Wednesday

24th May 2017

EUobserved

Dress rehearsal for 2019?

  • Likely lads: candidates from the three biggest groups in action Thursday (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

It's time to pack up the debating bags. Take off the make-up. Turn down the lights. The EU's wobbly leap into live pan-European politics is over. For now.

What has been learned from these debates between commission president hopefuls? Quite a lot actually.

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First the superficial. For a real quickfire discussion, all the participants need to speak one language. There were three languages on Thursday evening. Those with interpretation were at a disadvantage.

There should be fewer topics. Yesterday's debate lurched like a drunk from one subject to another skimming over the surface of the economy, job creation, foreign policy, immigration, regional independence, religious symbols and European democracy.

The debates should instead be focused on one topic where the European Commission has power (economic policy for example), and really examine it.

Getting candidates to talk about foreign policy, such as whether to sanction Russia, feels dishonest.

The key thing about the exercise is that much and nothing has changed.

The European Union has not suddenly become a paragon of virtue on the democracy, accountability and transparency front. It remains the faulty construction today that it was yesterday.

And while the Brussels-based EU crowd may have made an evening of this debate, the vast, vast, vast majority of citizens remained blissfully unaware of the process.

And yet something has been started.

Call it a dress rehearsal for the EU vote in 2019. Assuming, and it remains a big assumption (but smaller than two months ago), that one of the candidates becomes the next president of the Commission, then this Spitzenkandidat process will have been set in political stone.

Going ahead with this assumption; the 2019 vote will be more professional and more political. And less defensive. The 2014 exercise bore the burden of being a 'first-time-ever' phenomenon and the threat that EU leaders will choose to ignore all six candidates in favour of someone else entirely.

What has happened over the last few months has not been perfect. But then it was never going to be. And some stumbling blocs will remain. Language is one. It takes work to find a rapport when both the contender and the audience are working in a second language.

Nationalities are another. A French contender, at home, can always fall back on the common starting point of being French. That same French contender campaigning in Slovakia has to fall back on the common starting point of being European. It's true, of course, but it resonates less strongly.

The next weeks will show what this exercise has brought us.

In the meantime, there will be critics aplenty. Sure the debates were lame. The candidates were, for the most part, uninspiring. How the candidates were chosen, particularly in the two biggest political groups, was itself not particularly democratic.

And yet, and yet. They did some real campaigning for the post. Media attention around the EP election has increased hugely as a result (albeit from a zero starting point).

And most importantly, a connection is being established between the voter and the EU. A majority vote for the left should result in a commission president from the left. A majority vote for the right should result in one from the right.

It's a start.

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