EU rivals square off in first presidential debate
By Benjamin Fox
The main candidates to become the next President of the European Commission squared off on Monday night (28 April) in the first of two live TV debates ahead of May's European elections.
The European economy, foreign policy and how to combat rising euroscepticism dominated the 90 minute debate televised on Euronews and co-orginised by the European Youth Forum. The debate was held in the Dutch city of Maastricht with an audience composed largely of students.
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More than 47,000 tweets with the hashtag #EUdebate2014 were sent during the debate, which brought together former Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker (centre-right), EP chief Martin Schulz (centre-left), ex-Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt (for the Liberals) and MEP Ska Keller for the Greens.
Greek leftist leader Alexis Tsipras declined the invitation while the eurosceptic conservative and reformist group has decided not to select a lead candidate for the elections.
Despite a format which offered little room for the candidates to go beyond sound-bites and in which to challenge each other, Keller landed the first blow on a rival, arguing that "having been presiding over a tax haven in the EU," Juncker would be ill-equipped to increase tax harmonisation across the bloc.
Juncker said that he was campaigning for "a serious Europe. A Europe that doesn't dream, but gets things done".
Although he was chairman of the Eurogroup which prepared tough bailout programmes for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, he said he had "no programme of austerity" and called for the establishment of a legal minimum wage across the EU.
For his part, Schulz concluded his pitch to voters by promising "to give back justice and fairness" and to create "a Europe of citizens not of banks and speculators".
Meanwhile, Verhofstadt, who currently leads the Liberal MEP group in the assembly, said that the EU needed "less internal market regulation, but more common policies". He later argued that "the crisis and unemployment" had turned young people against the EU.
Keller, who focused most of her remarks on immigration and energy policy, called for "a Europe that cares about ordinary people".
In a debate short on concrete promises, Schulz said that a common EU system of legal immigration would be one of his first initiatives as commission president. He also pledged to publish the Commission's negotiating mandate on the ongoing trade talks with United States.
Europe's 400 million voters will be able to go to the polls between 22-25 May. For the first time, the parliamentary election results are to be taken into account when the leaders of the EU's 28 countries nominate a person to replace current commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. That nominee must also be ratified by a majority of the new European parliament.
Two days after the vote (27 May), the leaders of the current political groups in the parliament as well as the EP president will meet to discuss the results.
Their discussions will feed into deliberations by EU leaders who will meet later that day to decide who to nominate.
As the candidates for the two groups vying for the most seats in the next Parliament, both Juncker and Schulz are anxious to avoid a post-election scenario where EU leaders choose a compromise candidate.
Schulz told the audience that stitching-up the Commission presidency via a back-room deal would reduce the elections to "a little game" while Verhofstadt said that not choosing one of the formal candidates would be "unthinkable".
Verhofstadt also said that at least half of the 28 member Commission should be women.
A snap poll by the Europe Decides site suggested that Verhofstadt, with 55 percent support, had performed strongest in the debate and Juncker, with 9 percent, the weakest.
The candidates will meet once more for a debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday (29 April) while a second televised debate will take place on 15 May.