EU election race: Europe's great debate?


The European economy dominated the candidates' debate

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In the debating chamber of the European Parliament the stage was set. Five podiums in the spotlights and the blue gels.

A packed audience of the Brussels cognoscenti. Eurovision titles rolled and the evening was introduced as the TV moment in the European elections. This would be a great debate, aired in more than 30 countries, before an audience of 340 million potential voters.

On stage were five candidates for Europe's top job, President of the European Commission.

The idea, as promoted by the European Parliament, is that the party which gets the most seats in the elections wins the prize of selecting the EU's chief executive. Never mind the fact that European heads of government will get to make the choice - albeit in consultation with the parliament. Those arguments lie ahead.

Those banks again

So, back to the debate - except for the fact that there really wasn't one. There was no big clash of ideas or personalities. Nearly all the candidates believe that the answer to almost any problem lies with more Europe.

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

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and the Liberals' candidate, crackled with energy. He had come to argue. He is an unashamed federalist - "the choice", he said, was "to go back to the old nation states or have a more integrated Europe".

Ska Keller, the Greens' candidate, was fluent and persuasive, with wide support in the audience. She said at the outset "I'm fighting for people, not the banks". As the 90-minute debate wore on it was apparent that every candidate was there to rein in the banks.

The outsider was Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's radical left party Syriza. He ruffled some feathers when he denounced what he called "catastrophic austerity policies". He lacked some of his usual passion, but said that what had happened in Greece was "not a success story but a social tragedy that shouldn't be repeated anywhere in Europe".

He asked for a huge chunk of Greek debt (currently running at 177% of GDP) to be cancelled. None of the other candidates would engage with that.

Rivals Martin Schulz (left) and Jean-Claude Juncker, 15 May 14 Martin Schulz (left) and Jean-Claude Juncker lead the biggest blocs in the European Parliament
Struggle for Greece

The frontrunner (if there is one) is Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg and the candidate of the conservative European People's Party (EPP). He was subdued, but was goaded into saying how much he loved the Greeks and that "over the years I worked night and day, and more nights than days, to keep Greece in the euro… I did what I could to make Greece stay in the euro. I will never accept the charge that we lacked solidarity."

The fifth candidate was Martin Schulz, the Socialist (S&D) leader. When he was asked for his vision for Europe he promised to go after tax cheats and fraudsters. He agreed the EU had made a mistake in "unilaterally cutting spending".

When asked about the rise of Euroscepticism Guy Verhofstadt was dismissive of those who wanted to abandon the euro. "Who shall pay the bill if we go back to national currencies?"

Jean-Claude Juncker said "I want Europeans to fall back in love with Europe."

The eurozone crisis hung over this debate - the legacy of austerity and what it has done to communities, particularly in southern Europe.

The debate came on the day it was revealed that, despite all the expressions of optimism, the eurozone economy is scarcely growing.

Green-red trend

On Facebook the most-mentioned candidates at the end of the debate were, in this order: Ska Keller, then Martin Schulz, Alexis Tsipras, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker.

Facebook data also show that three topics received the highest spikes in conversation: banking, lobbying and referendum (concerning Scotland and Catalonia).

The most Facebook chatter during the debate came from people aged 25-44, with a predominantly male audience.

The most fans of Facebook's Eurovision Debate page are from Italy, then Spain and Belgium.

How many viewers actually watched this event is hard to say. Certainly the number of tweets sent in was few, but the debate was testimony to the need to introduce more democracy into the selection of top officials.

What was lacking was new ideas or bold proposals of reform, or how to respond to those who feel disenchanted with the European project.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    422. GideonsBible Sorry but you are looking at the direct administration and its budget

    it must be in the entire eu budget which is €140 billion compared to national budgets of €6,300 billion. Clearly if they're hiding admin costs elsewhere (all accounts available online) & given the stuff one can actually see EU money has been spent on, there's not much room for huge hiding

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    #430 french

    Can the EU initiate criminal proceedings against a British citizen for EU corruption with a court case (and possible a prison sentence) in Brussels ?

    --Or would that fall under ´British Sovereignty´?

    --By making such accusations --you MUST know the answer !

    --with link please !

  • rate this

    Comment number 430. I am no supporter of Farage but …. he gets to the point. And you can look up what he said about those commissioners.

    429. quietoaktree The currency is irrelevant but the payment of social taxes is not. It is a tricky one. The problem is if the company paid German/French social taxes and him too, then you would not have Easyjet or Ryanair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    #428 french

    I now question your discussion sincerity.

    --even if your accusations are correct.

    I know of a German Easyjet employee stationed in Germany -- and being paid in Pounds.

    With a high salary (less taxes) because of the fact.

    I admit I am ignorant of how it occurs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    427. quietoaktree Google is your friend.

    What does a burnt out national politician do when he is no longer loved by the electorate - join the EU bandwagon of course.

    Higher salaries, better pensions, less hours, bigger expenses, no chance of ever being caught doing anything wrong and even less of ever facing justice. In fact you can disappear and become a multimillionaire. Sounds good to me.


Comments 5 of 432



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