On Monday 28th April, the first EU Presidential debate took place between four of the candidates campaigning to become EU Commission President at the end of 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt, and Ska Keller (Alexis Tsipras chose not to take part), held in the birthplace of the EU, Maastricht. Organised by the European Youth Forum, Maastricht University, and Euronews, the 90 minute debate was a first in European politics, streamed live online and taking questions from the floor, as well as via social media using #EUDebate2014, the debate gave candidates a chance to answer key questions and outline their vision for Europe. The reception has been mixed, with some claiming it to be “cosy parliamentary debate”, while others were enthused by the “quality and dynamism of the debate”.
Ably chaired by Euronews anchors Isabelle Kumar and Chris Burns, the questions followed a core line of policy areas including youth unemployment, the European economy, growth of extremist parties, immigration and foreign policy. The strict timekeeping of the chairs interrupted the flow of many answers – which led to an undignified moment of petulance by Martin Schulz at one point – but was a necessity and, overall, gave each candidate equal time to form their policy agenda.
Being co-hosted by Maastricht University and attended by many of the current students, not to mention the thousands following on social media, the question of youth employment was a potent leading topic which all the candidates shied away from. They instead manoeuvred their answers onto economic plans as a whole (which we’ll come to later). Martin Schulz, perhaps, caught the best soundbite by exclaiming the rise of unpaid internships, but little else was said and this has to be viewed as a missed opportunity for all candidates as youth engagement in politics continues to dissipate.
Perhaps finding their feet after a nervous start (if I’m generous), the debate kicked into gear once questions moved onto the economy. Ska Keller proved herself an exceptional public speaker and was the surprise hit throughout the entire event; easily outlining her thoughts on the transition to a green economy as a mode of kick-starting growth, as well as proving adept at linking Jean-Claude Juncker with the failure to crack-down on tax havens. Juncker meanwhile hit back with plans for an EU minimum wage, though whether he meant Eurozone only was something left unexplored. While Verhofstadt and Schulz talked from the same page, outlining the need for fairness for citizens, not just the top 1%, and that integrating markets across the EU was the key to this. This laid a platform for enticing centre right support if and when it is needed.
Guy Verhofstadt and Ska Keller found strong voices for this, focusing on the need to meet these issues head-on and not shirk the debate. Verhofstadt floated the idea of an EU level guarantee scheme which would minimise the social benefits cost on Member States of migrants (more below), while Keller lamented the use of right-wing rhetoric by centre right parties across Europe, thus enforcing convictions in extreme views within the public sphere. Keller also (once again) managed to put Juncker on the back foot by stating that much of this rhetoric is used by the EPP, particularly Silvio Berlusconi, implying his representation for a party wishing to break-up Europe. A statement Juncker vehemently denied, claiming he was “sickened by Berlusconi’s” views and doesn’t accept them.
Schulz, probably the most politically adept of all candidates, outlined his idea to create a “legal economic migrant” much like legislation in the US, Canada and Australia. Quite what this entails, or how it will be achieved was not explored (or understood by myself quite frankly) but it’s stuck with me as something worth exploring – which in a debate is the overriding point. Keller enforced the need to not label asylum seekers as a statistic for each country, but as people arriving from humanitarian disaster areas, which therefore must be supported as such. While Juncker stated that he was against a flood of migrants, he also acknowledged that over the next decade the EU needs net migration to stay competitive, granting him the opportunity to extend an olive branch to the left when voting begins.
Ultimately focusing on the ongoing situation in Ukraine, Juncker argued that it was not possible to go further than the European Council has (regarding Ukraine sanctions etc.) and that Europe’s soft power advantage must be maintained, a theme which was continued throughout. Schulz also exuded the need for diplomacy, citing common interests as what must lead negotiations, describing energy as the golden carrot of any solution. Verhofstadt spoke passionately about the need to stand up to Putin (who he labelled an autocrat), and claimed that the time is right for an EU centric defence force, separate to NATO.
Additional Areas and Overview
In other policy areas which were touched upon: Verhofstadt defeated the myth that he wants to create an EU superstate, claiming market integration and common policies should be at the forefront of collaboration. He also promised a gender equal Commission if elected, which should have received more of a reaction than it originally generated. Juncker possibly stole the two best quotes of the night by first stating, “ah, democracy stops for the break” in reference to him being unable to offer a rebuke due to Euronews having stopped for a short intermission. His soundbite of, “we rely on the US for digital and the East for energy” was also clearly poignant and hit the nail on the head in terms of challenges for the incoming Presidency. Keller did not break boundaries but proved adept at labelling her vision for Europe and only really underperformed in the Foreign Policy segment, though she came out on top within the TTIP discussion, labelling the hidden negotiations and lack of transparency as highly suspicious. Schulz’s best line came with a huge round of applause: when the EU has a success, Member States claim it, when there is a failure, it is the EU’s fault, and kindly offered himself as the “political popstar” the EU needs to engage with citizens.
The debate itself was a success, the vibrancy of discussion reflected the various political parties and there was a clear divide in their visions for the future of the EU. Whether this was viewed, and noted, outside of the Brussels bubble however is more questionable. The UK flatly ignored it – I was unable to find any coverage on any platform apart from a single BBC news article. Germany was much the same with a Public Affairs professional in Berlin stating it wasn’t front (or middle) page news, even with Martin Schulz as a national candidate. This lack of coverage is not surprising, but massively disappointing in terms of knowledge, understanding and engagement with the EU.
From this debate however, one theme did come to the fore, it will be nigh-on impossible for the European Council (Member States) to ignore one of these candidates for Commission President.
The next debate is held on 9th May, Europe day for the European Union.
European elections are held on 22 -25 May.
Make sure you know your country’s registration deadline. To vote for UK MEPs register by May 6th to be eligible!