Socialist and centre-right European parties have picked each other as prime targets for the EU election campaign, with new TV debates between Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker scheduled for May.
Last week, several German television channels announced two new debates between the candidates for the next European Commission presidency, in the run-up to the EU election on 22-25 May.
Martin Schulz, for the socialist PES party, and Jean-Claude Juncker, for the centre-right EPP party, will not only face other top candidates in a number of debates. They will also face each other directly in two-man ‘showdown’ debates.
On 8 May, both candidates will stand head to head in Berlin, on the invitation of the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, and German public broadcaster ZDF. On 20 May, the German public broadcaster ARD invited both for a second face-off, just two days before the first polls open in the Netherlands and the UK.
For months, the EU election campaign has been largely focused on the predicted surge of eurosceptic parties in the next EU Parliament. But, in recent weeks, socialists and the centre-right have also been in each other’s crosshairs.
At the European People’s Party (EPP) congress in Dublin on 6-7 March, centre-right figureheads started the campaign, attacking the centre-left in their speeches. “Socialists give away money. And then Christian Democrats have to fix the problems,” said German MEP Elmar Brok. Jean-Claude Juncker told member parties that “the socialists think they fight inequality. In fact, it is up to us [to fight it]: we ensure intergenerational responsibility.”
In his acceptance speech at the European socialists’ election congress in Rome (1 March), Schulz said: “Governments all over Europe have responded to the crisis with pain for people, billions for banks.” This will likely be the strategy for their upcoming campaign: denouncing the austerity-driven policies of generally centre-right EU governments, in response to the economic crisis.
Objections to a two-horse race
Polling data released in recent months has shown that the election will be a close race between the socialists and the centre-right. The winning party will presumably have the right to put forward their lead candidate as next European Commission president.
Televised debates could bring energy to the race. But other political parties who put forward candidates for the EU Commission top job have voiced their objections.
Writing for EURACTIV, Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the European Greens, wrote that smaller parties, which account for nearly half of the seats in the next EP, “are being made invisible by ORF, ARD and ZDF when they present only two voices … [The broadcasters] deny their audience even a glimpse of the pluralism that will dominate the next European Parliament.”
Earlier, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) cancelled plans for a showdown between Schulz and Juncker, due to the criticism of these smaller parties.
Apart from main contenders Schulz and Juncker, the liberals have put Guy Verhofstadt in the field. The European Left’s campaign is led by Alexis Tsipras. The Greens have two candidates, José Bové and Ska Keller.
At the European Parliament session in Strasbourg last week, the extreme-right coalition between Marine Le Pen (French, FN) and Geert Wilders (Dutch, PVV) announced that it wouldn’t nominate a candidate. The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) announced the same, one week earlier.
Post-elections ‘grand coalition’ inevitable
While face-off debates might draw attention to the race for the top job, polls have also shown that the two main parties could become mutually dependent after the elections.
Coalitions between centre- and left-wing parties, or between centre- and right-wing parties, were common practice in the past legislatures, but could fall short of a majority in the next one, leading to a grand-coalition.
LSE professor in EU politics, Simon Hix, previously said “we’re going to see a grand coalition, because the centre groups are squeezed together”.
Former Italian prime minister and president of the socialist think tank FEPS, Massimo D’Alema, told EURACTIV that “after the elections some deal between socialists and popular parties will be needed. Without such an accord, we’re stuck”.
But, D’Alema added, “it would be a mistake to have a campaign that puts the European establishment against the [mostly eurosceptic] newcomers in the Parliament. That would be a disastrous scenario for us.”