First Spitzenkandidaten debate falls flat

(L-R) Frans Timmermans, Jan Zahradil, Violeta Tomic, Bas Eickhout and Guy Verhofstadt prior to the debate in Maastricht on 29 April 2019. [EPA-EFE/MARCEL VAN HOORN]

Five candidates vying to become the next European Commission president sparred and bantered in the first European election debate, which fell flat in the absence of Manfred Weber, candidate of the largest political group.

From “dialogue, equality and sustainable future” to a better balance between Brussels and national capitals, and a “green new deal for Europe”, the slogans floated freely in the auditorium of the Maastricht University, where the five came together on Monday (29 April).

Weber, the Spitzenkandidat of the European People’s Party (EPP), had excused himself, citing a commitment to attend the anniversary reception of his political mentor in Bavaria, although the organisers said they had informed him of the date a year ago.

The representatives of the Social Democrats, Liberals (ALDE), the European Left, Greens and the European Conservatives and Reformers debated digital issues, sustainable growth and future of Europe but the debate produced more catchphrases than substance.

Sparks only really flew at the mention of US President Donald Trump.

Liberal Guy Verhofstadt said Europe must act to prevent “the man in Washington and his idiocies”. The Socialists’ Frans Timmermans said Europe must stand united and not allow Trump “to play us off against each other”.

Another central issue was summed up by the Greens’ Bas Eickhout, who said that, should the EPP end up the strongest party as polls suggest, the key question was how Weber would go about forming a commanding majority.

“Is he going to build a coalition with the progressives or continue what we have unfortunately seen and work with the right?”

Digital Europe

If there was one message from all the lead candidates it was that Europe needs to regulate technological giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

“These tech companies use the data you give them for free and they make billions in profits,” Timmermans said, adding that the EU should ensure that large tech companies are properly taxed and that citizens retain ownership and control over their data.

Asked whether he would consider Wikileaks as hero or villain, Eickhout said he would “say they are heroes as they provide transparency.” The Green candidate said tech companies “need to make sure they also play according to the European rules, so we need to make sure there is full transparency on advertisement.”

Verhofstadt called for a European regulator, provoking a rebuke by Timmermans against a “sort of protectionism idea of Verhofstadt, to start your own Facebook in Europe.”

Conservative Jan Zahradil argued for as little EU regulative power as possible: “A European commission should not act as a government for Europe but assist national governments, we are doing well in the moment and coping well.”

Sustainable Europe

Asked to raise their hands if they support the student climate strikers, all candidates except Zahradil raised their hands.

Both Dutch candidates Timmermans and Eickhout said they would take the lead in climate policy should they land the Commission top job with Leftist Violeta Tomic calling climate change “the battle of the 21st century.”

“If Europe does not set the right climate goals and encourages the right investments, we will have to import electric cars from China,” Eickhout said, adding this would mean “investments in new jobs, in new economy, in every sector.”

Zahradil repeated that some countries are not ready for a rapid energy transition. “We have to phase out coal burning, but when you phase out from one day to another you create suffering,” he said.

In reproach that he is a “dinosaur,” the Czech said, he “don’t mind, I’ve always loved Jurassic Park.”

Future Europe

In the final segment of the debate, the candidates addressed the question of how to provide young people from the weaker social environments facing unemployment and a poor economic situation.

“We need to increase mobility within the EU, as 3 million vacancies are within the European Union. We also need to change social policy and ensure at least a minimum social security net,” said Verhofstadt.

Clashing with Verhofstadt on social policy, Timmermans called for an EU-wide minimum wage set at least at 60%of the median wage. “Would it kill us to pay 50 cents more for a pizza to make sure people are protected?”

Asked if they would commit to creating a gender-equal Commission, all five candidates raised their hands and welcomed the proposal as a good idea.

According to a poll conducted by the organisers, the audience favoured Timmermans (43%), followed by Eickhout (36%), Verhofstadt (9%), Zahradil (7%) and Tomić (5%).

The secound debate is scheduled for Thursday (2 May) in Florence, Italy.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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