Europe's big TV debate

Rival candidates - from left, Guy Verhofstadt, Martin Schulz; Ska Keller; Jean-Claude Juncker Rival candidates (from left) Verhofstadt, Schulz, Keller and Juncker

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On Thursday a TV debate in Brussels will be followed in more than 30 European countries.

It will not necessarily be shown on prime outlets, and networks are not shelving high-audience dramas to see five European politicians argue with each other.

No-one is promising TV gold, but this debate - and others - is being heralded as a major step towards making Europe and its institutions more democratically accountable.

The politicians, who will take the stage in the European Parliament, are all running to become Europe's next chief executive, President of the European Commission. It is, however, a curious contest. It is fair to say that none of them would turn heads in a Manchester shopping mall.

Aside from their own countries, none of them have much public recognition. And, when it comes down to it, none of them may get the top job.

Yet this contest may be of huge significance to the UK and to David Cameron if he ends up renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU after 2015.

The European economy dominated the candidates' debate

Political uncertainty

The Lisbon Treaty established that the European Parliament had to be consulted over the next president of the Commission. That has been interpreted by MEPs as meaning that the candidate of the largest political group in the parliament should get the prize of leading the EU.

So the largest parliamentary groups have gone ahead and each selected a candidate - and they have been campaigning across Europe. A battle bus has appeared but, it is fair to say, none of these candidates is filling the piazzas and squares.

What gives the whole campaign a touch of unreality is the fact that the actual choice to lead the Commission will be made by the heads of government - and they may choose the candidate of the strongest party, but they may not, and there may be months of arguing and horse-trading.

Influence on UK

European Commission

  • Drafts EU legislation and enforces compliance with EU treaties
  • 28 commissioners - one from each member state
  • Commission now has more powers to shape national budgets
  • Negotiates EU trade deals with global partners

So whoever ends up as president of the European Commission could be sitting in Brussels at a key moment for Britain.

The lead candidates are high priests of the European project, steeped in the ways of Brussels and the politics of Europe. If they are successful they could end up handling a major challenge to the EU - a possible British exit. So we asked four of them about their approach to the EU.

All of them recognise the importance to the EU of continued British membership. All of them are open to negotiations with the UK and all of them believe progress can be made.

How the European Commission works - the BBC's Matthew Price explains

The polls indicate a narrow win for the Conservative European People's Party (EPP). Its candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg.

"I am open to listening to British concerns," he says, and ''I am ready to engage in a dialogue with David Cameron to negotiate a fair deal with Britain".

He says "the other EU countries will have to accept that the UK will never participate in the euro, even if we may regret this".

He sees some flexibility: "ever closer union can mean different things for different states." But the flexibility he has in mind revolves around the protocol which sets out the powers of national parliaments in relation to EU decision-making.

"If there is a significant number of parliaments that oppose a new initiative," he says, "I believe that the EU institutions have to take that extremely seriously."

Against opt-outs

His main opponent is Martin Schulz, a German politician and candidate for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D). He, too, offers to consider very carefully the UK's proposals, whatever they might be.

"My Commission," he says, "would only propose things which have passed a simple test - can these things be done better at European than at national, regional or local level?"

He is open to reform but, like the other candidates, he does not favour "more opt-outs for one country". He is not in favour of treaty change, for the moment, which would give David Cameron the platform to negotiate. But Martin Schulz is clear that "the UK outside Europe would be bad for Europe and bad for Britain".

The third largest party is the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). It is led by a former Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who openly campaigns for a United States of Europe. He recognises that as the eurozone integrates more closely it will be important to "safeguard the influence of the UK... in the single market".

That is a key objective for David Cameron. However, Mr Verhofstadt warns of stiff opposition if Britain tried to "cherry-pick the rules of the single market". Again he is open to the possibility that some competences could be returned to the national level, as long as it happened for all EU countries.

He also suggests that the UK uses more effectively the power to join with other national parliaments to block EU legislation. He, too, says that "if Britain were to leave, both the UK and the EU would be greatly diminished".

More local decisions

The candidate for the Greens is Ska Keller. "The priority," she says, is "to reform Europe rather than to negotiate the relationship between the EU and the UK". That is a widely-held view. Like the others, she believes that more can be done at the local level.

"There are indeed many issues that are better tackled at a regional or local level, closer to the citizens," she says. "We must take full account of the principle of subsidiarity." She suspects that David Cameron's call for treaty change is aimed at transforming the EU into "a sheer free-market area". She also concedes that a British exit from the EU would damage the EU and Europe would lose "the fabulous British wit".

None of these four politicians may actually become Commission president. Certainly the main contest seems to be between Mr Juncker and Mr Schulz, but deals may be done and other names could surface. Both men know that David Cameron eyes them suspiciously as "federalists" who are determined to deepen European integration. Both candidates are also aware that, post-election, the British prime minister might try to block their candidacy.

Hence the offers to negotiate and the talk of "flexibility" - but both believe the answer to the British problem lies in exploiting the existing rules on subsidiarity - leaving regulations to national parliaments unless they can be carried out better at the European level. The British may well argue that those rules have not stopped Brussels mission creep.

But recognition here - one hears it often now in Brussels - that a British exit from the EU would be as damaging for the European project as for the UK.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    Journalism, and democracy lessons from BBC. One of the candidates, Alexis Tsipras, has been magically vanished in the present article. Even in the photo, where mrs. Keller's suit has been (magically also) turned from green to red. Bravo!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.


    "The "EU" has no moral legitimacy as it denied u s our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty"?

    Still recycling the same old rubbish?

    The Prime Minister of the UK has the right to grant a referendum. The EU does, did, and will NOT have that right.

    The EU's legitimacy does not depend on British constitutional history. Grow up, and stop expecting the EU to do your work for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    @447.stephen richards

    You claim that "The last european soviet president was a Moaist(sic) so no doubt the next one will be a leninist. THIS IS NOT DEMOCRACY"?

    No it is not. It IS complete fantasy. Mr Barroso was, for a short time in his youth, a Maoist, at a time when Portugal was under a dictator.

    The next European Council President will be either a centre-right, or centre-left, politician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    514 EU

    "will help Germans 2 understand that they should vote AfD rather than CDU in future"

    Perhaps you're right seeing that support for them has already grown from 6% to 7%.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    517. EUprisoner209456731
    There are many comments critical of the "EU" and the potential "Presidents" of the "European Commission"

    Of course. Why does that surprise you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    It is disgraceful that my comments about Schulz have been removed

    There is an article on the "EU" on display at the main German TV website ARD at this moment. There are many comments critical of the "EU" and the potential "Presidents" of the "European Commission"

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    498. ATNotts

    "AfD... They are a fringe party, peddling a fringe viewpoint in Germany - a country that understands the point of the EU"

    Germans have been misled by decades of propaganda disguised as education and news. They are waking up to that fact. The number of pro-AfD posters at the ARD has increased dramatically since Christmas

    If you think the UK lives in ignorance then inform us

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    513. EUprisoner209456731
    Schulz called the Dutchman a fascist.

    Well, Van der Stoep IS (was) a member of PVV. He's also a drink-driver.

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    498. ATNotts

    "Are you real?? AfD has 6% of the projected share of the vote according to the ARD weekly poll"

    I have the ARD poll in front of me as I write this. It has AfD on 7%

    I mean that AfDs presence in the "EU" parliament, the soundness of arguments by Lucke & Henkel & their ability as public speakers will help Germans 2 understand that they should vote AfD rather than CDU in future

  • Comment number 513.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    511. EUprisoner209456731
    The "EU" has no moral legitimacy as it denied u s our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty

    When? Where?

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    "Many believe a Euro sceptic influx will further undermine the legitimacy of the European Union"

    The "EU" has no moral legitimacy as it denied u s our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    UKIP supporters will vote UKIP whatever new revelations come out until the 22nd - the promise of no moral fibre required is too strong a temptation. The scourge of professional Britain, the cowboy, has penetrated politics and is eating away at it like dry rot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    508 This

    Farage quote:

    "Yes of course we've got people who've said silly things, we've got people who've done bad things"

    Including his own 'silly thing'?:

    Nigel Farage admitted he opened an offshore trust fund to slash his tax bill

    Although an outspoken critic of tax avoidance he set up a scheme on the Isle of Man for ‘inheritance purposes’.

    ‘It was a mistake'

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    439. David Horton
    "We'll find out next week how utterly, completely and totally wrong you are"


    And, as a clever man once said, a week's a long time in politics:

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    503 Rich

    "defend the Euro Burocracy and the jobs bonanza for Ex MP's that is Brussels"

    Unlike the members of our own 800 strong house of lords they don't collect £300 a day just for turning up, nor do they spend millions on the pomp and fripperies of their "head of state"

    Nor extravagant perks like our house of commons or get away with fiddling their expenses for duck houses

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    AfA @505
    more subtle"

    However skewed the analysis, however blinkered the 'solutions' envisaged, and however restricted by the host format, we all communicate something of reality.

    Whether from our own heart and experience and reasoning, or in 'employment' unwitting or explicit, arguing plainly or with motives only to be guessed at, 'God is not mocked' nor sham democracy the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    ATNotts @502

    Which is more awful, an entrapment here in debate of particular sterility, with no movement but eventual disappearance, or the possibility that the wider world is similarly unable or unwilling to seek the shareable, to see the connections and roots of problems, to stand a chance of solving necessarily together? Reality more subtle: we communicate in hope. What else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    502. ATNotts

    In my opinion, no - but I doubt the "packers" here will agree.


    I am a Europhile "packer" and I disagree with you. I think you should go away and take your absurd comments with you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    I believe the Media coverage of the debate and the campaign shows the true relevance of the EU for Britain. Whilst Clegg desperately tries to defend the Euro Burocracy and the jobs bonanza for Ex MP's that is Brussels, this has shown that the EU is important for the Euro Zone and those continetal European countries who want to form a federal European state.


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