European debate, between people you probably wouldn’t recognise, takes place

Candidate recognition remains an issue for voters a week ahead of elections

 Alexis Tsipras for the Party of the European Left, Ska Keller of Green group, Socialist group candidate designate Martin Schulz, EPP group candidate designate Jean-Claude Juncker, and Candidate for the presidency of the European commission of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party Guy Verhofstadt, ahead to Eurovision debate at EU Parliament in Brussels. Photograph:
Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Alexis Tsipras for the Party of the European Left, Ska Keller of Green group, Socialist group candidate designate Martin Schulz, EPP group candidate designate Jean-Claude Juncker, and Candidate for the presidency of the European commission of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party Guy Verhofstadt, ahead to Eurovision debate at EU Parliament in Brussels. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Fri, May 16, 2014, 20:23

Would you recognise Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt, Ska Keller or Alexis Tsipras? Probably not; they are hardly household names in Ireland.

On Thursday night the third and final debate between the prospective candidates for the next European Commission president took place in Brussels. The debate was carried by 25 broadcasters across Europe, but most relegated the event to specialist or news channels.

Even the lure of an Irish interest failed to nudge the debate to a prime time slot on RTÉ. Despite the fact that RTÉ News2Day presenter and Carlow native Conor McNally was one of the presenters, the debate was confined to RTÉ’s news channel RTÉ News Now.

The presidential debate is a central aspect of a new strategy by the European Parliament to link the European elections to the appointment of the next head of the European Commission.

Direct say
The idea is that voters will have a direct say in who will become the next head of the EU’s executive arm, a position that is usually decided behind closed doors.

With each of the political groups in the European Parliament nominating its candidate for the position, it is hoped that voters will keep that candidate in mind when they vote for their chosen MEP next week.

This presupposes that voters know what political group their chosen MEPs belong to, as well as the identity of the various presidential candidates.

Another major challenge for the proponents of the so-called spitzenkandidaten system is that the European Council is not technically obliged to back the parliament’s candidate.

The Lisbon Treaty only states that the election of the commission president must “take account” of the results of the European elections, and a number of member states, including Britain and Germany, remain opposed to the system.

The first indication of whether this new system of candidate nomination will work will emerge in 10 days’ time when leaders of the EU’s 28 states meet in Brussels for an informal dinner two days after the European elections.