Ahead of the European elections in May, four candidates from the European Green Party (EGP) are competing for the party's two leading candidate spots. Travelling to Europe's big cities for American-style "primary debates" the four intend to discuss their campaign positions with European citizens.
On Saturday (11 January), the fifth debate of the Green primaries took place in Berlin. The four candidates for the primaries include co-president the EGP Rebecca Harms and the party's migration policy spokesperson Ska Keller, EGP co-chair Monica Frassoni, and José Bové, a French MEP known for his engagement in agricultural policy.
But rather than a real discussion, the debate was more of an introduction by Harms, Keller and Frassoni, while Bové could not attend due to illness. The candidates touched on a range of topics but the event showed no signs of a real debate. Diverging opinions were nowhere to be seen.
During a break, Green candidate Rebecca Harms told n-tv: "It is precisely the problem in these primaries, that all candidates represent the same positions."
Voting for the Green candidates on greenprimary.eu is still ongoing. At the moment, participation numbers have reached "around five figures", said Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the European Greens Party (EGP). Current statistics show participation closer to 10,000. A 100,000 vote minimum is needed, at least unofficially, to call the "democratic experiment" successful.
"There is still room to grow", said co-chair of the European Greens (EGP), Reinhard Bütikofer, who seized the idea to have a Europe-wide online vote similar to the primary debates in the United States.
But Bütikofer himself is not a candidate in the Green primaries, leading observers to doubt their legitimacy.
Widespread speculation claims Bütikofer, a veteran politician from Germany's Green Party, purposefully avoided his own candidacy to weaken the chances for Harms, his inner-party rival. The two were the leading duo from Germany's Green Party during the 2009 European elections and Harms is seen by many as a likely winner for 2014.
By avoiding the online Green primaries, Bütikofer is believed to have set a trap for Harms. Now, she and other candidates must not only gain the support of their own national constituencies but must also stand the test of the entire EU, party sources say.
But Bütikofer has repeatedly denied the rumours on Twitter calling them "rubbish".
32 year-old Ska Keller is endorsed by the Federation of Young European Greens. Her ability to appeal to younger voters has reportedly won Keller more votes in the Green primaries than Harms. Because voting in the Green primaries is done digitally and requires a mobile number, young supporters are more likely to submit votes.
One-sided debate in Berlin
At the debate on Saturday in Germany's capital, the three candidates present were asked to explain why "a Green Europe is so important" and why they see themselves as the ideal top candidate.
"The green revolution", explained Frassoni, is not only possible at a national level. During the last five years, new borders have sprung up among Europeans, she said. Frassoni argued that she was the candidate who would reach across party-borders to forge alliances and also help overcome cultural borders that "the evil parties in Europe" are trying to create.
Frassoni added that she was trying to create a direct connection between debates in the institutions and the discussion among citizens or movements.
Describing her experience, Harms indicated that she spent five years with the "big animals" of European politics. She was there when the European Parliament discussed all the topics related to a crisis-ridden Europe, she said. In addition, her "heart for the neighbouring regions" is something that she could incorporate in the elections for the Greens, she claimed.
32 year-old Keller is migration policy spokesperson for the Greens in the European Parliament. According to her, the European elections are about figuring out how to exit the crisis. She said it is about choosing whether to continue "blind austerity plan" or to replace it with a green, more socially oriented solution.
Keller said she also wante to give a voice to the "lost generation" of young unemployed people. In the fight against right-wing extremism, she said she had been toughened by years of experience living in a small town in East Germany.
Finally, the three were asked to indicate which "burning" topic they saw as most important during this election. "I want Europe to become a dream again", said Frassoni, "and I want it to become a green dream".
Harms said she wanted Europe to become "the place of aspirations" again. "Where the people direct their aspirations. It was this way for a long time, especially in the east."
Keller showed herself as more of a fighter. "I am burning for us to build a different Europe together – together with all the European Greens and people who want to join in." She thought it would be "cool" to offer an agenda that contrasted with that of the "older men" like Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt or Olli Rehn. Keller proposed her plan under the motto, "We are the young, fresh Europe".
The debate was preceded by similar ones in Athens, Cologne, Madrid and Gothenburg with the next stops scheduled in Paris, London, Prague, Rome and Brussels. The Green "democracy experiment" is scheduled to last until 28 January.