Hosted by the European University Institute in Florence, candidates for the European Commission president left many of the observers in the audience wondering what the real political message of the four contenders actually was.

Front-runner German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, and Luxembourg Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Juncker, were joined by the Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, and French Green José Bové, for the second presidential debate in the run-up to the EU parliament elections in two weeks  (22-25 May).

“No one has won, no one has lost,” said Professor Alexander Trechsel from the European University Institute told EurActiv. “The second debate confirmed my views that there is way too much agreement among the candidates on most issues.”

Even George Soros, invited to discuss the disintegration and revival of the European Union at an earlier session of the State of the Union conference, ahead of the debate, was at odds on the outcome of the debate. Asked for his impression, he said: “The chap from Luxembourg certainly did not win it. I am not sure about the other three.”

As with previous debates, the candidate of the left, the Greek Alexis Tsipras, did not attend.

Soft and hard on budget

The only time the candidates showed a divergence of views was on whether countries should be granted greater flexibility to meet the growth and stability pact criteria.

Schulz repeated again that the money that governments spend on productive investments should be exempted from debt and deficit calculations in the Eurozone, effectively calling for loosening the debt and deficit ceilings of 60% and 3% of gross domestic product.

"We should look at what is future investment and what is current spending," Schulz said in the televised debate in Florence, Italy. "I understand  Renzi when he says, ‘Let‘s discuss future investments and current spending," he added, referring to arguments  presented by the Italian prime minister earlier in the conference.

Italy and France indeed would probably need more time to get their finances in order than they are currently granted by the European Commission.

Schulz said he was against changing rules. "The 3% is in the treaty. We cannot change the treaty, and we will not change the treaty."

He was rebuffed by Juncker’s stronger line.  "I would not allow more flexibility. Countries have to respect their commitments," he said. "We cannot spend money we do not have."

Verhofstadt held the same view: no exceptions for any country.

The anti-globalisation campaigner, Jose Bové, called the ceiling acceptable, if the EU had its own resources that it could devolve to making investments on behalf of national governments.

The risk of a dysfunctional democracy

A good part of the debate dwelled once again on the institutional process of selecting the EU Commission president.

On that topic, all the candidates agreed. If leaders do not take into account the result of elections, and do not take one of the candidates selected to head the campaigns, "they will create a major incident", said Juncker.

“They would show the Europeans that their vote does not count,” he added.  

Guy Verhofstadt argued that the Parliament should refuse to vote on any candidate that was not selected. “We should not accept any outside candidates,” he staunchly said, adding that the one that is able to build a majority has the best chance to stand.

European University Institute secretary general, Pasquale Ferrara, told EurActiv he found the debate quite tense on that issue. “If leaders don’t choose one of these candidates, it would prove we live in a dysfunctional democracy."

Some observers wonder why the debates - two so far - have not been structured more thematically, in order to force the candidates to focus more in-depth on specific policy areas, rather than repeating the same points in multiple debates. "They are not being grilled, they are not being challenged. They produce an exercise in mediocrity," said an informed observer.  

To read more about the debates, please click here