The European Union must begin a major wave of change to prepare for the arrival of Ukraine as a member state, the leader of its parliament has said, with “nothing off the table”, including removing trade tariffs and giving Kyiv access to internal markets before full membership.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, Roberta Metsola, an MEP from Malta who became the European parliament’s youngest ever president last year, said she expected member states to begin formal negotiations with Ukraine as soon as December.
“If they are going fast, we should match that speed,” she urged.
Metsola was the first political leader to visit Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, meeting the country’s president, President Zelenskiy, in Kyiv on 1 April 2022, when the capital was still under curfew and surrounded by tanks.
She has made the images of that encounter a symbol of her presidency: a poster of the pair in military green, shaking hands, hangs over the Parliament courtyard.
Defying caution and outright antagonism from some member states, she has given unequivocal support to Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU, a process which has advanced even as the country’s attempts to join Nato have stalled.
Ukraine is one year into a what many expect will be four or five year journey. But Metsola reflects fresh thinking among some EU leaders that the bloc needs to accelerate access to Ukraine- and the Balkan states that have also applied- in order to curb the risk of Russian interference in these former Soviet territories.
“Pushing the can down the road” on enlargement will only fuel nationalism and the far-right, she warned. “It increases the extremes on the political spectrum, the Euroscepticism. Campaigns in accession countries are fought, and lost or won, on the basis of the dream and hope of the EU.”
Metsola wants formal talks to begin before Christmas. The decision rests with EU ministers, who will meet formally in December after a public report in October on Ukraine’s progress in reforming its judiciary, curbing corruption and opening its markets.
“I expect a concrete outcome because the worst signal could be that we have given these people targets and deadlines which we can’t meet ourselves,” said Metsola.
Ukraine had a population of 44m before war broke out, has a vast agricultural sector and war damages estimated at $411bn (£338bn) even before the devastation caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam.
As the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen made clear in her state of the union address, Ukraine cannot be assimilated without a shake-up of the EU itself, including a new agreement between members on how to raise and distribute funds.
With Moldova and Albania also hoping to join, the next wave, whenever it comes, could mean that the bloc’s membership jumps from 27 to more than 30 nations.
“Of course the economic model that we have today is not one that would survive with 32 or 33 [member states]. But now is when we need to have that conversation. We’ve already started in the parliament,” said Metsola.
She believes there is no need to wait for accession to share some of the benefits of membership. Candidate countries could be given access to the mobile phone free roaming in the EU, a popular policy, which means charges are the same when on holiday in the EU as at home.
“If we are going to extend roaming to those countries, let’s do that,” she said. “The network operators are ready to do that.”
For businesses, trade barriers could be lifted.
“Pre-accession also means access to funds, access to universities, access for students, the possibility to tap into the internal market, whether we do import and export tariffs,” she said. “We said for years Ukraine could not be connected to the European electricity grid. It took us days to do that once the war started. At the end of the day it was always about political will.”
She suggested that the deal could cover agriculture – pointing out that Ukraine is a major supplier of poultry to some EU countries.
There is only one major outside economy that has such a deal. The customs union with Turkey, agreed in 1995, allows tariff-free trade in industrial goods. However, it does not include most agricultural produce. Also excluded are steel, coal, services and public procurement.
Ukraine is already trading freely within the EU. In order to support the war effort, all tariffs and quotas were suspended in June 2022, a concession now extended to June 2024. Unbridled access has already triggered protests from farmers in the bloc: poultry exports to the EU this year are likely to be three times what they were in 2021. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia last week said they would defy the EU and extend a ban on domestic sales of Ukrainian grain to protect their own farmers, pending the outcome of negotiations.
It was Malta’s divisions over membership that drew Metsola into politics as a law student. She was among those pushing for economic reforms and personal freedoms, having grown up at a time when controls on imports, prices and capital flows meant anyone wanting a fridge or a phoneline had to call their MP.
She joined the demonstrations in 1996 when Malta’s Labour government froze the EU application process, signing up for the opposition Partit Nazzjonalista. “Memories stay with you and give you fire,” she said.
In 2002 she was in the first cohort from Malta to study under the Erasmus university exchange scheme, spending a year in Rennes, in Brittany. She describes herself as a member of the Erasmus generation.
“For somebody coming from an island, it was about being outward-looking and seeking to have access to the highest standards that other countries had.”
Metsola returned to Malta to campaign in the 2003 referendum on EU membership, with the “yes” vote winning by the slimmest of margins. She ran unsuccessfully for the European parliament twice before finally winning a seat in a 2013 byelection.
Simon Busuttil, Malta’s former opposition leader, now secretary general of the European People’s party, said Metsola had invigorated the parliament. “Roberta has been like switching from black and white to colour TV – bringing a burst of energy and dynamism to an institution historically dominated by grey old men,” he said.
“The fact that she hails from the opposition party of the smallest member state makes her achievement all the more notable because she has gotten no leg-up from anyone, ” he added.
Metsola started by campaigning on revenge pornography and on corruption. But it was her work on migration, and her response to the assassination of the Maltese investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, that brought her to wider attention.
When Caruana Galizia died, she was facing 47 lawsuits from an array of business people and politicians.
Metsola responded by campaigning for legislation to protect the media from vexatious lawsuits brought by those with pockets deep enough to use the courts to unfairly silence reporters. She co-authored a report on introducing legislation to ban Slapps (strategic lawsuits against public participation).
This summer, the European parliament voted in favour of rules that would allow judges to dismiss vexatious cases early in the process, before the costs rack up. The proposal must win the support of member states, through the council of ministers. There are concerns the provisions may be watered down at this stage, so the battle is far from won. The UK is moving in tandem, with the government planning more limited anti-Slapp legislation.
“I hope we can continue bilaterally with the UK,” said Metsola.
In Malta and Italy journalists can go to prison for what they write because libel can be prosecuted as a criminal offence. Asked if criminal libel should be abolished, Metsola said: “Vexatious criminal libel, yes.”
She will campaign to retain her seat when the European parliament goes to the polls in June 2024. Metsola is hoping to return as president, a role she only took up on 18 January last year, the day she turned 43.
However, her name is increasingly paired with other, bigger jobs. She is seen as a potential successor to Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. Prime minister of Malta is another role that is mooted.
Her answer? “I will do the job I’m doing and I will continue to serve until the last day of my mandate.”
For now, she is focused on next year. “I need to run for my seat in Malta and it’s a hard election. Nothing is a given. And I will give it my all to get re-elected.”