Left and Right trade blows on economy in EU election debate
By Benjamin Fox
The five candidates bidding to become the next European Commission president traded blows over Europe's economic past and future, in the last televised debate before next week's European elections.
The debate, held in the European Parliament chamber on Thursday (15 May), was the first to feature Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the leftist Syriza party which is set to top the polls in Greece, and Greece dominated the discussion.
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The event, which used interpretation to allow Tsipras to speak in Greek and centre-right candidate Jean-Claude Juncker to speak French, was broadcast on 49 TV channels - by far the largest number so far.
Its 90 minutes saw the candidates restate their lines on the Ukraine crisis and on migration, tackle questions on Brussels lobbying, youth unemployment and the wearing of religious symbols.
Meanwhile, the centre-right EPP group's candidate, Juncker, refuted Tsipras' claims that, as head of the eurogroup until 2013, he had been responsible for Greece's economic and social crisis.
"For years I worked day and night to avoid Greece falling out of the euro," Juncker said, adding: "I will not accept the reproach that we did not show solidarity ... we did everything to ensure that Greece stayed in."
Socialist Martin Schulz promised that his Commission would focus on "fighting against tax fraud and tax evasion and for equal life chances". He again pledged to introduce an ambitious micro-credit programme for countries with the highest unemployment rates, combining funds from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank.
Tsipras called on the EU to "stop with this paranoia of debt" and to convene a debt conference similar to that in 1953 which cancelled a large chunk of German debt incurred from the Second World War.
For her part, Green candidate and MEP Ska Keller, who has emerged as an unlikely star of the debates, cited the ongoing EU-US trade talks, conducted behind closed doors, as "one of the reasons why we have lost trust in politics."
Tsipras also put the blame for rising levels of euroscepticism at the door of Europe's mainstream parties.
"The main culprits are the parties calling for more austerity," he said. "The solution is not to scrap Europe but change it ... Europe must not be associated by pain, suffering and hardship."
Europe's 400 million voters will go to the polls next week.
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 Jose Manuel Barroso, the current president of the Commission. That nominee must also be ratified by a majority of the new European Parliament.
Two days after the 25 May vote, the leaders of the political groups in the Parliament as well as the Parliament's president will meet to discuss the results, before EU leaders themselves discuss who to nominate later that day.
Although European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have hinted that governments may pick an alternative candidate, the so-called Spitzenkandidaten insisted that the next Commission president would be one of them.
Juncker commented that "no one will vote in 2019 if Council ignore the results," while Schulz noted that an alternative candidate would not be able to win a majority in the Parliament. "The next President of the Commission is standing here and you are talking to him," he said.
Initial reactions from the audience voiced complaints that stilted moderation of the event created a dull atmosphere, but the candidates enjoyed the novelty of the set up.
"In the past, European elections were boring. There was no confrontation ... and they were just seen as mid-term elections," opined Schulz.
The eurosceptic group of Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) complained they had been excluded from the debate despite having requested to take part. The ECR did not select a candidate for the Commission top job but said in a statement that they wanted "to speak for the millions of Europeans who do not want to be part of a federal super-state."
On social media site Twitter, 63,000 tweets were sent during the debate, comfortably up from the 47,000 sent during the first televised debate in Maastricht two weeks ago.