The founding of the European Parliament in 1952, 16 of whom have served since the first European elections were held in 1979.
Presidential candidates can be put forward either by a political group or by a group of MEPs reaching the so-called low threshold, which means 5 % of members, or 36 out of 705 when all seats are filled. The President is elected by an absolute majority of valid votes – 50 % plus one – cast by secret ballot. Blank or spoiled votes are not taken into account in this calculation. If the first round does not deliver a winner, the same or other candidates can be nominated for a second and third round, under the same conditions. If no one is elected after the third round, the two candidates with the most votes in this round proceed to a fourth and final vote. The newly-elected President may then deliver an opening address before presiding over the election of the remaining members of the parliament’s bureau. Appointments to parliamentary committees for the rest of the legislative term are then confirmed during the same plenary session. All elected offices in the parliament (the President, Vice-Presidents, Quaestors, Committee and Delegation Chairs and Vice-Chairs) are renewed every two and half years – at the start of the five-year term and halfway through.
What is the role of the European Parliament president and how important is it?
The role is a largely ceremonial one. According to the official website of the European Parliament, the duties of the president include representing the institution “vis-à-vis the outside world and in its relations with the other EU institutions“. The President also chairs the Parliament’s plenary sessions, both when MEPs gather in Strasbourg once a month and also in Brussels. If there are any legal matters related to the parliament, then the President deals with these, while also overseeing the work of the Parliament and its constituent bodies, as well as the debates in plenary and ensures that parliament’s rules of procedure are adhered to. When EU leaders meet during a summit, the president lays out where the institution stands on issues that will be discussed at the meeting. As well as the European Council President, the European Parliament President signs all laws adopted under the so-called ordinary legislative procedure, in order for it to become official legislation, as well as under the co-decision procedure.
European Parliament elects first female president in 20 years
Maltese center-right MEP Roberta Metsola was elected President of the European Parliament On January 18th, a moment marking a generational and geographic shift within EU leadership. She won 458 votes in the first round of balloting, easily capturing the needed majority after the Parliament’s major groups agreed ahead of time to back the 43-year-old politician.
Metsola’s victory illustrates the changing dynamics both within the Parliament and among the EU’s leadership. “With humbleness, I feel honored by this responsibility with which you are entrusting me”, Metsola told MEPs in her inaugural speech from the president’s seat. “I promise you that I will work and do my utmost to work on behalf of this Parliament and for the benefit of all EU citizens.”
She was propelled to victory following a last-minute, power-sharing deal between the three largest groups in the Parliament the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the liberal Renew Europe.
In addition, electing a politician from Malta, the EU’s smallest country, would have been unthinkable years ago. Parliament Presidents have historically come from large EU countries like Germany or France, or from a founding member like the Netherlands. “I am a woman from a small island in the middle of Europe’s southern sea”, Metsola told MEPs during a speech prior to her election. “I know what it means to be the underdog, I know what it means to be pigeon-holed.”
First elected MEP in 2013, Metsola became one of Malta’s first female MEPs. She also soon became a point person within both the EPP and Parliament on migration a subject important to her Mediterranean island nation. She eventually rose to the rank of First Vice-President, positioning her to take over as the Parliament’s interim leader after the sudden death last week of former President David Sassoli.
Metsola told MEPs in her victory speech that she wanted to “recapture a sense of belief and enthusiasm” for the European project. “In the next years, people across Europe will look to our institutions for leadership and direction, while others will continue to test the limits of our democratic values and European principles”, she said. “We must fight back against the anti-EU narrative that takes hold so easily and so quickly.”
Women and the European Right
Roberta Metsola comes from a right-wing Maltese party and is known to gender equality advocates for her anti-abortion declarations. The European Central Bank’s Christine Lagarde is the past finance minister of a right-wing government in France. Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to become President of the Commission, was a defense minister from the Christian Democratic Union for Angela Merkel (yet another conservative woman leader) in Germany.
In other words, at the European level, all-woman leaders belong to the same group: the European People’s Party, a ‘moderate’ right-wing entity today, but one that used to include parties with thorough reactionary positions on gender equality, such as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz. Besides Merkel’s fifteen-year rule, and except for a handful of Scandinavian or Baltic socialist prime ministers, the vast majority of women who have held true executive power in Europe – as a party or government leaders – come from the right, starting with Margaret Thatcher.
Looking at the past and present, the list goes on for the conservatives, including Theresa May and one of three past female Polish prime ministers. In Poland, the other two came from the reactionary Law and Justice Party. They belong to Europe’s extreme right-wing, as do Marine Le Pen (France), Giorgia Meloni (Italy), and Frauke Petry and Alice Weidel, respectively Alternative fur Deutschland’s founder and leader in the Bundestag.
Political scientists are still struggling to find an explanation. On the one hand, some note that the conservative women who make it often portray the traditional ‘feminine’ figure championed by the right. Accepting their leadership would then be a strategy that conservative party leaders find useful to restate their – traditionalist–family policies, and to propose role models who can claim back some of the women’s votes that have shifted to the left since the 1970s.
This claim is true for some women leaders, notably for Thatcher, who famously kept cooking dinner at Downing Street during her time as PM, or Von der Leyen, with her seven children. Ursula von der Leyen takes part in a cooking event in Berlin during her tenure as Germany’s Federal Minister of Family Affairs, July. However, the explanation is exposed as flawed when it comes to figures like Weidel, who is openly lesbian, Le Pen, who is twice divorced, and Meloni, a single mother.
Both in the case of the conservatives and the extreme right, female role models have nonetheless been able to win back women’s votes. In the case of Italy, for instance, more than half of Meloni’s party supporters in the 2018 election were women, up from 37.5 per cent in 2013. According to a 2018 study, Le Pen had at least as many women voters as men in the 2017 Presidential election. Curiously, on the other hand, a majority of conservative and far-right female leaders of our times even the more ‘maternal’ figures often showcase characteristics that are normally associated with ‘masculine’ professions or typical of ‘masculine’ leaderships. Many have a background in the STEM or ‘hard sciences’: Merkel is a physician, Thatcher was a chemist, Von der Leyen used to be a defence minister and Lagarde has long been in charge of finances.
On the far right, traditionally masculine traits emerge in aggressive attitudes, loud voices, and overplayed assertiveness, sometimes even manifesting in dress codes. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen poses with Hungary’s Viktor Orban at the European right-wing parties’ ‘Warsaw Summit’, December.
While researchers struggle to find an explanation for the success of women in the European right, two points should now be established. First, it’s high time that European progressives act to close their resoundingly gendered leadership gap. The French presidential election might have been a test for that if only the divided French left had any chance to reach the second tour. Second, European women should focus on encouraging moderate female leaders to become stronger equality advocates and to represent the interests of all women.
New European Parliament Roberta Metsola looking forward to working interests of Europe
Roberta Metsola said she always looks forward and not backwards and that today’s result in her being elected as president of the EP means that they can look forward. Metsola has often been the target of insults from Labour Party supporters who have described her as working against Malta’s interests. But Abela, ahead of the vote, said that what happened in the past should not affect the relationship that the government looked forward to with Metsola as EP President.
Speaking about migration and the Dublin Regulation, which is an EU law stating that the country where asylum seekers first arrive is bound to help them, Metsola said that although these are critical issues, as president, she will wait for the results of a report being drawn up by a committee set up to see to such matters. Asked about the situation in Ukraine, Metsola said she wanted the EP to continue to send a strong message of unity and solidarity. She added that the situation in Belarus is very concerning. Mentioning the late former president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, she said she would continue to honour his memory by being faithful and true to his principles.
Speaking about the divided situation in Cyprus, she said that the EP had strongly spoken when Turkey began to display and threaten the use of military force, and they will continue to take this course of action. Endorsing Sassoli’s assessment of the ‘cruel inflexibility’ of current legislatures when addressing plans for financial recovery, she noted that there need to be regulations that ensure better transparency to ensure no abuse of power. She added that the EP would continue to push such a position whilst working with every member state. On the topic of abortion, when asked to interpret the position of the new House she represents, she said that the EP has always been clear on the issues of sexual and reproductive rights. She said that they recently voted against gender-based violence and she is committed to working this way.
Commenting on concerns raised by the present audience about the rule of law, she said that the EP itself is one that endorses rule of law and that there must be obligations that member states abide by to continue to promote a certain standard.