Roberta Metsola was conducting a school visit in her home constituency on the island of Malta when the legal service of the European Parliament, where she serves as president, began calling her urgently. They informed her that due to a police investigation they had been asked to seal off access to offices of people working in the European Parliament.
“My immediate response was: who?” Ms Metsola recalls in an interview in her office. “And: do it now.” She did not have long to wait to find out whose offices were being investigated.
That phone call heralded the start of Qatargate, one of the largest corruption scandals ever to hit a European Union institution, in which it is alleged that Qatar and Morocco sought to influence MEPs through the payment of bribes. Both countries deny the allegations.
Metsola was soon scrambling to board a flight to Belgium to get to the home of an MEP in time for a planned raid by investigators, her physical presence required to allow the search due to protections for elected representatives under the Belgian constitution that had never before been tested.
Investigators arrested a string of people, seizing computers, phones and a suitcase full of cash at a central Brussels hotel found in the possession of an MEP’s father.
“We’re talking about, allegedly, influence by a third state. Hard cash,” Metsola says. “To undermine or influence decisions in the European Parliament.”
Greek MEP Eva Kaili, one of the parliament’s 14 vice-presidents, has been charged with corruption and money laundering, though her lawyers protest her innocence. An Italian former MEP has made a deal with police for leniency in return for naming names. The head of a charity and a parliament adviser have also been charged, while the immunity of two further MEPs is expected to be lifted, exposing them to further investigation.
In response to the scandal, Metsola has proposed 14 measures to overhaul anti-graft rules in the parliament, including a two-year ban on lobbying after MEPs leave office, a ban on unofficial “friendship groups” with overseas countries that have come under the spotlight, and strengthened requirements for declaring lobbying meetings and sources of income.
But Transparency International has urged her to go further, complaining that the new standards will still rely on the self-enforcement that failed to prevent Qatargate; European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has recommended that she strengthen the ethics committee that oversees MEPs’ conduct.
“It’s a balance. I would like to believe in the integrity of members, rather than the opposite,” Metsola says. “And when there is abuse, we’ll go after it like there’s no tomorrow.”
There are no plans to make it obligatory for MEPs to submit receipts accounting for their €4,778 expense allowance, which they receive as a cash transfer in addition to their €9,808 pre-tax salary, and is intended to cover office expenses.
“I come from a country where we audit all our accounts,” Metsola says. In some member states, however, expense allowances are regarded as part of salary. Under proposed reforms, MEPs will receive guidance on what allowances should be audited, and encouraged to voluntarily submit accounts, as Ireland’s Green MEPs do currently.
More positive topics will top the agenda when Metsola visits Ireland on Thursday and Friday to mark 50 years of the Republic’s membership of the EU. She will address a joint session of the Houses of the Oireachtas and “celebrate the growth of Ireland” within the EU and its “proactive” contribution.
She will meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Fine Gael is in the same European People’s Party (EPP) centre-right bloc in parliament as Metsola’s Christian Democratic Nationalist Party, and the two know each other well; they once calculated there was “four hours” in their age difference.
Metsola entered politics in her native Malta through pro-EU campaigning. She met her Finnish husband in politics, and both ran as candidates for the European Parliament in their respective countries in 2009; neither won a seat. In the 2014 election Metsola was successful, and the couple now raise their four school-age sons together in Brussels.
Her rise in the parliament was swift: she replaced Ireland’s Mairead McGuinness as vice-president in November 2020 after McGuinness departed for the European Commission, and was elected president 14 months later, taking office as Russian tanks gathered on the borders of Ukraine.
Russian troops were still present on the outskirts of Kyiv when, against the advice of her security team, she travelled into the Ukrainian capital by night train at the end of March to address a special sitting of the parliament, the Rada, becoming one of the earliest international leaders to venture into Ukraine after the tanks rolled in.
She was responding to a last-minute invitation by the chairman of the Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, whom she knew personally and had been exchanging texts with throughout the war.
The gesture increased the profile of a position that is often overshadowed by the top posts of other EU institutions. The apparent strength of feeling in Metsola’s support for Ukraine heartened MEPs from eastern member states, who expected psychological distance about the conflict from a politician representing an island so geographically removed from the war. The conflict has seen a shift, Metsola believes, in thinking across the EU on defence.
“The centre of gravity has moved significantly eastwards in terms of policy in this area,” she says. “The Baltics have been leading quite heavily, Poland and Romania as well, so there has been a swing in how the debate starts, and it starts in central and eastern Europe.”
I am wary of, you know, speculation, when you have two women leading institutions, and the automatic step is to put them in a rivalry situation. Which is absolutely not the case
The latest gossip in Brussels is about Metsola being a potential candidate for European Commission president next year – putting her in possible competition with Ursula von der Leyen if the German decides to run for a second term.
Speculation was turbo-charged when Manfred Weber, the leader of von der Leyen’s own EPP – a powerful broker in determining who is placed in the role – said both were “very capable women” who could be “excellent frontrunners” for the post.
Speculation about the politics at work behind this ranges from Weber’s own grievance at being usurped for the role himself by von der Leyen in 2019, to a potential deal with the parliament’s hard-right in which Metsola could be a compromise candidate.
But it is unclear if Metsola could really gather the required support of the EU’s national governments, never having served as a government minister herself, let alone as a head of government as the European Council prefers.
“This is not the first time this question has been put to me,” Metsola says when asked by The Irish Times if she would be interested in the role. She insists she is very busy and focused on her current job, and on re-running for her seat as an MEP in 2024.
“I also am wary of, you know, speculation, when you have two women leading institutions, and the automatic step is to put them in a rivalry situation. Which is absolutely not the case,” Metsola says.
“I have an excellent personal and professional relationship with Ursula. She works extremely hard. She’s the first woman commission president. I think she’s excellent,” she continues.
Nevertheless, it’s notable that she doesn’t rule herself out.