An oddly uncontroversial debate between the lead candidates of the four major pro-European political families at this month’s EU elections took place in Florence on Thursday (2 May).
Frans Timmermans for the Party of European Socialists (PES), Manfred Weber for the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), Guy Verhofstadt for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and Ska Keller for the Greens were the only participants to the debate, organised by the European University Institute and the Financial Times newspaper.
No eurosceptic or anti-EU party took part, although all lead candidates of the main European political parties were invited, the organisers said.
Verhofstadt said he was not exactly a “Spitzenkandidat” because he is one of the nine members of the “Team Europe” selected by his liberal family to lead the election campaign. Besides, the former Belgian Prime Minister said he represents a political party which will be reshaped after the EU elections, after its expected merger with Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance movement.
The speakers were challenged on topics such as migration, socio-economic policies, climate change, security and foreign policy. They also answered a few questions from the audience and social media.
Timmermans appeared by far the most solid while his main contender, Manfred Weber, often sounded on the defence. But overall, the tone was polite and rather than fighting among themselves, the candidates preferred competing with ideas.
There was a common denominator, however: All candidates agreed more powers had to be transferred to the European Commission and Parliament, and less to the Council, where member states are represented.
His proved experience as @EU_Commission Vice President endorses his candidacy.
— Adrià Sisternes (@adriasisternes) May 2, 2019
Timmermans argued that Europe was in a “do or die” situation in terms of reforms, warning that, for the first time in history, the EU risked breaking apart.
Asked about the Yellow Vests protests in France and how to bring about a more sustainable economy without hurting those already left behind, he said:
“If we screw this up, none of us in this room can look our children in the eyes any more. If we screw this up, we screw up generations,” he said, arguing that reforms will be painful, but could be done in a fair way.
In contrast to Weber, who used the EPP name a dozen of times to back up his views, Timmermans never used terms like socialism or social democracy, but argued in favour of a Union “that works for the many, not for the few”.
In terms of ideological debate, the Greens candidate Ska Keller said the austerity policies of recent years had stifled economic growth, citing Greece where 37% of youth are currently unemployed.
To this, Weber replied that all EU decisions on economic policies are agreed in common, including by the Commissioner responsible for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, a French socialist.
Timmermans, who is still part of the EU executive, said he preferred to talk about the future. According to him, the most worrying thing he had read recently was a report by the IMF saying that the middle classes all around the Western world are dwindling.
“If we don’t turn this around, if we don’t give a perspective to the middle class, solidarity will no longer be possible in our societies,” he said, arguing the first thing that should be created is a responsible fiscal policy.
“It is unbearable that big companies which are making billions of profits in Europe are paying no taxes. We need to change that immediately. We need to make sure that the incomes of the middle classes go up, and go up quickly, and we need to make sure that we have a re-birth of solidarity at the European level,” the PES lead candidate said.
Asked whether they would support a right of legislative initiative by the European Parliament, the candidates were unanimous in their answers, saying they were favourable to the idea.
As things stand, EU treaties give the European Commission the exclusive right to propose legislation. But Weber said he would not wait for a treaty change. “As future Commission President,” he said he will accept all proposals by the European Parliament and translate them into legislative initiatives “in a quasi-automatic process”.
Verhofstadt, for his part, said the European Parliament needed to be “fully responsible” for the budget. The EU budget is currently decided by member states, and Parliament controls the expenditure, not the income.
Ska Keller advocated for greater transparency of decision-making in the Council, arguing that the biggest risk was the lack of rule of law and civil liberties in some member states. While she mentioned Hungary, Poland and Romania by name, she said other countries were also at risk.
Staying with institutional matters, Timmermans argued in favour of formalising the nominate procedure of the Commission President under the so-called “Spitzenkandidaten” system. “If you take that away from the European Parliament, you take away something that has become very important,” he said.
The Dutch politician didn’t mention it, but it is widely expected that EU heads of states and government will disregard the “Spitzenkandidaten” process when deciding on the next President of the European Commission.
“The odd man out here is the Council. I think the four of us van agree on that”, Timmermans said, and Verhofstadt replied: “On that yes, we have a common enemy,” he said, prompting laughs from the audience.
Although the debate took place in Italy, the political situation of this country, where the far-right Lega party of Matteo Salvini is expected to emerge as a winner from the elections, was not mentioned. Verhofstadt, who speaks Italian, said he had planned to make a final statement in this language, but finally gave up, saying he realised the audience was mostly English-speaking.
The debate was not covered by mainstream televisions and was reportedly watched online by hundreds rather than thousands. A recording of the 100-minute debate can be seen here. On social media, the four political families almost monopolised the hashtag #FlorenceDebate.
500 people are watching this debate and it is unlikely it will be covered broadly by EU news media. The US saw debates watched live by more than 80 million people and covered by all major news networks. What will you do to foster real EU-wide public debate? #FlorenceDebate #SOU19 pic.twitter.com/zgfPZ4FZOb
— Andreas Graf (@andreasgraf) May 2, 2019
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]