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Metsola’s charm offensive jolts EU election campaign to life

Metsola’s charm offensive jolts EU election campaign to life

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THE HAGUE — Roberta Metsola never explicitly asked for their votes, but the European Parliament president was clearly campaigning. 

“Ask me anything,” she declared, kicking off a forum Thursday night with about a thousand students at the University of Leiden, breezing through questions on everything from the war in Ukraine to the Qatargate corruption scandal, and bringing a bit of a rock star feel to the packed lecture hall.

The Maltese EU lawmaker was in the Netherlands on a two-day trip to drum up interest in the 2024 EU election — and, perhaps, to boost her own profile amid rumors she is eyeing Ursula von der Leyen’s job running the EU’s executive. Notably, she made a pit stop Friday morning to visit Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, one of the EU’s most senior leaders, who lauded Metsola as “effective” and “strong.”

It was, essentially, an unofficial campaign starting gun, kicking off a year of political jockeying ahead of the 27 national votes that could spark a reshuffling of the EU’s top jobs — and determine Metsola’s future. 

“It’s not enough that you vote, your friends need to vote,” Metsola implored the students. “And if they don’t want to, ask me and I’ll contact them.”

Metsola cast herself more as an ambassador for EU democracy than a political campaigner. 

“Rather than a campaign — when I was elected, I said I wanted to burst through the Brussels and Strasbourg bubble: This is what I meant, by being here and doing this around Europe,” Metsola told reporters Friday morning.

Yes EU can

Metsola, 44, connected easily with the young crowd, reaping laughs and keeping the students’ attention while telling a slew of personal anecdotes about her first failed attempt to get elected as an MEP at age 24; her large Maltese family (she has four sons, whom she drives to school every day — and 26 first cousins); and her experience being a woman in politics.

A former student of electoral law, she told them she’s an elections wonk who devours political biographies. She is currently reading a book by erstwhile Obama speechwriter David Litt.

“The reason why I’m here is because I want to convince you to vote, to potentially run for elections, to fight for a cause you believe in,” she told the young people gathered there.

A Ukrainian student named Yana, 24, (who, like other students interviewed did not provide a last name) said she had lived under the Russian occupation of Bucha — liberated exactly a year ago just after Metsola visited Kyiv — and thanked the president for her support. “Roberta is very inspiring, very bright, very easy-going. She seems very human,” Yana told POLITICO after the talk.

Roberta Metsola was asked if her trip meant she was now officially in campaign mode | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Metsola’s views on migration and LGBTQ+ rights resonated with the shrewd student crowd, who also viewed her visit — at just more than a year to go before the election — as being more than merely a selfless plea for democratic engagement.

“You could see that she was already campaigning for 2024, because first she told us you can go and vote, and it’s important to make your politicians accountable for what they do,” said Ilan, a 22-year-old French student going for a master’s in public administration.

“So I think it was probably a way of saying: I can be held accountable for my program and I hold my promises,” he said.

Isabel, a 21-year-old who’s studying international relations, said Metsola’s personal approach was “very charismatic” — even while recognizing it as a concerted strategy to connect with younger voters like her. “For me, that’s always a sign this is a politician, because she’s trying to kind of make us empathize with her.”

The most confrontational question of the night came from Gijs, a tall student in a white shirt and a black waistcoat, who said: “If I say I did a Q&A with Roberta Metsola, most people will just say: ‘Who is that?’ So my question would be: What is the European Parliament going to do to bridge the gap between the EU and the average citizen?”

His question referred in part to an apparent gap between policy and reality in the so-called nitrogen crisis, where Dutch farmers are strongly butting up against EU environmental laws.

“We need to explain it more, I get that,” Metsola said, adding that not all of the EU’s national parliaments outside of the Netherlands have a healthy enough culture of debate around new EU laws and how they can impact sectors like agriculture.

Asked Friday if her trip meant she was now officially in campaign mode, Metsola said: “Rather than a campaign, when I was elected I said I wanted to burst through the Brussels and Strasbourg bubble: this is what I meant by being here and doing this around Europe.”

After the Q&A, Metsola edged toward the exit amid a throng of students gathered around her demanding selfies.

EU PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS SEAT PROJECTION

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

The next morning, she received a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister Rutte, despite the fact they are from different political families at the EU level. (Rutte is part of the liberal Renew faction, whereas Metsola hails from the center-right European People’s Party.) 

Rutte showered effusive praise on Metsola before he invited her to his office, saying he’s “really impressed” by her work as Parliament chief. “The way you are bringing your case to the European Council each meeting we have … is very impressive,” he told her in front of reporters outside his office Friday morning.  

So should she become European Commission president or get a second term as Parliament chief? “Obviously, what the state of play will be about all the roles anyone will take after the election, we don’t know,” the Dutch leader said.

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