It’s debatable who will get the EU’s top job

Europe Letter: Candidates vying for president of the commission took part in a live debate for the first time

Guy Verhofstadt, Martin Schulz, Ska Keller  and Jean-Claude Juncker before the first European Commission presidential debate in Maastricht on Monday. The candidates are to debate again on May 9th. Photograph: Marcel Van Hoorn/EPA

Guy Verhofstadt, Martin Schulz, Ska Keller and Jean-Claude Juncker before the first European Commission presidential debate in Maastricht on Monday. The candidates are to debate again on May 9th. Photograph: Marcel Van Hoorn/EPA


As European Parliament president Martin Schulz left Dublin’s Connolly station yesterday morning on the train to Belfast, the German socialist may have breathed a much-needed sigh of relief after a busy 48 hours.

But finding himself thrust into the heady world of the Irish Labour Party’s internal politics was the least of his worries. Before travelling to Dublin on Tuesday, the European Commission presidential hopeful had taken part in two live debates with his counterparts who are vying for the EU’s top job.

On Monday, the Dutch town of Maastricht hosted the first of two live TV debates between the four candidates of the biggest political groups in the European Parliament.

“History is being made tonight. Welcome to the first ever European presidential debate with the leading candidates for the European Commission presidency,” beamed Euronews presenter Isabelle Kumar, as the camera cut to a close-up of the four blinking candidates quietly trotting out on stage.

The audience comprised the usual EU staple of “young people from across Europe” , the demographic that invariably seems to populate EU political gatherings of all hues. At home, thousands more tuned in to watch the live broadcast, which was translated into 13 languages on the Euronews TV channel and streamed live on the web.

The folk at Euronews obviously hadn’t heard of the perils of live-debate-tweeting from RTÉ, as the debate was peppered with updates from the programme’s Twitter feed, through which members of the public posed questions.

First of its kind
The 90-minute debate, the first of its kind, spanned subjects loosely divided into the categories of the economy, immigration and the rise of Euroscepticism.

The quality of the debate was strong, despite the stilted nature of some of the language – none of the four candidates is a native English speaker, highlighting an inherent problem in reaching out to an entire continent of voters. With all four candidates having direct experience of European affairs they were all well-informed on the issues. The charge that the contenders are Brussels- based Eurocrats for once seemed to be an advantage, particularly in contrast to some national debates, where would-be politicians have little experience of the realities of politics.

Among the issues address- ed were where the candidates stood on eurobonds, their plans to tackle unemployment and their views on the NSA spying scandal. But much of the debate strayed into detailed discussion of the relative powers of the European Council, Commission and Parliament – the kind of insider talk that would have been lost on most voters.

Political swipes
There was some room for political swiping. Green candidate Ska Keller accused the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker of “presiding over a tax haven” while prime minister of Luxembourg, while Schulz took umbrage at a question referring to the age profile of candidates.

Ironically, the two candidates least likely to accede to the top jobs arguably performed the best, with liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt benefiting from his relative competency in English, and 32-year-old Keller appearing fresher and more relevant to most ordinary voters. Juncker failed to impress, hampered by his limited proficiency in English, while Schulz was mildly disappointing, failing to seize the initiative.

Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic leader of Greece’s far- left Syriza who is the chosen candidate of the European Left grouping, declined to take part in the debate, but has promised to participate in one on May 15th.

Monday’s debate, and a radio debate the following day, may be a noble attempt to connect voters to the process of electing the next commission president, but doubts remain about whether the council will support the plan.

An informal summit is scheduled for May 27th, two days after the European elections, although Herman Van Rompuy, who is responsible for securing member states’ agreement on the top jobs, has already been visiting key figures including British prime minister David Cameron and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

The latest estimate from PollWatch, published yesterday, suggests that the EPP will remain the largest grouping after the election, with 213 seats, just ahead of the Socialists and Democrats with 208 seats, which would appear to bode well for Juncker. But most election- watchers in Brussels believe Schulz may be the one to watch when negotiations for the top jobs begin in earnest.

For voters who inadvertently missed Monday’s debate, do not fret – tune in on May 9th for the second debate.


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