The idea of organising a televised 'presidential showdown' between the two leading candidates in the European election campaign is up in the air, as EU parties fail to agree over the format.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) announced last Wednesday that it would hold two televised debates in the run-up to the elections, publicised with the Twitter hashtag #TellEurope. A general debate, which includes all parties’ candidates for the EU Commission presidency as participants, is planned for 15 May.

The EBU planned to hold a “showdown” between the two candidates leading the race to become the next Commission president, in a second televised debate on 20 May - just two days before the polls open.

>> Read: Officials seek greater EU election turnout with televised ‘presidential debate’

Martin Schulz, the Socialist frontrunner, would have likely faced the centre-right European People Party’s candidate in this two-man debate. The centre-right candidate is set to be elected at the EPP congress, which begins today (6 March) in Dublin.

But the EBU has now cancelled this second debate in a communiqué that did not state the reasons for the change of plan.

Holding one debate "was the original plan, anyway,” Ben Steward of the EBU told EurActiv. “We’re now sticking to this first debate, with as broad a range of candidates possible.”

‘Showdown’ format ‘not fair’

In meetings following last week's announcement by the EBU, smaller parties like the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the European Greens have criticised the format, saying it excludes them from fair visibility ahead of the election, which takes place on 22-25 May across EU countries.

Johannes Hillje, campaign manager for the European Greens, told EurActiv: “These debates [including the ‘showdown’ debate] are co-organised by the European Parliament. We were expecting that political groups would get visibility according to their representation.”

Observers have argued this could render the televised discussion rather dull. Simon Hix, a professor of European studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), said earlier: “What voters and the media need now is to see a difference between these candidates. Tsipras has a clearly different stance on things, but we need someone on the right as well.”

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) expressed their interest in joining the debate if they are invited, but this goes beyond the EBU’s plan to invite only those who have been nominated officially by a party as candidate for the EU Commission presidency.

The 'showdown' debate on 20 May now is up in the air and European parties are unsure whether it will be held.

Too much limelight for Schulz?

Parliament insiders told EurActiv that the socialist candidate Martin Schulz and his team have decided to back down from the two-man debate due to fears of losing political support from smaller European parties.

This follows an earlier move by the Greens’ co-chairs in the EU Parliament, Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who released a statement over the weekend criticising Schulz for using his position as European Parliament president for campaigning purposes.

"The role of head of the Parliament - the only democratically elected institution in the EU - should not be mixed up with the clear party politics involved in a candidacy-role for European Commission president,” they said in a joint statement.

For EU commissioners running in the election, a rule was agreed for them to step down and be replaced in the last stretch of the EU executive's mandate. But no such rules exist for the Parliament president.

Single candidates (almost) in place

Meanwhile, new polling data released yesterday show the Socialists still lead in the opinion polls. But their lead has shrunk and they are now neck-and-neck with the EPP. Remarkably, the far-left European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) has seen a surge in voting intentions, with opinion polls placing the group in third spot, ahead of the liberal ALDE group.

At the EPP congress, which opens today in Dublin, member parties are expected to adopt their election manifesto and elect a common candidate. Three candidates are in the running - the Luxemburger Jean-Claude Juncker, Frenchman Michel Barnier and the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis - as EurActiv reported earlier.

On the socialist side, Schulz was officially confirmed as their frontrunner at the Party of European Socialists (PES) in Rome, last Saturday (1 March).

Guy Verhofstadt campaigns for the ALDE party and the Greens have two MEPs, José Bove (France) and Ska Keller (Germany), as their frontrunners. The Greek Alexis Tsipras is the common candidate for the radical European Left party.

The last four have little chance of being nominated for a top EU position after the elections, however.

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