Anna Frediani is a French undergraduate studying Economics & Management at King’s and Economics & Political Science at Panthéon-Sorbonne University. She would love to pursue a career in the United Nations as she is passionate about gender studies and international relations.
43 years after the election of Simone Veil, the conservative anti-abortion Roberta Metsola became the third woman to ever preside the European Parliament on the 18th of January.
While parity in political institutions, notably in the European Union, is a major current issue, the election of a woman to lead the European Parliament did not generate the expected rejoicing; particularly since Roberta Metsola completes the EU institutional triangle’s female presidency with Christine Lagarde and Ursula von der Leyen. Indeed, what is the symbolism of electing the youngest woman in the hemicycle, but also and above all an anti-abortion conservative from Malta – the only country in the European Union where abortion is considered a crime and illegal even in cases of rape, incest, illness and/or danger(s) for the mother?
The woman who was elected in the first round with 458 out of 703 votes proudly posted on Twitter that she thought it was “time for the European Parliament to be led by a woman”. Roberta Metsola emphasises the fact that she is a young woman and focuses many of her statements on these characteristics: she stresses the “easier and smoother path” that her predecessors – Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine – have paved, and comments on how this is “something that will never go backwards”. Yet her outspoken views on abortion are seen by many as a huge step backwards; Aurore Lalucq, Eurodeputy of the Socialists and Democrats group, said that “the message sent is not the right one”, as well as Clément Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs in France, who said that “the symbol of this election bothers him”, and Eurodeputy Renew Bernard Guetta, considers that it is “a very bad sign for women’s rights and the image of the European Parliament”. There is therefore, first of all, a paradox between the communication chosen by the European People’s Party to which Metsola belongs- which highlights the empowerment of women and young girls, pro-LGBTQIA+ and migrant rights- and her real commitment to women’s rights. Indeed, she even decided to abstain on voting during a resolution asking the European Commission to criminalise violence against women. Is Roberta Metsola then in a legitimate position to speak on behalf of women?
Unlike her, I think that the achievements of the women who came to power before her are in constant danger of being questioned, increasing the risk and worry that all progress would have been for naught. Simone de Beauvoir – a French writer, philosopher, theorist, and feminist activist – warned us in her book The Second Sex written in 1949: “Never forget that it will only take a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights are never acquired. You must remain vigilant throughout your lives.”
Given that the political context for women’s rights in Europe has recently been shaken to the core, Metsola’s appointment then proves to be even more controversial. It was in Fall 2020 that Poland declared terminating pregnancies unconstitutional, even in cases of severe and irreversible foetal illness; leading to the near-total abolition of abortion rights in the country. Civil uprisings in Poland and across Europe have occured since this announcement, recently accentuated following the death of a 37-year-old Polish woman as a result of the inability to have an abortion at the end of January 2022.
Another paradox to be raised in regards to the beliefs and stance of the new President of the Parliament is the emphasis on the defence of LGBTQIA+ rights. The intrinsic intersectionality of these discriminatory and violent issues create, in my opinion, an unbreakable link between (at least) feminist, anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA+ commitments. Indeed, violence against women is exacerbated if they are POCs and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Consequently, being anti-abortion while claiming to be pro-LGBTQIA+ is paradoxical because if abortion rights are taken away in Europe, POCs and LGBTQIA+ will undoubtedly be subject to further suffering. The Northwestern University journal shows that experts support this argument in the case of the Texas abortion ban that “will likely disproportionately impact trans and marginalised people”. Thus, it seems in itself contradictory for Metsola to be both anti-abortion and pro-LGBTQIA+.
Finally, it seems that this election resonates with a debate on the possibility of anti-abortion feminism. According to Malin Björl, Eurodeputy of the left bloc, “women’s rights are human rights, the right to dispose of our bodies, to decide freely on our sexuality, it is fundamental!”. Thus, abortion rights are part of women’s rights in general, and therefore necessary for striving towards equality between women and men. Roberta Metsola, using a similar rhetoric to feminist discourses, blurs this boundary; in a Twitter video, she refers to women as inspiring, acknowledging their presence across a number of different fields- “women in politics, women in science, women in sport, women in journalism, women in the arts, women in culture” and so on. She recuperates a feminist rhetoric that is often criticised nowadays as lacking intersectionality, coupled with her affiliation to a conservative party (and previously to the Nationalist and Sovereignist Party) that is for many women incompatible with feminism. However, it is important to point out that Metsola has stated her commitment to the Parliament members of representing the opinion of the majority on abortion, especially as the European Union has no ruling in this area. However, it is still of interest to look at this line of discord within the different feminist currents. In my view, feminism is a movement that goes beyond simply supporting individual women; it is a political struggle for justice, equal opportunities for both women and men, and for a potential end to the dominant/dominated binary between them, amongst others – all of which are unattainable without free and protected access to abortion for all.
I think that the symbolism of this election is outdated and dangerous for the Parliament and the EU, especially as member countries are still regulating and/or banning access to abortions. Therefore, this does not seem to be an improvement for Women in Politics; in fact, it appears to be quite the contrary.
[Feature image sourced from BBC.]