The first ever European presidential debate—for the presidency of the European Commission—was held last Monday, at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and which I just watched via the debate’s website. There are five candidates—designated by their respective Europarties or European Parliament political groups—in the running to succeed José Manuel Barroso, whose term ends on October 31st: Jean-Claude Juncker (from Luxembourg) of the European People’s Party (moderate right), Martin Schulz (German)—the current president of the European Parliament—of the Party of European Socialists, Guy Verhofstadt (Belgian) of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (centrist), Ska Keller (German) of the European Green Party, and Alexis Tsipras (leader of the Greek Syriza) of the European United Left. The two right-wing Eurosceptic groups—one of which includes the British Tories—are not running candidates (for more on the candidates, go to the useful website Debating Europe). The new President of the Commission will be nominated by the European Council—by consensus or in a qualified majority vote according to the (overly complex) formula contained in the Treaty of Nice—and ratified (or rejected) by a majority vote in the European Parliament. One more reason underscoring the importance of the upcoming elections for the latter (more on which in a later post).
Four of the five candidates were present for the debate—Tsipras declined the invitation for some reason—, which went for 90 minutes, was held in English, broadcast on Euronews, and where the candidates answered questions from the moderators—relaying some posed via Twitter—or members of the audience. The debate was divided into three half-hour parts, on Europe’s economy—which included questions on youth unemployment, austerity, tax havens, eurobonds, the future of the euro, and the relationship of the Commission with the European Council—, Euroscepticism—with questions on immigration and migration, digital privacy, and trust in Europe’s institutions—, and foreign policy—with Ukraine and the USA (NSA surveillance and the TTIP free trade negotiations) the main subjects of interest. There was a fair dose of langue de bois at the beginning but with the candidates loosening up as the debate progressed. And parts were quite interesting, particularly the discussion of eurobonds and immigration. The candidates had one minute each to answer the questions, which was not nearly enough but was maybe inevitable given that there were four of them (and they started to go over their allotted time as they went along). I like Martin Schulz—he’s been my man for the job—, who was good enough (albeit a little cautious at points), but the one who really impressed was Guy Verhofstadt. And an audience poll afterward designated him the winner of the debate running away, with 53.4% of the vote; Schulz was a distant second at 19.4%, Ska Keller at 18%, and Jean-Claude Juncker a paltry 9.2%. Juncker was a clunker, no doubt playing it safe, as he is clearly the front-runner; also, his heart may not really be in it, as he would apparently prefer to be the next President of the European Council—a far more laid back job than President of the Commission—, succeeding the diminutive Herman Van Rompuy. I remember Juncker being much better in a televised round-table during the 2005 French referendum campaign on the (failed) European Constitutional Treaty.
The debate may be watched on YouTube here. A 23-minute instant analysis of the debate, with Libération’s Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer and Europolitics editor-in-chief Christophe Garach, may be seen here (with English voice-over) or here (en français). A second debate will be held on May 15th in Brussels (and presumably in French).