Friday, 16 May 2014

Election 2014: The Debate

The headline debate run by the European Broadcasting Union (of Eurovision Song Contest fame) brought together the 5 candidates running in the contest to become the President of the Commission. With the Commission disparaged for not being democratic enough, this election should give voters a say over who heads the Commission and how the EU will be run for the next 5 years. The idea is that the nomination of the Commission President by the European Council (heads of state and government) has to take into account the outcome of the elections, and the European Parliament elects the Commission, so the Parliament should be able to push a majority-wielding and election-winning candidate through.

The candidates of the 5 European political parties who decided to nominate candidates met to fight it out on the airwaves (or should that be air-bits, now that everything's digital?), with the debate being broadcast at 9pm CET yesterday. Martin Schulz (for the centre-left Party of European Socialists), Jean-Claude Juncker (for the centre-right European People's Party), Ska Keller (for the European Greens), Guy Verhofstadt (for the Liberals), and Alexis Tsipras (for the European United Left)* had a minute each to answer questions on jobs and the economy, the situation in Ukraine, separatism, immigration, religious freedom, and voter apathy.

In many ways the debate was hobbled: for a start, some of the questions could have easily been replaced with much better and more relevant ones. Talking about voter apathy, for instance, has never got people excited to vote. It's strange that questions weren't used to find out were candidates stood on the Common Agricultural Policy, on justice and home affairs or Eurobonds. The 1 minute time limit for the candidates to speak is an obvious block on a deep debate, but understandable when there is only one debate on this scale with all the candidates. In the future, it would be better to have 2 or 3 debates on more focused topics with more room for interaction between the candidates.

That said, the debate was in some ways better than I thought it would be: there were some good performances, with Guy Verhofstadt and Ska Keller speaking well. While it was frustrating that there was little debate on policy or a good knock-out blow, the I think the debate did show the candidates off and revealed a bit about their style (as much as anything can for 5 people over just 90 minutes). So what did it tell us about the candidates?

Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals):

Verhofstadt was probably the best performer on the night. He took a very clear pro-integration stance, and drew nearly all of his arguments back to it. On the economy and jobs, he said that further market integration, especially in new areas like the digital economy, would spur growth and create jobs. On immigration, having a common policy would help by giving a legal pathway to immigration. And returning to national currencies would hurt ordinary people the most, so the Euro should be integrated better to make it work better. He was definitely the most aggressive (and kind of odd) - he attacked Tsipras for its links with Greek public banks and read out a letter from Gary Kasparov.

While Verhofstadt was one of the winners of this debate, his lack of policy content was a big downside for me. Big, common policies sound dramatic and grand, but I still don't have any idea about what those policies could do - or even what they'd look like. The US and Australia may have federal immigration systems, but should the EU have one (and would it be points based, etc.?). I still have too many unanswered questions.

Ska Keller (Greens):

Keller was, with Verhofstadt, one of the better speakers and she came across well, making some great interventions on the Transatlantic Trade Pact (criticising the secrecy of negotiations), and she even made an attack on Schulz for not doing more to fight against corruption in the institutions. As a Green, she highlighted green jobs and industry as the economic solution and pointed out that energy independence would strengthen the EU's position when it came to Russia.

Sadly she didn't mention any policy ideas: in many ways her positions are exactly what you would imagine as a German Green. It's a strong brand, but without throwing some interesting ideas and policies out there, it probably won't make much of an impact. Keller could draw more voters to the Green banner in places where there isn't such a well developed Green party.

Alexis Tsipras (EUL):

Tsipras had a few good moments in challenging the austerity policy and calling for a tougher approach on tax evasion, etc. As the leader of the opposition in Greece (and therefore the most high-profile EUL leader across Europe), Tsipras used his time to attack the policies of the past 5 years and challenged Juncker on what the heads of government got up to behind closed doors when the Greek and Italian governments were replaced by technocratic governments (Juncker was a long-serving Prime Minister of Luxembourg).

Unfortunately, Tsipras never really moved beyond the blame game towards even sketching out what he would do as Commission President. A forum for proper and fairer discussion is not really a policy. With a few good populist left-wing policies, Tsipras could have put pressure on Schulz, who was tacking more towards the centre. Instead, Tsipras was oddly irrelevant to the debate.

Martin Schulz (PES):

Schulz performed competently, but had a few halting and ponderous speeches. He was the only candidate who came within the vicinity of proposing a policy! - a micro-financing initiative to help small and medium businesses grow and create jobs. Schulz talked tough on tax evasion and avoidance, but didn't set out a vision for the Eurozone (merely noting that the banking union was a step in the right direction but more needed to be done). Given the left's criticism of austerity and the Eurozone's budget rules, it's disappointing that Schulz didn't present more of an alternative on this front.

Indeed, Schulz appeared to soften his federalism and left-wing edges in order to appeal to more centrist voters. Schulz took pains to advocate not More Europe, but Another Europe, and tried to give a statesmanlike answer on the question of relations with Russia. The more ponderous nature of his speeches may have been to project as more competent and dependable appearance - his speeches can be quite passionate in German - but a bit more fire would have been nice.

Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP):

The dullest candidate. There's no getting away from it: Juncker was incredibly dull and it's hard to remember much of what he said at all. Very much advocating the status quo on practically everything, Juncker represents the "stay-the-course-and-listen-to-the-Council" approach. He defended the policies of the last 5 years as someone who was at the heart of the EU and the Eurozone as Luxembourg's Prime Minister. Juncker struck a tone more in favour of Member States' rights and subsidiarity, and when asked about whether or not the Commission President could be picked from outside of the candidates, he steered towards the legal text of the treaties. He was the only one that came closest to giving us a debate gaff when he said that the banks were now well behaved, but nobody really picked up on this (perhaps because Juncker was often the last to speak on a topic).

It may be that Juncker is aiming to replace Van Rompuy as the President of the European Council, where he can continue to sit with Prime Ministers and Presidents, than take Barroso's job leading the Commission. The EPP are not well served by Juncker.

To get to know where the Europarties stand, we'll have to dig deeper and look at their manifestos. But hopefully this debate raised the profile of the elections and the possible pan-European debate that can be had. We now have our chance to decide who becomes the next boss of all those "unelected bureaucrats": let's take it.

*The Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists (with which the UK Conservatives are aligned) and the Euroskeptic parties did not put a candidate forward.

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