On 15 May the lead candidates for the European elections, who each hope to secure the job of President of the European Commission, debated the main issues facing the EU.
The ‘Eurovision’ debate was held in the European Parliament in Brussels, and broadcast in all the Member States and online by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). In a specially remade European Parliament hemicycle, the Spitzenkandidaten met for a debate where many of them said the same thing, and no passion flared. The parties often sounded the same, the (increasingly popular) far-right, Eurosceptic parties were not represented, and the continent-wide audience was predictably low – this debate will contribute nothing to the turnout or result of Europe’s biggest plebiscite.
The parties represented were the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), by MEP Manfred Weber; the Party of European Socialists (PES), by Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans; the centrist Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager; the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) by MEP Jan Zahradil; the European Greens, by MEP Ska Keller; and the Party of the European Left, by Nico Cué.
The main issues discussed during the debate were climate change, fair taxation, migration and the EU’s foreign policy.
Frans Timmermans (PES) made a strong impression, and was both eloquent and passionate. He came up with a few sound-bites (“Alexa, when is Amazon going to start paying its taxes?” and “Brexit has made the UK like Game of Thrones on steroids”) Among his proposals was a minimum corporate tax rate in the EU of 18%, as well as a European minimum wage. Timmermans also attacked the EPP for the impact of austerity during the financial crisis – he even accused Manfred Weber and his parliamentary group for being harsher than the Commission itself on countries like Portugal. He also appeared to call for a broad church coalition of the left and centre, ‘from Tsipras to Macron’, appearing to suggest willingness to group together the political families of the European Parliament against the EPP.
Manfred Weber (EPP) had to struggle to defend his voting record in the European Parliament on climate change: being accused of leading the EPP to vote against ambitious climate measures, he said that instead of only considering climate, sustainability also needs to take social and economic issues into account, and that the right policy mix is needed. Speaking on migration and the EU’s foreign policy, Weber also suggested that his Commission would include a Commissioner responsible solely for Africa-related issues, in order to support the continent – both to ensure stability and prosperity (and less forced migration to Europe), and also to ensure Europe has a say in the development of Africa, at a time when China, India and other powers are investing heavily there (although the latter point was not explicitly made).
Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) defended the multi-party coalition, of which she is a part, saying that the many achievements of this Commission have been on account of high ambition and a desire to work together, and are not achievements of any one political group. She lamented however that the achievements of Europe are not communicated clearly enough to citizens (she cited the GDPR, saying that this means digital citizens’ rights, but the acronym is opaque and alienates people). Vestager also called for strong European policy on tax, saying that countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta ought to work together and join the other Member States in their ambition to ensure that multinationals pay the right amount of tax in EU Member States. When asked if she was calling these countries tax havens, she replied that for her, a tax haven is where everyone pays their tax.
Jan Zahradil (ACRE), the most right-wing representative at the debate, was pro-Europe in his own way, calling for a Europe which is scaled back, flexible and decentralised (he said that 90% of Czechs support the EU, but 75% of Czechs do not want the Euro, drawing from this that people approve of the EU, but not necessarily everything which comes out of it). He also harked back to his former party colleague David Cameron’s attempt to get rid of the line in the Treaty preamble on “ever-closer Union”, calling it outdated. He championed the rights of sovereign national governments, which ought to be more respected by the European Commission, saying that they should be the ones defining their own foreign policy, not Brussels.
Ska Keller (Greens) called for more ambition on climate change, and called out Manfred Weber, for his party’s, and his personal, voting record on climate issues. Keller called for good trade agreements, which not only bring economic benefits, but which include clauses granting better protections for human rights, and for the environment.
Nico Cué (Left) was the only candidate to not speak in English – he spoke in French during the debate (and at one point, Timmermans responded directly to him in French). On certain points, he came close to the position of the socialists. His main point, however, was work – he is concerned at the growing number of insecure work contracts and very high levels of youth unemployment. He called for proper labour contracts, and a higher minimum wage.
On the whole, the most impressive debater was Frans Timmermans, and with his readiness to form a broad coalition of the left and centre to govern Europe, as well as a socialist resurgence in some Member States (e.g. Spain), he could seem like a likely candidate to become the next Commission President. However, polls still show the EPP to be the most likely winner of the elections. In addition, the debate did not take any of the far-right and populist parties into consideration: Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national (France) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (Italy) are expected to make huge gains in the elections – their strong anti-Europe views were not represented on the debating stage.
It must also be borne in mind that the leaders of the EU Member States are determined to keep the power of choosing the next Commission President for themselves: they have never supported the Spitzenkandidat system. Indeed, some parties have multiple Spitzenkandidaten (ALDE has seven), and the EPP’s Michel Barnier has been on a whirlwind tour of Europe, allegedly not to campaign for the Presidency, but it looks like he could be challenging ‘official’ Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber.
European Council President Donald Tusk has called an extraordinary summit on 28 May to discuss the next leader (on the basis of the election outcome), but with divisions in the Council, it is likely to be put to a formal vote in the Council meeting on 20-21 June.