On 28 April, the first-ever EU “presidential debate” took place on Euronews. During an hour and a half, Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP, Christian-Democrat), Martin Schulz (PES, socialist), Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, liberal) and Ska Keller (Greens) debated on issues ranging from the economy and jobs to the EU foreign policy and the future of the EU. The candidate for the radical left, Alexis Tsipras, had declined to participate.
Such an innovative debate has to be welcome! However, I regret that the presenters often interrupted the candidates because of time constraints. Of course, equality of speaking time between all candidates needs being maintained, but it is better to abandon one or two questions rather than not allowing candidates to properly develop their answers and not allowing them to react more often to each other’s claims, which, after all, is the way a true debate arises. This little problem set aside, the debate was well organised and attracted significant attention, also on social networks (over 10,000 tweets each minute).
Regarding the content of the debate, three main and very topical topics were chosen by the organisers: the state of the economy, the rise of Eurosceptic and populist parties, and the EU foreign policy.
On the economy, we could observe a general agreement that the EU must and can do better. Where candidates differed was regarding the improvements to bring in. Mr Juncker and Mr Verhofstadt put more emphasis on growth without adding further debt to the existing heavy burden. Both of them believe that sound public finances are important to return to sustained growth and they suggest finding the economic boost in the deepening of the Single Market, in particular the digital Single Market. Martin Schulz, although suggesting more spending, also stated he did not want to increase debt. Ska Keller, for the Greens, gave another recipe: investing in renewables, in green technologies: in sum, make the economy greener to enable more sustainable growth. The two left-wing candidates also highlighted the need to take into account the social impact of policies, e.g., with Ska Keller calling for taking into account not only financial indicators but also social and environmental indicators. That being said, Jean-Claude Juncker also stated he wants to take better into account the “social dimension of the Single Market.” To sum up, unsurprisingly, right-wing candidates prefer structural reforms and a deepening of the Single Market, while left-wing candidates favour the solution of increasing public spending, as well as social and environmental standards. But I think they each understand the point made by their competitors and the one who will become President of the European Commission will take into account the other candidates’ ideas.
Regarding the future of the EU and the rise of Eurosceptic and populist parties, Jean-Claude Juncker very correctly reminded that sovereignty does not lie with the Council or the Commission but with the people who will go voting. Martin Schulz stated that he wanted to become President as the result of the European Parliament’s vote, not as a result of a backroom deal. Guy Verhofstadt warned national governments that the European democracy would die if they didn’t choose one of the declared candidates as President of the Commission. All candidates agreed that the rise of populist and Eurosceptic parties was damaging for the EU (although even if 1/6 of the MEPs are Eurosceptic, they will not block the decision-making process). An interesting distinction was made between those who criticise the EU with serious arguments – whose concerns must be addressed – and those who are inherently anti-EU. Guy Verhofstadt and Ska Keller strongly stated their wish for the EU to take a new direction, also in the way it works: less intergovernmental decisions and more common EU policies. Having more common European policies does not mean, however, more regulation: both Mr Juncker and Mr Verhofstadt indicated that the EU should regulate less and better respect the principle of subsidiarity. Jean-Claude Juncker, criticised for the role he played as member of the European Council, answered that all parties were in some Member States in government and were therefore represented (directly or not) at the European Council.
Finally, on foreign policy, every candidate agreed that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was not acceptable. While right-wing candidates, in particular Guy Verhofstadt, called for stronger sanctions to avoid war, the left-wing candidates highlighted the need to pursue the diplomatic dialogue. Jean-Claude Juncker said the soft power of the EU should not be underestimated. Guy Verhofstadt called for a true European defence policy, which could be the European pillar in NATO. I also had the impression the Greens were not at ease with this topic, probably divided between rejection of Putin’s action and rejection of a Cold War scheme. The topic of immigration was also discussed. Ska Keller said that the acceptance of immigrants and asylum seekers was much higher than thought in the general political discourse and underlined the contribution of the Greens to include human rights in the EU immigration policy. Guy Verhofstadt called for improving “economic legal migration” to tackle illegal one. Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the EU cannot welcome all the misery of the world, but that those who needed help (asylum seekers and “economic refugees”) should be helped. On the TTIP and the EU-USA relationship, the candidates agreed that the deal should not weaken economic and social standards in Europe. Ska Keller and Guy Verhofstadt also highlighted the necessity to solve the data protection and spying issues.
Finally, candidates made their closing statements. Jean-Claude Juncker declared he was against divisions in Europe and he wants to reunite in the EU. He also wants the focus to be on concrete issues, not on institutional matters. Martin Schulz underlined the new way of electing the Commission President and what it meant for voters. Guy Verhofstadt stated that we need a new leadership for Europe, with a vision for the future. If he becomes Commission President, half of the Commissioners will be women to respect gender equality. Finally, Ska Keller said that Greens want a Europe that cares about people, not only an EU for big business and the Single Market.