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16th Feb 2019

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EU top candidates to slug it out in TV debate

  • The plenary chamber in Brussels will be turned into a studio on 15 May for the debate (Photo: European Parliament)

This year will see the first-ever televised debate between candidates running to be the next head of the European Commission but the details of the format - not least how to make it interesting TV - are proving to be a challenge.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) - more usually associated with an annual European song competition - will hold a live debate between the official candidates in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels on 15 May at 9pm local time.

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The date is one week before the EU elections.

Taking part are Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, a former PM, for the centre-right EPP; German EU parliament President Martin Schulz for the centre-left; Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt for the liberals, and Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza party, for the far-left. The Greens have yet to decide which of their two leading candidates (French MEP Jose Bove or German MEP Ska Keller) will represent them in the debate.

"This is unprecedented," says Ben Steward, in charge of communications at EBU. "The nearest thing to it is - dare I say it - the Eurovision Song Contest."

But the programme set-up is more complicated and thoroughly more political than its warbling cousin.

The debate will be 90 minutes long. The five politicians will be "encouraged" to speak in English.

A lot will be drawn on what order the candidates should speak in. But it is not yet clear how much time they will be allocated and whether there will be specific topics for discussion - such as the economy or immigration.

"It's a challenge," admits Steward.

The sheer number of discussants is also an issue. Herding two politicians into a coherent and interesting debate on TV requires skill. Doing the same for five requires yet more skill and a certain ruthlessness with the stopclock.

This task has been given to Monica Maggioni, an Italian former war correspondent and current director of RAI 24 news.

That the moderator - as the politicians - is not a native English speaker was deliberate. She will probably be joined by a second moderator who will present infogaphics (such as the latest polls) and what is happening on social media.

Steward is hoping for "some serious difference of opinion" between the candidates.

It will be a live audience but there will be no questions from the floor - this was deemed too "unwieldy". EBU is hoping for a "decent-sized" audience representing a cross-section of European society. In the event most of them are set to be people living in Belgium.

Getting the programme broadcast live at what is a prime TV time on a Thursday evening is set to be difficult. Around 20 broadcasters have expressed interest in showing the debate in some form - such as highlights. The BBC is set to run it live on its parliament channel.

The potential number of viewers is also difficult to predict. Steward shoots high: "If we can get similar viewing figures (to the European Song Contest) - around 100 million - that would be quite exciting."

Tension in the format

There is also tension at the heart of the format: the candidates might not become commission president even if their party proves to be the most popular after the EU elections on 22-25 May.

This is something that will have to be "tackled" by the moderator.

In any case, there will be just the one debate. A previously mooted second one - just between the two top canidates, Juncker and Schulz - was dropped after Schulz was accused by other MEPs of abusing his post.

The EBU, for its part, is both promoting the uniqueness of the event while playing down its effect on voters in the 28 member states.

"We're not pretending this debate will somehow influence the outcome of the elections," says Steward phlegmatically.

The article was amended at 19h40 Monday (17 March) to reflect the fact that it has since been decided that a lot will be drawn on what order the candidates will speak in.

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