Roberta Metsola achieved a number of firsts when she was elected president of the European Parliament a year ago.
She was the first person from Malta, the smallest European Union country, to hold the job; the first woman in 20 years; and, at 43, the youngest president in the Parliament’s history.
On Dec. 11 she also became the first president of the Parliament to participate in a police raid, as part of an investigation into suspicions of criminal corruption involving literal bags of cash and accusations that Qatar and Morocco had sought to buy influence within the legislature.
In her recounting of the raid in an interview with The New York Times, Metsola was at times incredulous at what had transpired, and at times wary about what lay ahead.
“Nothing could have prepared me for it,” she said of the raid, speaking from her office in the European Parliament building in Brussels last week. “But I did what I had to do.”
The scandal has sent shock waves through the Parliament, the least powerful of the three institutions that make up the European Union machinery, threatening to cast it as broken just as it tries to assume a bigger role in policymaking.
It also represents a significant challenge for Metsola, who is dealing with the criminal investigation and pushing for a slew of rule changes aimed at improving the legislature’s transparency.
On Dec. 9, Belgian police conducted multiple raids and arrests in Brussels over accusations of a criminal corruption scheme funded by Qatar and Morocco, aimed at influencing the proceedings of the European Parliament through bribing former and current lawmakers and aides as pressure grew to condemn Qatar over its human rights record. The raids came as the soccer World Cup was in full swing in Qatar, and as the country was still facing criticism for its treatment of the migrant workers who helped build stadiums for the tournament.
Qatar and Morocco have both denied the allegations against them.
Those accused included a Greek vice president of the Parliament, Eva Kaili; her life partner, Francesco Giorgi, who is an aide to another lawmaker; and a former senior lawmaker from Italy, Antonio Panzeri. Belgian police found 1.5 million euros, or $1.6 million, in bags in their homes and elsewhere.
They have been charged with corruption, money laundering and forming a criminal organization. Kaili, through her lawyer, has protested innocence; the others have declined to comment.
Two days after the arrests, Metsola was told she was bound by local law to be physically present in order for Belgian police to raid the home of another European lawmaker implicated in the case who was a Belgian citizen.
To make things more dramatic, a ticking clock was placed on the raid: it had to happen before 9 p.m. to comply with Belgian police regulations.
Metsola flew from Malta to Brussels, landing just after 7:30 p.m., and raced 62 miles across Belgium to the lawmaker’s home.
Before turning onto his street, in a town near the city of Liège, her driver switched off her car’s blue emergency lights and slowed down, she recalled. At a pub nearby, locals were watching the England-France World Cup quarterfinals, filling the air with cheers.
At 8:51 p.m., with nine minutes to spare, Metsola stood at the front door of her colleague, Belgian lawmaker Marc Tarabella, flanked by armed officers and lawyers.
“Knocking on that door was not easy,” she said. “It had to be done, it’s never been done before, but who knows what else will need to be done,” she added.
On Monday, she will ask the Parliament to lift the immunity of Tarabella and another lawmaker, Andrea Cozzolino, at the request of Belgian authorities, paving the way for more possible arrests.
Tarabella and Cozzolino have denied wrongdoing, and said they welcomed the lifting of their immunity so they could clear their names.
One complication for Metsola is that a visit by Kaili to Qatar last October was blessed by her office and came after the Qataris had canceled an official visit of an expert parliamentary committee that was critical of the Persian Gulf state.
In the interview, Metsola said Kaili had earlier requested blanket authorization to visit Doha when she wished, and that she had declined. Instead, she approved the specific October trip so that Kaili could “represent the positions of the Parliament in her capacity as vice president,” and report back to her.
She acknowledged that suspicious behavior by Kaili leading up to her arrest, including voting in favor of Qatar at a committee meeting over visa-free travel to the European Union for Qataris, might have prompted her to think twice about approving the trip.
But, she said, “the benefit of hindsight is always easy.”
Asked if she thought there would be more corruption revelations, she said, “I’m sure we’ll continue to have different requests” from the police.
“There will always be investigations. But what I hope is that we create firewalls” against corruption, she added.
On Thursday, Metsola unveiled a raft of proposed changes designed to significantly toughen transparency rules of Parliament.
Under the proposals, former lawmakers would be required to take a two-year “cooling-off” break before assuming lobbying roles, and there would be more effective enforcement of the swift declaration by lawmakers about their travel and the gifts they receive.
Transparency advocates have supported Metsola because she has a record as an anti-corruption campaigner in Malta.
“The fact that she was elected president represents an incredible achievement, not just because she’s an outspoken young woman in what is still largely a men’s world, but also given the European Parliament’s traditional resistance to any kind of internal reform,” said Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU and a former European lawmaker.
But he said he thought Metsola still needed to introduce independent oversight of the Parliament’s anti-corruption rules improving their enforcement, and might struggle to do so.
“She will have to stick her neck out and make some enemies, also within her own party. I’m not sure she’s willing to do that,” van Hulten said.
“There’s a lot at stake, not just for the Parliament as an institution, but also for her personally,” he added.
Metsola has a lot riding on the next 1 1/2 years, when her tenure ends and fresh EU-wide elections take place to pick the 705 lawmakers of the next European Parliament. She can run for a second term as president, but declined to comment on her plans.
A lawyer by training, she rose in the youth wing of Malta’s conservative Nationalist Party, although she said “I don’t consider myself a conservative,” and attended the elite College of Europe in the Belgian city of Bruges, where many top EU officials were educated.
Metsola ran for European Parliament twice unsuccessfully — in 2004 and 2009 — before eventually being elected in 2014 and for a second term in 2019.
Through her 30s, she built a career at the heart of EU horse-trading, at the European Council, where member states negotiate policies and find compromises on the continent’s toughest questions. She specialized in migration policy, arguably the most fraught of all issues facing the bloc at the time.
To get anything done, she said, “You had to cross all sorts of aisles and say ‘Hey, can we do this together? Can you help me? If I help you today, would you be able to you know, give me a little bit of what I need in that other file?’”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Metsola has become one of the most vocal advocates for Ukraine in Europe, and was one of the first leaders to visit Kyiv after the Russian invasion last year. Outside her office, a Ukrainian flag stands next to that of the European Union.
On the train to Kyiv, she said, she reflected on her days as a younger woman traveling across Europe by rail — a treasured rite of passage for many Europeans.
Then she received a call from her mother in Malta, she said, who was irate to find out from the media that her daughter was heading into a war zone.
“Southern moms, you know?” Metsola chuckled.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.