EP President Metsola tackles intimidation and abuse at the heart of EU democracy

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Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, has ordered an internal overhaul designed to rapidly improve the process for handling harassment claims with the European institution.

Metsola, has announced sanctions against two MEPs this year — Luxembourg’s Monica Semedo from the Renew group and Spain’s Mónica Silvana González from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, both for psychological harassment. They’re the only two MEPs to have been censured for bullying since the legislature was elected in 2019.

At least two others — Belgian MEP Assita Kanko from the right-wing ECR group and Spanish lawmaker José Ramón Bauzá from the liberal Renew group — are also currently being investigated by parliamentary authorities. 

On Thursday, MEPs backed demands to tighten the rules and streamline the procedure for dealing with alleged maltreatment, including both sexual and psychological harassment. It remains to be seen whether meaningful action will follow. 

A POLITICO’s investigation uncovered a dark picture of Parliament that emerged was of a poisonous workplace that has repeatedly shrugged off warnings that its anti-harassment policy is inadequate. According to the evidence presented to POLITICO, the current policy fails to protect those who risk everything to speak up. In some cases victims are actively discouraged from lodging complaints — to protect the Parliament’s image and spare the blushes of MEPs. 

At the heart of the problem is the power dynamic between politicians and the staff employed to service their professional needs. That balance tilts in favor of the MEPs, according to the victims. 

“They are masters of their own kingdom. The institutional dynamics actually encourage them to assume that role,” the assistant who filed a complaint against his boss said, describing his experience as akin to being “squeezed like an orange.” 

MEPs’ teams are typically made up of three so-called accredited parliamentary assistants, or APAs. Their work environments are close-knit and highly pressurized. There are some 2,000 assistants in Brussels and Strasbourg. While assistants’ contracts are held centrally with the European Parliament, their success — or survival — almost entirely depends on the individual MEPs they work for. 

Under the procedure for handling complaints, parliamentary staffers who face bullying by MEPs can lodge a formal case with Parliament’s HR service. If it deems the case admissible, the HR service can then pass it onto an anti-harassment committee. If that committee decides to open a formal investigation, it then calls in the politician and alleged victims to testify, and finally advises the Parliament president — currently Metsola — on sanctioning the guilty lawmaker.

The whole process often takes months.

On Thursday, MEPs voted to endorse a report prepared by the Parliament’s women’s rights committee. “Sexual and psychological harassment cases are still under-reported in Parliament because victims do not use the existing channels,” the report says. 

It is up to the president to decide on sanctioning the MEP bullies,  with  punishments ranging from a mild “reprimand” to fines or bans from parliamentary activities. And whicg Metsola is working to strengthen the system. 

“Improving the Parliament’s anti-harassment policy is a priority for the President,” her spokesperson Jüri Laas, pointing to other ongoing reforms in the wake of the Qatargate corruption scandal that engulfed the EU’s elected lawmakers in December. He said Metsola “is trying to improve things in the Parliament by making it more transparent, more efficient, more modern.”

Metsola wrote to MEPs in January asking for proposals to “improve Parliament’s response to harassment at the workplace,” after she and other MEPs identified “shortcomings.” 

Metsola wants to improve two other areas, according to her January letter: anti-harassment training and external mediation. Just 281 out of 705 MEPs have taken the voluntary training since 2019, according to the Parliament’s press services.

But rather than making it mandatory for MEPs, the Parliament’s HR service is proposing to keep training voluntary. It would be included in a new optional course entitled, “How to create a good and well-functioning team,” according to a confidential note, prepared by the Parliament’s head of HR. 

Photo: Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament

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