On 28 April, the first ever debate of announced candidates of the European political parties for the European Commission presidency was held in Maastricht. Before an auditorium made largely of students, four of the candidates, namely Jean-Claude Juncker (centre-right conservative EPP), Martin Schulz (social-democrat PES), Guy Verhofstadt (liberal ALDE party) and Ska Keller (the greens), met in a US-style format to discuss the current challenges the EU faces and their proposals to tackle them. Although the debate received some attention, it was largely ignored by the EU broadcasters and therefore it was mainly the social media that reflected on the debate. Still, however, the attention was very low compared to really high-profile elections. Commentators agree that the debate was quite nervous, both considering the candidates and the moderators. Also, it is widely agreed, that the debate lacked the fifth candidate, the energetic Alexis Tsipras (far-left GUE). The speakers touched upon topics such as economy and employment, environment, immigration, foreign policy, taxes, but, some say, too often slid into the EU institutional affairs. This is understandable, since Mr. Schulz is the incumbent President of the European Parliament, Mr. Juncker was President of the Eurogroup for a long time and Mr. Verhofstadt and Ms. Keller are MEPs. These issues are, however, considered rather incomprehensible for the wider public. Also, quite surprisingly, the strongest candidates – Mr. Juncker and Mr. Schulz, were rather weak, especially the former prime minister of Luxembourg. On the other hand, Mr. Verhofstadt left a very good impression.
The next debate is scheduled for 15 May, is to take place in the European Parliament and should be aired by the principal public broadcasters across the EU. Also, Mr. Tsipras will also take part in the discussion.
The debates are a way to attract more voters to the generally low-turnout EP elections. Their effect is, however, largely disputed. Much will depend on the post-election decision of the European Council. According to the Treaties, it is the European Council alone which proposes an EC Presidency candidate to the EP for approval. If the person chosen is not one of the five proposed by the political parties, the debates will prove to have been in vain.
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