In a multilingual debate, which turned into a fight about austerity, the candidates to become the next President of the European Commission on Thursday (15 May) showed the face of a not-so-divided, decidely diverse Europe.
After a first debate in Maastricht, and a second in Florence, the Eurovision debate was the first to include the far-left candidate Alexis Tsipras. The Greek, who is spearheading an alliance of neo-Marxist parties across Europe, and campaigns on a pledge to combat austerity and inequality, chose to speak in his native tongue.
“What happened in Greece is not a success story, but a social tragedy that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere in Europe,” Tsipras said, demanding an end to debt paranoia.
“The destructive policy of austerity is no way to address the big problem in Europe, which is unemployment,” he said, accusing Europe’s leadership of forcing harsh spending cuts on struggling economies and blaming the bankers.
“In Greece, in Italy, it wasn’t a matter of banking, but bad policies on the part of your political parties,” Guy Verhofstadt, the candidate from the centre-right liberal group ALDE, answered back in English, defending the need for fiscal discipline in the EU as it struggles to move out of recession.
“You need fiscal discipline, otherwise you cannot have growth,” he insisted, adding that the best way forward was to make the most of the EU single market, which needed further economic barriers removed within the 28-member bloc.
Speaking in French, conservative leader Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg who chaired the single-currency Eurogroup for eight years, rebuffed Tsipras’ accusations.
“For years I worked day and night—more often during the night—to stop Greece from leaving the euro area,” Mr. Juncker said, adding that EU governments would still need to make more budget cuts in the future. “There is no sustainable employment without healthy public finances,” he said.
Greens candidate Ska Keller, the only woman in the race, said that more austerity would “worsen the situation” and called on member states to do more to invest in the green economy and renewable energy.
“Mr Juncker thinks he is already the EU Commission president,” Ska Keller told the press afterwards. “He didn’t make clear what the difference is between him and the socialist Schulz. He did agree on the policies of austerity that have been pushed on southern and other EU member states, and it is unclear what he wants to do differently now.”
Immigration – they all agree
In the wake of yet another shipwreck off the coast of Italy this week, the candidates agreed that the EU needed a legal migration policy that would help curb the influx of illegal migrants, and counterbalance the asylum seekers policy.
It is unacceptable to allow the Mediterranean to turn into a graveyard, said Tsipras, adding that Europe needed to become synonymous with solidarity.
Keller called the current uncoordinated stance on legal migration a scandal. Juncker insisted that the time was ripe for EU legislation dealing with migration, but also urged EU members not to cut their aid budgets, in order to better assist people before they leave their country, and risk their lives trying to reach Europe.
The EU elections will partially be judged on how many people turn up: turnout in the EU elections has consistently dropped, and was at a record-low 43% in 2009. But the economic crisis in Europe has also caused social dismay over the EU’s policy line, and the presidential debates were designed by the parties to help raise the awareness of EU politics.
“In my opinion, if citizens follow the debate, they have a much clearer opinion about what the European Union does than they had one hour and a half ago,” said Jaume Duch, spokesperson for the European Parliament.
“This is an interesting boost, one week before the elections, which could help turnout,” he added. “Now, it depends on how the politicians act and how the media informs and translates what the politicians are doing during these last ten days.”
“I do regret that it didn’t touch upon a series of key issues,” the Belgian socialist MEP, Marc Tarabella, told EURACTIV after the debate. “They didn’t discuss social inclusion or the problems we’re encountering with the single market, like social dumping.” Could the debate influence the outcome of the elections? According to Tarabella “this debate is followed by just a small minority of citizens. There will be no influence on the Belgian vote.”
Kostas Sasmatzoglou, a spokesman for the centre-right EPP party, said that “for all the multilingual debates, I personally think these are difficult to follow for citizens, and it makes it look more like a number of monologues than a debate. It is trial and error. We’re doing this for the first time.”
Liberal top candidate Guy Verhofstadt told EURACTIV: “I believe it was lively, but translating in Greek slowed down the debate considerably. I didn’t really follow Tsipras, and had to grab on to my ear piece to understand him. But I think it was good to have him on stage.”
‘Shame on you, France’
At the time of writing, the European Broadcasting Union did not release figures of the total count of EU citizens tuning in. The debate was broadcasted on 58 national and regional TV channels in total and web-streamed on 71 websites in EU member states. Yet, several public broadcaster have been criticised for not screening it.
“In Belgium, it was broadcasted by the public broadcaster while in France, that wasn’t even the case,” Tarabella grumbled afterwards. “And Marine Le Pen will become the biggest party in France – shame on you, France.”
Next week, Europeans head to the voting booth on 22-25 May. Once all votes are in, the largest party is expected to put forward his ‘Spitzenkandidat’ as next EU Commission president. Recent polls show that the EPP has a small lead compared to the socialists (212 versus 209 MEP seats) and so Juncker is the frontrunner, with little room to spare.
Whether EU leaders will agree to the initiative of the European political parties is yet to be seen. Earlier this week, the UK minister for EU affairs spoke in Brussels and made clear that the initiative to select a new Commission president still lies with the member states – not the political parties.
EU leaders will gather on 27 May, two days after the elections. When it comes to UK support for the candidate that wins these elections, Sasmatzoglou told EURACTIV: “It seems that the British government doesn’t realise yet that the Lisbon Treaty is in force. They basically seem to have a time lag in their approach of this issue.”