22nd Mar 2018


On lacklustre EU debates and top job candidates

  • the chamber echoed – both literally and metaphorically (Photo: EUobserver)

The setting was more than unfortunate. Europe’s first ever live (!) televised (!) debate between the two main contenders for the European Commission crown took place in an empty chamber.

And that chamber echoed – both literally and metaphorically.

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  • Europe’s first ever live televised debate between the two main contenders for the European Commission crown took place in an empty chamber (Photo: EUobserver)

The event – on Wednesday (9 April) – had the Twitter hashtag of #EPduel. That was a misnomer of some magnitude. There was not even the barest hint of political fisticuffs.

The two candidates – Jean-Claude Juncker for the centre-right and Martin Schulz for the centre-left – agreed, broadly, on many of the topics broached; austerity, employment, France’s intervention in Mali, immigration, Britain’s EU dilemma.

The moderators asked how they differed from one another. Schulz was noted that Juncker shared his ideas.

There was some banter about why Juncker’s support for Eurobonds had evolved. Juncker emphasised his superior governmental and EU experience.

On substance, they were more or less even. There was much said on what the EU could or should do. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso’s now thoroughly over-used “big on the big things, small on the smaller things” got an airing. There was little about what Jean-Claude Juncker or Martin Schulz believed.

On style, Schulz had the edge; his voice changed notes every now and then. Juncker was studiously monotonous. It required some strength of will to sit through the entire 40 minutes.

Was this about winning over voters ahead of the May EU elections? It did not seem like it. Perhaps it was the setting. If there is no audience it’s easy to forget real people are supposed to be listening.

But perhaps it was also because the European Commission President is not in a position to make concrete promises on things that matter to people. (Look how long it is taking to get the youth guarantee scheme off the ground). Meanwhile foreign policy topics – like Ukraine and Russia – which they both answered on are not for the European Commission either.

Juncker and Schulz will meet several more times to debate, and twice with the full stable of contenders (on 28 April in Maastricht and 15 May in Brussels).

They are also travelling around member states – although possibly not Britain where both are considered arch-federalists – to sell their candidacy. (Juncker recently noted he had not been invited and was not going to “impose” his campaign bus on the island).

These various media appearances do have one effect though.

Creating an institutional truth

They make things awkward for the camp (including Germany) that do not believe the EU vote should automatically lead to the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the most popular party becoming EU commission president.

In fact, the treaty says nothing about parties running top candidates. It only says that leaders must take the EU vote result into account when nominating the commission chief.

However, media (and voters) are good at shorthand.

The France 24 moderators introduced the two as the candidate for the presidency of the commission. Say something often enough and it becomes true. Or at least difficult to make it untrue again.

This could be awkward for Juncker too. It is said that he doesn’t even particularly want the job. He would rather emerge as head of the European Council after some post-EU vote horsetrading.

But if everybody keeps introducing him as a commission candidate (and if the centre-right win of course), he may have less choice in the matter than he (or Berlin for that matter) thought.

Perhaps that’s why he spoke in such an uninspiring manner.


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