Officials seek greater EU election turnout with televised 'presidential debate'


EXCLUSIVE / EU political parties are planning a televised face-off between the two frontrunners for the European Commission presidency just two days before the 2014 EU parliamentary elections open, EurActiv has learned.

European parties’ single candidates for the next European Commission presidency will face each other in televised debates in the weeks preceding the EU elections on 22-25 May. But one in particular is due to galvanise attention on mainstream parties and possibly boost turnout.

"The personalisation and politisation of the election campaign will stimulate turnout and serve to deepen the democratic legitimacy of the EU," Liberal MEP Andrew Duff said in a recent interview with EurActiv.

The main political parties are in the final days of nominating their candidate for the Commission presidency. The parties are currently discussing ‘presidential debates’ with several interested media organisations.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the alliance of public service media across Europe, is looking into organising two debates at the European Parliament in Brussels on 15 and on 20 May.

“We expect at least five participants [in the first debate],” Benjamin Steward, communications officer at EBU, told EurActiv. “It will be followed five days later by a showdown between the two candidates emerging … as the strongest contenders to become the new Commission president.”

This stand-off, at the peak of the campaign, is likely to pitch the socialist candidate Martin Schulz against the future centre-right common candidate, recent polls show. The EBU will base its selection of the two frontrunners on “most recent independent polls”, Steward explained.

The two debates are dubbed #TellEUROPE. EBU is exploring how it can get its members to air the presidential debates across European countries.

The Dutch Maastricht University also intends to hold a debate, on 28 April. “We are awaiting confirmation from the candidates, once they’re all officially nominated,” Caroline Roulaux, the press officer of the university, told EurActiv.

Other organisations are still looking into holding debates in Brussels and in Florence, Italy.

The European Parliament holds its last plenary session on 14-17 April. Since several of the single candidates hold positions in the current EP legislature, political parties will wait until after this session to hit the campaign trail at full-speed.

‘They all look the same’

At this stage, three of the four mainstream parties have settled on their top candidate. Martin Schulz (awaiting confirmation at the Socialist congress on 1 March), Guy Verhofstadt (for the Liberals) and José Bové and Ska Keller (for the Greens) will head the pan-European campaign. The centre-right EPP is set to select their top candidate at their congress on 6-7 March.

According to Simon Hix, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), personalities will gain political importance over the coming months. But the debates could also bring a different drive to the campaign: “What voters and the media need now is to see a difference between these candidates.”

“They all look the same: mainstream, centrist candidates who are all euro-federalist. Politics is about a choice of direction for the EU. If you don’t have clear differences in the visions put forward, this is not possible,” Hix told EurActiv.

In total, 13 organisations are registered as pan-European political parties, but some are small groups and many oppose integration of the European Union, thus refusing to put forward common candidates.

The radical European Left party, however, nominated Alexis Tsipras in December to head their campaign.

"Tsipras has a clearly different stance on things, but we need someone on the right as well. [Far-right politicians] Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders are too easily dismissed as extremists. But we never see the mainstream politicians express their views on what a reformed EU would like, and that is lacking in the public debate,” argued Hix.

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) announced last week that it would not nominate a single candidate, calling the mainstream parties’ initiative a “1950s-style vision” and a “euro-federalist” idea.

The AECR’s secretary general, Daniel Hannan, told EurActiv, “it is up to the organisers of the debates to invite us. We strongly feel we should be there: someone should represent those who don’t agree to this process [of drafting candidates for the EU commission presidency].”

“If we’re invited, either me or [AECR president] Jan Zahradil will attend the debates,” Hannan said.

European version of US debates?

National election debates are commonplace. For example, Nick Clegg (Lib Dems) and Nigel Farage (UKIP) announced last week that they would face each other in a debate on 22 May.

These EU elections are the first time candidates are set to engage in a pan-European campaign to claim the Commission presidency, an opportunity for Europeans to be engaged in an equivalent to the televised US presidential debates, parties argued. The presidential debates are often the highlight of US elections.

But organisers face hurdles such as what language to hold the debate in, how to translate it and which flagship journalists could moderate such a debate.

According to Jaume Duch, the European Parliament's spokesman, “the whole campaign becomes more pan-EU and more political because we have common programmes and EU priorities to debate, and because of the candidates for the presidency of the EU Commission”. “This is in the interest of the citizens, too,” he says.

Top EU pundits have criticised the selection of presidential candidates. Observers also scorn the fact that, in all but their home country, these top candidates will not be in the ballot - which could confuse voters.

But the race among single candidates is further taking shape, as parties are planning campaign strategies in which the frontrunners tour EU member states. The European political families hope it will draw further attention to the elections and boost voter turnout, which was at an all-time low in 2009.

  • 1 March: Official nomination of Martin Schulz as socialist candidate at their congress in Rome.
  • 6-7 March: Selection of the centre-right frontrunner in the EPP’s electoral congress in Dublin.
  • 14-17 April: Last plenary session of the 2009-2014 European Parliament.
  • 28 April: (Provisional) date for a presidential debates at the Maastricht University, The Netherlands.
  • April-May: Other debates to be confirmed.
  • 15 May: (Provisional) date for a presidential debate in the EP in Brussels, organised by the EBU.
  • 20 May: (Provisional) date for a stand-off between the two frontrunners in the EP in Brussels, organised by the EBU.
External links: 


David Bennett's picture

The EU has granted 2 days all expenses paid trips for MEPs to home constuencies. They'll be furnished with propoganda materials where they will visit schools and offer indoctrination in EU ideals to pupils with minds still to be manipulated

Thomas Navarro's picture

I'm all for this debate, because it will show how the federalist and other pro E.U aren't able to go to the very end of their ideas.

After all, in which language will the contenders talk ? English ? Well, it sure won't help them to reach the population, and not the so called "elite" of each country. Plus, what will they tell us ? That the E.U should replace the countries in the International Organizations ? That Brussels know better than the national Governments how to deal with societal, social and local problems ?

All in all, I'm for this debate, because it will force the pro-E.U to get out in the open instead of hiding behind the veil of lies that they always use when it comes to many subjects.

Barry Davies's picture

So they will debate and we will vote, err no we won't vote, err who has voted for them to be in such a position, err well it has nothing to do with democracy at all.

Eleanor's picture

E.U should replace the countries in the International Organizations ? -

WOWOWOW, easy, easy...

Eleanor's picture

That Brussels know better than the national Governments how to deal with societal, social and local problems ? -

EU institutions should SERVE EU member states, not do what they want at Member states' expense.... Power-hungry people ruling the EU, this is too bad indeed....

albion's picture

The next EUSSR Commission "President" has already been determined years ago.

This "debate" -- just like the EUSSR "Parliament" -- is nothing more than a PR stunt to give the false impression that the EUSSR and democracy somehow have something in common.

Richard's picture

Rather desperate stuff really. It's an attempt to pretend that the EU, like the USA, is a single state with an elected Presdent as head of that state decided by direct suffrage of all citizens. That is, of course, exactly what Mr Duff and indeed, the candidates named above aspire to.

In reality, this is simply President of the Commission, a rather fancy name for a committee of civil servants, who aren't elected at all.

What language will the debate be in?

We are presented with candidates who are all cut from the same cloth, they are all federalists who yearn for a country called "Europe" following the relegation of all our countries to little more than county councils. This alone does nothing but highlight the yawning gulf between what goes on in the European Parliament ivory tower and the public, where support for such a vision has declined into a minority and where support for it's opposite is growing rapidly.

They are aspirants for a job that is a chief civil servant who should stick to his or her task rather than attempting to promote political visions which are the domain of elected governments.

What's the point of this public debate when there's no actual election - we can't vote for or against any of them.

How many people do they think will be watching this? Probably about as many as watch the "State of the Union" speech (which again is a rather transparent attempt to copy the speech made by the US President every year)

I confidently predict that this sort of stuff will have no effect on voter turnout at all, which will follow the long term trend of decline because voters regard it as of no interest or irrelevent.

Eleanor's picture

Well, European Court of Auditors is much fancier institution. The Court has one member from each EU country appointed by the Council for a six-year term (renewable). The members elect one of their number as President for a term of three years (also renewable).

So I wonder when this institution will be appointed by all EU countries and would be good to see Portugese king of ECA and Eurocommission go.

albion's picture

TO Richard:


Nicely put.

Did you see that embarrassing scene last year, as Herr Schulz, newly inserted into the position of president of Parliament, publicly thanked some anonymous dude for having run such a tight electoral race against him?

It was forced and painful.

It had been decided about 3 years prior to his insertion that Schulz was going to be the next "President"; it was his party's turn to fill the spot.

So many lies.

So much deception.

Adrien Beauduin's picture

I think it's a great idea. If they don't broadcast it live, then they can just put subtitles for all the official languages and there won't be much of a problem.

People should go to the USA and listen to everyone complaining about "Washington", "those fat cats in Washington", etc etc. Maybe they would realize that Brussels is the same kind of scapegoat people use everywhere, whether it's their capital or something else.

Barry Davies's picture

There is a vital difference Adrien, the people get to elect the President of the United states, and the debate goes on for an extended amount of time, this is someone who will be given the position with no mandate whatsoever from the people, it is a case of pretending there is a smidgin of democracy and people outside the eussr will believe it is democratic. Overall it is a complete waste of time, because no one will be bothered to waste a part of their life listening to something they have no control over.

Adrien Beauduin's picture

If the president of the Commission is the head of the winning party, then yes, he is given a clear democratic mandate. He also has to be approved by the EP, which has been elected by Europeans.

If people don't get interested, don't read political programmes and don't see that these elections matter, they shouldn't complain afterwards.

It's true you can't change the EU with your single vote, but so it is in all larger countries.

Barry Davies's picture

The president of the commission is not the head of the winning party, he was not elected so he couldn't be the head Adrien, please try to learn some facts before you post stuff as truth.

The ep rubber stamps the president who then puts forewords his choices for the positions, which it again rubber stamps, usually these posts were decided before the ep got elected.

You can't change anything if you don't get a vote, and the only body that you can vote for in the eussr is the toothless EP so not surprisingly most people can't be bothered, as shown by the very low poor turnouts at every election compared to national elections and even local elections which more people have a real interest in.

Richard's picture

The whole thing about the "Presdiential Debate" is a facile attempt to make the voters believe that Europe is somehow like the USA - in other words, a single nation state with a President as head of that state who is elected by direct universal suffrage.

For the federalists who yearn after a country called Europe and someone called Mr President of Europe, this is just an attempt to create a facade.

It's all a sham though - there is no country called Europe, and the "President" is just the head of the civil service.

Even if people bother to watch these so-called "Presdiental" debates they might think "hey, I like this guy, how do I vote for him?" - in which case they'll be disappointed, because they can't.

In any case, I really don't see why it's necessary - the European Commission exists to police the Treaties; in other words to enforce existing legislation and propose new legislation to see that Treaty obligations are met. They are in other words civil servants.

So they should be politically neutral and at most should be enacting policies that are set by elected governments. They shouldn;t be setting the political agenda at all. That's not what they are there for and quite rightly since they don't answer to the electorate.

So all this stuff is just so much window dressing, a sort of sham and pale copy of what the USA does because some people want to pretend that their vision of a US of E not only has a chance of coming into being, but already has.

They also, I think, are quite desperate to convince voters that by pretending it already exists, it may somehow be created.

In these dbates the candidates are all cut from the same cloth - they are all arch federalists and thus completely at odds with the electorate. Even if you could vote for them, who do you vote for if you don't want "more Europe"? The message would be "vote any way you want and get the same".

They are all carefuly chosen from the European Parliament ivory tower which is filled with people divorced from any kind of reality.

Of course, they choose people who all want "more Europe" because "more Europe" invariably translates to "more power for the European Parliament". Parliaments very rarely act in a way that lessens their own power.

You only have to look at the way the EP choses it's own head - it is all fixed without any pretense that the job will not alternate between two parties depending on whoever has their turn next. The idea that any sort of campaign is fought or that the outcome is in any way not pre-determined is laughable.

albion's picture

To Adrienne:

The EUSSR is not a country.

Eleanor's picture

The EUSSR is not a country. -

True, and EU institutions should serve the countries that are EU member states.

Barry Davies's picture

What people think they do and what they actually do is two very different stories, they serve themselves the commission is literally above the law not only whilst in office but after they have left for life.