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.