs to look into the situation.
During a private meeting with then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Metsola famously refused to shake Muscat’s hand, calling for his immediate resignation and accusing him of betraying the nation.
Muscat would announce his resignation a few days later.
When Metsola’s own party, the PN, was plunged into chaos a few months later and forced to call a leadership election, the MEP was ready to challenge then-leader Adrian Delia.
However, political manoeuvring resulted in Bernard Grech putting his name forward as leader, with Metsola stepping back so as not to risk splitting the anti-Delia vote. She would later say the PN is “on the right track” with Grech in charge.
It wasn’t long before another opportunity arose for Metsola, after Mairead McGuinness stepped down from her role as First Vice-President of the European Parliament to become EU Commissioner.
This time, Metsola seized the moment and was nominated by the EPP as its candidate for the job.
Around this time, the Maltese MEP was facing some controversy in Bulgaria after unsuccessfully trying to water down a resolution critical of the country’s government, which was run by an EPP-affiliated party.
Besides Bulgarian protestors deriding her as “Mrs Mafia”, Metsola also faced criticism in Malta that she was defending her European allies but throwing her own country under the bus.
However, Metsola rode the storm and was elected First Vice-President, making her the second most senior of Europe’s 705 MEPs.
“This is a tremendous honour and I am determined to use my new responsibilities to continue to be a strong voice for European citizens, for Malta and Gozo and continue to build bridges across the political divide,” she said back then.
After a slippery start to her political career, Metsola is now extremely close to landing one of the top jobs in European politics. Not only will it be a personal crowning glory for the former law student but a remarkable achievement for the nation.
“Ultimately I want to get out of this idea that Malta is small, that we need to be bigger,” Metsola had said as she was appointed Vice-President. “We can have big ideas, we’ve had big ideas in the past, but we need to start implementing them and that is not by trying to overcome some inferiority complex but by saying we are around this table and we matter.”
She could soon get a golden chance to put her words into action, and place Malta on the international map in the process, like never before.
Cover Photo: Left: Roberta Metsola in her childhood days (Photo: Roberta Metsola), Centre: Roberta Metsola as an MEP (Photo: Roberta Metsola), Right: Roberta Metsola refusing to shake Joseph Muscat’s hand in 2019: Photo: European Commission / AFP / Ben Borg Cardona)
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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