As MEPs from across the political spectrum prepare to face off in kick-off European election debates in the coming weeks, four topics dominated an election debate on Thursday (27 September) organised by AmCham EU and EURACTIV in Brussels.
While in more and more member states, populists and far-right parties are sitting at the levers of power, using their position to forge policies that are based on hate and intolerance or aim to dismantle human rights safeguards – while besting traditional parties in the polls and influencing their agenda.
Mercedes Bresso, vice-chief of the S&D Group, said she is not sure how the new Parliament will look but with the loss of the anti-European Brexit MEPs, their votes will go to the other major European parties. “There is a need for an honest debate with EU citizens,” she added.
With populist and right wing parties governing or part of a coalition in Austria, Italy, Poland and Hungary and Germany, Sweden and other countries increasingly willing to lend an ear to the siren calls of populist promises, a nightmare scenario for the European elections does not seem implausible.
“It is indeed very cold outside the EU,” said Antonio Lopéz Istúriz-White, EPP Secretary-General, and sketched that his party wants to “democratically convince voters of extremist parties that the EU is worth it.”
However, in the debate he admitted that he is frustrated with how Brussels gets blamed for anything that is not going well in member states.
Reacting to accusations of populism, ACRE President Jan Zahradil, stressed that he wants his party to be seen as a common sense, middle of the road choice between those who are against the European construction and the “EU fanatics that think the solution for any problem is more European integration”.
“In my case, for example, I am a very decent, well-behaved Eurosceptic,” he said, adding that the term “populist” in his eyes is a poor way of qualifying certain governments.
Hans van Baalen, president of ALDE, asked if he is concerned about populism answered that he is not and added a surprising turn saying that “in Europe, nobody is interested in the Spitzenkandidat process”, claiming that Brussels politics is not usually on the mind of European citizens and stressed the need for better connections with national parliaments.
It is no secret that migration will dominate the next eight months in the run-up to May 2019.
Bresso acknowledged that migration will be clearly imposed on political parties as the main subject in this campaign, although figures show that flows are significantly going down. “There is no invasion. This is the reality,” she said.
In contrast to the other political parties on the panel who considered migration as a European issue which should be solved with a unitary approach, ECR’s Zahradil suggested that it should rather lie in the competence of national governments.
When asked what EU values really are, lawmakers like the S&D’s Mercedes Bresso mentioned “the rule of law, inclusive rights for all EU citizens, democracy, reducing inequalities between citizens, states, regions”.
MEPs of the EPP and ECR added mobility and affordable healthcare and comparisons to non-European countries southeast of Brussels. ALDE’s Van Baalen insisted that “there are no EU values, there are universal values”.
The Brussels lawmakers to the surprise of the audience did not call out violators by their name though.
“We need a strong and independent EU economy,” said Van Baalen, emphasising that the economy is very important and the EU must ensure economic stability. He also emphasised that that protectionism for the sake of protectionism never served anyone.
In the debate, SMEs were identified as “the heart of economic prosperity in Europe”. EPP’s Lopéz Istúriz-White stressed that it would be important to “reduce red tape, lower taxes, and to create economic opportunities.”
In response to a provocative question from Susan Danger, CEO of AmCham EU, how the EU parties can convince her, as a voter and mother, that they are the best option in terms of promoting women’s rights and opportunities, all panelists agreed that more action needs to be taken to increase female presence on top jobs.
They all consider that society is changing fast and so should political parties.
“We have to make sure that with EU citizens we can go beyond the crisis with policies that invest in them,” insisted Bresso.
The problem of fake news from non-verified sources on the Internet was also recognised during the debate with ALDE’s Van Baalen stressing their danger as “we don’t know who should be held responsible for them”.
ECR’s Zahradil, however, emphasised that taking into account his experience of living in Communist Czechoslovakia, he thinks that misinformation is not a real threat for an established democracy and fake news is just an excuse for the politicians’ misgivings.