The Tower: Sari Essayah: A Brussels Parliamentarian Across Worlds

by Oren Kessler

Sari Essayah is no typical E.U. parliamentarian.

The bespectacled Finn is a retired world-champion race walker, who inherited her distinctly non-Finnish family name from a Moroccan father. And while Essayah had little contact with her father growing up, something of the Middle East and North Africa appears to have stayed with her: She has become one of the European Parliament’s go-to legislators on the region.

Essayah first entered Finland’s parliament a decade ago, representing the Christian Democrats. In 2009 she moved her family to Brussels to join the European Parliament (EP), the EU’s 754-seat lower house of legislature (its upper house is the 27-member Council of the EU). Today she is a member of the European People’s Party, the center-right alliance that is the EP’s largest voting bloc.

The 46-year-old is member of the parliament’s delegation to Israel, and of European Friends of Israel, an umbrella group of pro-Israel national caucuses that numbers some 300 legislators. She is also a member of the EU delegations to the Maghreb (North Africa) and to the Union for the Mediterranean – a grouping of Mediterranean Basin states that includes Israel and all of its neighbors.

“Some MEPs understand the whole picture, and others just look issue by issue. It’s sometimes hard to persuade those MEPs with narrow views about anything,” she told The Tower last week at her office in the sprawling European Parliament building. “I’m always amazed at how people in this house have such a light understanding of Middle East history.”

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