On April 28th a televised debate took place between four candidates for the European Commission presidency, the first such debate that has ever taken place. The participants were Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg and chair of the euro group of finance ministers, for the European Peoples Party (centre-right), Martin Schulz, current leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and also president of the EP, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) in the EP and former prime minister of Belgium, and the young Ska Keller from eastern Germany for the Greens (she is actually joint Green candidate with the French famers representative José Bové, known for his anti-McDonalds campaigns).
There are no figures available for the number of people watching but they will probably have been disappointingly modest, with most EU citizens probably not even aware that the debate was taking place. The debate was in English (ironically the UK was probably the country with the lowest level of interest) and this meant that most of the audience would have been hearing translations; the language factor is one of the major obstacles to tackling the EU’s democratic deficit. Nevertheless 45,000 Twitter comments from all over the EU during the debate does suggest that many of those who did watch found it worth watching. The next debate between the four (and possibly Alexis Tsipras the Greek leader of Greece’s leftwing coalition Syriza and Commission presidency candidate for the European Left) from Florence will be on May 9th.
A post-debate survey of viewers by Europe Decides, an initiative of Burson Marsteller, produced a possibly surprising clear winner, Guy Verhofstadt, with 53% considering him the best performer, followed by 19% for Martin Schulz, 18% for Ska Keller and 9% of Jean-Claude Juncker. For all participants finding work for the 27m unemployed was the leading challenge. Verhofstadt is the candidate with the most positive belief that policies at a European level could make a difference, notably the integration of capital markets and banking union facilitating the flow of affordable credit to businesses with job-creating investment plans. Shultz also gave emphasis for policies towards the financial sector, but gave too much emphasis to blaming the banks for the crisis and consequent high unemployment rather than providing clear proposals for creating jobs. Keller focused on the scope for the creation of green jobs in renewable energies and energy saving, arguing the case well. There is huge so far untapped potential for example for solar energy in southern Europe. But the impact on employment creation may only be a modest contribution to providing quality job opportunities for young people. Juncker deliberately refused to raise expectations, saying that there was a limited amount the Commission can do for jobs where the responsibility lay with member states and the private sector, though he did suggest that the EU has a big potential to bring about single digital and services markets which could do much to provide better conditions for job creation.
Juncker’s line may be the most realistic and it is also certainly the one that the British Conservatives who used to be part of the EPP but now form a separate group, should feel most comfortable (or least uncomfortable) with. Politicians have the dilemma that realism is dull and uninspiring while greater ambition may win votes in the short term but runs the risk of subsequent disillusion. But even allowing for this Juncker did not come across as someone able to communicate with the wider European public if he were to be the next president of the Commission. While most EU countries have never provided a Commission president, tiny Luxembourg has already given the Commission two presidents, Gaston Thorn and Jacques Santer, neither of whom were very successful (the Commission led by the latter was forced to resign due to bad publicity over fellow commissioners use of taxpayers’ money).
It could be argued that these debates may prove to be something of a charade since the European Council of the 28 member states has no obligation to put forward any of the participants as the next Commission president (although it will have to present one able to win the approval of the Parliament to be elected on May 22-25th). At present polls indicate that the centre-right EPP will come out as the largest EP party, just ahead of the Socialists (S&D). However, if that is the outcome it is by no means clear that democracy would be served by Juncker becoming Commission president. If forthcoming debates do not change the picture dramatically, he will certainly not have won at a personal level and his experience as prime minister of Luxembourg for many years and of taking the largely diplomatic role of presidency of the euro group of finance ministers, do not obviously qualify him. Moreover even if the EPP members of the European Parliament are all loyal to him he might not come out ahead in a vote in the European Parliament since Shultz might win the support of Greens and the European Left.
Verhofstadt may or may not repeat his success on April 28th in subsequent debates but however well he does, ALDE have no serious chance of becoming the largest party. In the event that the S&D becomes the largest party, Schulz might have a stronger case than that of Juncker in the event of an EPP victory, in view of Schulz’s distinguished record as an MEP and attempts he has made over a significant period to reach out to countries other than his own, but it would probably not be an overwhelming one.
Nevertheless the TV debates are an important attempt by the personalities involved to project themselves on the EU wide stage and debate leading questions in a manner that has not happened before.