EU rivals in TV battle for votes

  • 29 April 2014
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It was billed by the hosts as Europe's first-ever presidential television debate - which may have flummoxed Europeans unaware they had a president. And they don't.

But there is a President of the European Commission, and the four contenders taking questions from young voters in Maastricht are all campaigning for the job.

Wearing tiny microphone headsets and standing at their podiums bathed in blue lighting the quartet of candidates wrestled over Europe's economic future, immigration, disenchantment with the EU and Ukraine.

A brief reminder who they are: Ska Keller is the candidate of Europe's Green parties; Jean-Claude Juncker represents the centre-right European People's Party (EPP); the European Parliament President Martin Schulz is the Social Democrat in the race and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is the Liberal hope. All, I think it's fair to say, relatively unknown outside their own countries.

On one issue they all agreed - that this was an excellent way to pick the next EU Commission president. Citing the new powers of the Lisbon Treaty, they've agreed between themselves that whichever group is the biggest in parliament after the European elections - their man or woman (there's one) will lead the Commission.

As far as the candidates are concerned, this is about personalising abstract European politics. Putting faces to the parties. Increasing the democratic legitimacy of the Commission president and trying to arrest falling turnout in European elections.

Image caption The four rival candidates: (from left) G Verhofstadt, M Schulz; S Keller; J-C Juncker

Sharp words on Ukraine

So was this one of the greats in the annals of political TV debates? Not exactly - but its novelty gave it a character of its own. The host broadcaster Euronews parcelled out the time equally between the candidates across the 90-minute debate. Some spoke more on one subject than others - leading to good-natured confusion.

If there was a particularly punchy disagreement between two of the four their faces were paired together on the screen. Rhetorically the debate was strikingly free of stale sound-bites - even if the positions sketched out by the candidates were familiar.

Mr Juncker - the dry exponent of sound money; Mr Schulz - the passionate critic of austerity; Mr Verhofstadt vigorously harried his main opponents. Ska Keller - a generation closer to the audience than the others - received strong applause when she said Europe had to confront the far-right, not appease it.

The most heated exchanges were over the EU's response to the crisis in Ukraine.

So will this political version of the Eurovision song contest make a difference? In Europe's national capitals several governments mutter that it won't.

The European Council - the grouping of EU government leaders - is opposed to the parliament having the decisive say in picking the next Commission president. And that only adds to the surreal nature of these novel debates.