With little over a week to go until the European elections, the lead candidates from Europe-wide political families clashed head-to-head on Wednesday night (15 May) in a tepid debate that touched upon climate, migration, trade, economics and dealing with Europe’s populists.
In the last debate before the elections, held in the European Parliament’s building in Brussels, the six main candidates offered little concrete steps to tackle Europe’s social and political challenges, often got tangled up in Brussels jargon, with only conservative Jan Zahradil, and far-left Nico Cue challenging the status quo.
Socialist candidate and commission vice president Frans Timmermans used the opportunity to call for a left-wing coalition from the far-left, greens and liberals.
“My offer is let’s work together in the next five years so that we make sure that the next commission puts the climate crisis on the top of its agenda and I am sure we will convince many, many people in the liberal family so that we create an alliance going from [Greek prime minister Alexis] Tspiras to [French president Emmanuel] Macron,” the Dutch politician said.
The push reflects an effort to break the dominance of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in EU politics, which is still likely to be the biggest party in parliament after the election, but expected to suffer major haemorrhages at the ballot box.
Based on projections of the EU parliament, such an alliance would hold in total 328 seats, not enough for a majority in the 751-member parliament, although the liberal group is likely to be bigger than expected with Macron’s En Marche party coming onboard.
Meanwhile, the EPP is expected to win 180 seats, conservatives 66 seats, with populists and nationalist getting 107 MEPs. Building a majority alliance will be a struggle for the centre-right as well.
Group leaders will hold their first meeting on 28 May in Brussels, two days after the elections, and hours before EU leaders meet in the Belgian capital for an extraordinary summit to discuss the results.
Weber as target
It was no surprise that the EPP’s top candidate, Manfred Weber was at the centre of attacks from fellow candidates, and the Bavarian politician held his ground, but failed to stand out as the obvious would-be leader for the next commission, and put to rest doubts over his leadership experience.
Weber said he wanted to “open the next chapter” for the new EU executive, but then defended existing commission proposals and EPP policies, like adding 10,000 staff to the EU’s border and coast guard.
Weber – who got rid of a tie for the debate, in an effort to reinforce his image of being a local politician close to the voters – at one point challenged a much more combative Timmermans and clashed over the Dutchman’s proposal on a Europe-wide minimum wage, and Portugal’s economic plans.
“They are not asking about minimum wages. The young generation is asking for jobs, good paying jobs. That’s why we need a good economic policy to create jobs,” Weber told Timmermans.
Later Timmermans accused Weber of wanting to punish Portugal amid a financial crisis, even though the current commission approved the struggling country’s budget plans. “That’s not true,” Weber retorted timidly.
Timmermans blasted out a few signature witty one-liners, evoking Amazon’s virtual assistant when talking about corporate taxes, saying “We should keep asking ‘Alexa, Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?'”, and referring to the popular TV series when talking about Brexit: “The UK looks like Game of Thrones on steroids”.
Margrethe Vestager, who has been praised for her work as competition commissioner, was cautious in her first debate as a liberal top candidate.
She stayed away from concrete proposals, or heated exchanges with fellow candidates, only challenging Weber by telling him commissioners are not party politicians but work together.
Vestager steered clear from naming and shaming member states as tax havens, earning applause and cheers by saying, “A tax haven for me is a place where everyone pays their taxes”.
The exchange, dubbed “Eurovision Debate” (organised by the European Broadcasting Union, who are also running the annual song contest), lacked real debate with the eurosceptics and the populists who are expected to surge in the election.
Furthest to the right on Wednesday night, Jan Zahradil, candidate for the European Conservatives and Reformists party (ECR), criticised doing more on EU level and an “ever closer union”, and argued for an “EU which is scaled back, flexible, and decentralised”.
Zahradil argued for finding the right balance between national and EU level, said asylum, taxation policies should remain with member states, and changed Weber’s plan to introduce majority decision making on foreign affairs issues.
“I would like a European commission, which respects national governments and cooperates with them, which doesn’t fight them, doesn’t patronise them, doesn’t lecture them,” he said, referring to ongoing battles between the European commission and eastern member states over distributing migrants, and questions over rule of law and democracy.
Zahradil warned of policies that could further divide eastern and western member states. Timmermans defended the commission’s proposals on distributing migrants across EU members, saying solidarity goes both ways.
“We need solidarity, not only for things you like, but also for things you don’t like, and if central and eastern European countries don’t accept solidarity, borders will be back sooner or later where they don’t belong,” the Dutch politician said, referring to a possible breakdown in the Schengen passport-free area.
Weber repeated his proposal to introduce sanctions, including suspension of EU funds, for member states which scale back on the rule of law, after his party clashed with Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, a plan that could make it difficult for him to build alliances on the right after the elections.
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