Centre-right Maltese lawmaker Roberta Metsola, chosen Tuesday as only the third woman to head the European Parliament, is viewed as a political moderate despite controversy over her anti-abortion stance.
Elected on the day she turns 43, the politician from the European Union’s smallest nation becomes the youngest president ever to run the chamber.
She takes over at a time of mourning for the legislature as it marks the sudden death last week of its speaker David Sassoli.
Metsola, a member of the biggest parliamentary bloc, the European People’s Party, was already the frontrunner to replace the centre-left Italian parliament chief under a deal struck by the main political groupings.
She is no stranger to the EU’s byzantine corridors of power after serving as Sassoli’s top vice president of the chamber.
“I think we have a convincing candidate: young, female, from a small country” Manfred Weber, the EPP’s parliamentary chief, said.
Metsola’s career has been intertwined with her Mediterranean homeland’s membership of the EU — and her rise to a job usually dominated by lawmakers from bigger powers could help shine the spotlight on often overlooked countries.
As a student, she campaigned for the successful “Yes” vote when Malta decided to join the EU in 2003. She then headed to the elite College of Europe in Bruges that turns out Eurocrats, and went on to work in Brussels.
She was eventually elected as an MEP on her third try, in 2013, on the ticket of Malta’s Nationalist Party.
“It took me almost 10 years to become a member of the European Parliament. I could have given up,” the mother of four sons wrote.
Once in, she climbed steadily up the ranks of the EPP in parliament, handling dossiers including immigration and freedom of the media.
Metsola claimed the vice president position in 2020 after an Irish legislator, Mairead McGuinness, left to become an EU commissioner.
One Green MEP at the time described Metsola as “a moderate member of the EPP and very good at bridging” between political groups.
She gained extra prominence last year standing in at a string of high-profile events for Sassoli as he suffered from bouts of pneumonia.
But her opposition to abortion — which remains illegal in largely Catholic Malta — saw her candidacy for the top job run into opposition from some lawmakers.
Metsola — who bills herself as a pro-LGBTQ progressive — voted in June against a report that urged all EU member states to “ensure universal access to safe and legal abortion” for women, arguing it infringed Malta’s right to decide for itself.
One lawmaker described Metsola’s views on abortion as her “weak spot”. It prompted the Greens and Left political groups to put forward staunchly pro-choice feminists as alternatives for parliament head.
But Metsola has insisted she would put her personal stance to one side and represent the majority view of the parliament as president.
“On sexual and reproductive health and rights, the position of the European Parliament is clear,” Metsola told the newspaper Malta Today.
“As president of the Parliament my duty is to represent the view of the Parliament and if I am elected, I will do my duty as I have always done.”