Press play to listen to this article
Voiced by artificial intelligence.
BRUSSELS — European Parliament President Roberta Metsola suggested that Ukrainian and Moldovan lawmakers could join the assembly as “observer” members while the two countries await formal accession into the European Union.
The EU last year designated Ukraine and Moldova as official candidate countries, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, Metsola has been clamoring for official accession negotiations to begin this year.
EU leaders are due to decide whether to formally open Ukraine and Moldova’s accession talks at a summit in December, once they’ve parsed a heavily anticipated report from the European Commission providing a status update on all countries still waiting in the EU’s wings.
“Make no mistake: Politically if a country looks to Europe, then Europe should fling its doors wide open,” Metsola told POLITICO in an interview in her ninth-floor office at the Parliament in Brussels.
The center-right politician suggested that a host of advantages could be offered to countries on the cusp of joining, ranging from single market perks to involvement in the Erasmus youth program.
“We can even go further, having observer members in this Parliament — these are things that matter to a population,” she said. “It depends on what happens in December.”
Metsola, who at 44 is the Parliament’s youngest president ever, was the first EU leader to visit Kyiv, meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 1 last year; a giant photo of the pair shaking hands now hangs on the esplanade in front of the Parliament in Brussels, a visual symbol of her championing the country in its war against Russia.
“Enlargement has always been the European Union’s strongest geopolitical tool,” Metsola said.
Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently made headlines by stating in an interview that rampant corruption in Ukraine should make the EU think twice about letting the country join. He also slammed unnamed voices for overpromising on the speed with which Ukraine could join the EU.
Asked about the risk of giving false hope that Ukraine could join the EU more quickly than is realistic, Metsola said: “Each country has its own path,” noting that her own country, Malta, took a decade to get in. She also praised Ukraine’s quick progress in answering an initial EU questionnaire.
She turned focus to preparations the EU must make in order to allow Ukraine’s accession, noting: “Don’t underestimate the transformative effect of being a candidate country.”
As for potential observer members of the European Parliament, she said she would have to liaise with the Parliament’s political groups and consider making the same offer to the six Western Balkan candidate countries that are also waiting to join the EU.
Observer MEPs for Ukraine and Moldova would not have voting powers and be nominated rather than elected; but they would have seats in the institution, which will in any case grow from 705 to 720 members after the June 2024 European election. “We will have to see when it happens, at which point do they become eligible for that,” Metsola said.
According to the Parliament’s rules, only when a formal accession treaty is signed can observer MEPs take up their seats, meaning this could still be years away.
Zelenskyy provided an update on his country’s internal reforms on X on Tuesday: “This is a top priority for Ukraine — being ready for the political decision to begin Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations this year. And I hope the same can be said for the European Union. We have laid a solid foundation for this.”
David Arakhamia, who leads Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party in Ukraine’s Rada, said over the phone of the observer MEP proposal, “We actually appreciate this idea very much,” adding that at least 30 politicians in the national parliament would be keen to take part.
“We have to learn, we have to see how decisions are being made, we have to talk to the colleagues, feel the vibe and atmosphere and understand better,” Arakhamia said.
A brush with death
Metsola has also taken a forthright stance on the recent war in the Middle East, which she described as a “fundamentally different crisis.”
She brought the EU’s leadership together in Brussels to pay their respects to Israeli victims, and was among the first to visit Israel after the Hamas attacks, emphasizing the need to mitigate civilian casualties in Gaza.
Metsola said that Israeli authorities gave her a makeup brush that belonged to a 15-year-old girl who was murdered in the music festival massacre in Re’im, and she now keeps the brush in her office. “It was absolutely horrible, what I saw,” she said.
The Maltese MEP had implicit criticism for the presidents of the other two main EU institutions, the European Commission and European Council — Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, respectively — who’ve given mixed messaging on Israel.
“I would like us to be more coherent, I would like us to be more consistent in whatever we say,” she said, pointing to her own consensus-driven approach while emphasizing that as individuals, she gets along well with Michel, von der Leyen and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell.
Metsola refused to be drawn into speculation about her own future, either on whether she will seek a second two-and-a-half-year term in the Parliament, or about persistent rumors that she could be a backup choice as Commission president if von der Leyen does not seek another term.
“I have a big job to do here. My focus will be on getting reelected next year in Malta for my seat and making sure that this Parliament can transition into the next mandate,” she said.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Roberta Metsola’s name.