European Parliament, Jostling for Relevance, Elects a New Leader

BRUSSELS — The European Parliament elected a new president on Tuesday, with Roberta Metsola, a 43-year-old Maltese deputy, picked to lead the institution as its seeks to gain a more prominent place in the E.U. power structure.

Ms. Metsola’s predecessor, David Sassoli, died at age 65 last week, and she was selected by an overwhelming majority over two other candidates, all women.

The European Union of 27 nations, one of the world’s most ambitious political experiments, is home to 450 million people. The Parliament is the bloc’s only directly elected institution, and voters have been electing lawmakers to the body since 1979, when the union was much smaller.

Despite the holding of European Parliament elections every five years, the European Union has a complicated structure and is often accused of being a murky bureaucratic machine, detached from its citizens and lacking democratic accountability, even as it grows in power.

“In the next years, people across Europe will look to our institution for leadership and direction, while others will continue to test the limits of our democratic values and European principles,” Ms. Metsola told lawmakers after being elected. “We must fight back against the anti E.U.-narrative that takes hold so easily and so quickly.”

Ms. Metsola, a member of the conservative European People’s Party, the Parliament’s largest political group, has a daunting task in leading the most fragmented chamber in decades as it tackles issues such as curbing carbon emissions, upholding the rule of law and setting out rules for major technology companies.

European Parliament in 2020. It is the bloc’s only directly elected institution.Credit…Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She will also have to navigate the Parliament’s relationship with the two other institutions governing the bloc: the European Commission, its executive bureaucracy; and the European Council, which pools together the heads of government of the 27 member states. The three branches often compete with one another for influence, with the Parliament struggling for relevance and usually coming out the weakest.

The dance between the E.U. institutions has been unfolding against the backdrop of a larger conundrum: Can the bloc, which has positioned itself as a defender of democracy and which governs many aspects of the lives of Europeans, become more democratic while maintaining its current structure?

“The European Union is an unfinished political system,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank. “It’s a question of perspective,” she noted. “If you look at it like an international organization, it is one of the most democratic ones. Obviously, if you compare it to national democracies, it has a democratic deficit.”

But according to Ms. Pornschlegel, that comparison would not be fair. “So far, we don’t have the United States of Europe,” she said, referring to a more deeply integrated federal power structure. “It’s much more complicated than that.”

The European Parliament can veto legislation, set up budgets, ratify international agreements and has a supervisory role over various institutions. It also has the final say in approving the president of the European Commission.

But in December 2019, when the current head of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was appointed, national leaders reneged on their promise to nominate a president from candidates proposed by the Parliament’s lawmakers, which was seen as a major blow to the institution’s standing. Lawmakers also cannot dismiss individual commissioners, but can only disband the commission as a whole.

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, second left, was appointed in 2019.Credit…Pool photo by Aris Oikonomou

And in an important divergence from national legislatures, the European Parliament does not have the power to initiate laws, which many see as a huge hindrance. “It puts you in a reactive mode,” said Marietje Schaake, a former member of the European Parliament who now teaches at Stanford University. “It is a major flaw in the design of the union.”

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European Union law at the business school HEC Paris, put it more bluntly. “The European Parliament is neither a parliament, because it has no legislative initiative, nor is it European, because its members are elected at the national and not at the European level,” he said.

But analysts say that in recent years the Parliament has gained prominence, expressed both through an increased turnout in the 2019 elections and through a series of unusually bold moves.

Under Mr. Sassoli, an Italian, the Parliament took the European Commission to court for not using existing rules to cut funding for member countries breaching rule-of-law standards. And in May, lawmakers blocked a high-profile investment agreement between the bloc and China, citing human rights violations and sanctions against Europeans critical of Beijing, including some lawmakers.

As the position of the Parliament has evolved, so has the role of its president. “It is no longer the role of a ceremonial figure, like the president of the German republic,” Professor Alemanno said. “The president is somebody who can allow the European Parliament to advance their political goals and defend its prerogatives. But it will depend on their personality, and their political affiliation.”

In many ways, Ms. Metsola, a former lawyer, brings novelty to the role. Nearly 60 percent of the legislators are men, and the average age is about 50. And Ms. Metsola is the first president to come from Malta, the bloc’s smallest member nation.

But in other ways, Ms. Metsola is a mainstream choice. She belongs to the Parliament’s dominant group, which is also home to the party of Ms. von der Leyen. Critics say that the political affinity could be an obstacle to Ms. Metsola’s standing up to the commission.

Ms. Metsola belongs to the Parliament’s dominant group, which is also home to the party of Ms. von der Leyen.Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

In an interview with The Times before her selection as president, Ms. Metsola said, “We have the task to hold the commission to account, and we will keep doing that unapologetically.”

“But we will keep in mind the bigger picture of E.U. unity,” she added. “I don’t want the Parliament to get stuck in inter-institutional debates.”

Ms. Metsola has been outspoken against corruption and the erosion of the rule of law, especially in her native Malta. But she has faced criticism over her socially conservative views, in particular her stance against abortion. She said that once elected, she would push forward “the position of the house” on reproductive rights.

Referring to Ms. Metsola’s vote against a resolution condemning Poland’s anti-abortion laws, Alice Kuhnke, a Green candidate for president, said, “All women in the E.U. should rely on the president of the Parliament to fight for us when needed.”

“I find it hard to see how she would manage to do that with credibility and strength,” Ms. Kuhnke added, in an interview before Ms. Metsola was confirmed as president.

The institution of the Parliament has often been chided for not upholding the principles it preaches. Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, said in a recent report that the Parliament’s internal rules were not sufficient to guarantee accountability of lawmakers.

Despite the systemic flaws, there are reasons for the Parliament to be optimistic, analysts say. In a recent poll, 63 percent of Europeans said that they would like the body to play a more important role. One proposal would see some lawmakers elected from Pan-European rather than national lists, aiming to bolster the connection with voters across the bloc. But in typical E.U. fashion, it is unclear whether such a change would be ready before the next election, planned for 2024.

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