Commission hopefuls largely unknown on streets of Europe
In the EU capital of Brussels there has been much political kerfuffle around Spitzenkandidaten – the six politicians campaigning to be the next president of the European Commission.
The run-up to this week's vote has seen the would-be presidents engage in all manner of tub-thumping electioneering, including debates, twitter-chats, country visits and speeches.
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To a politician they have argued that choosing one of them – centre-right Jean-Claude Juncker, centre-left Martin Schulz, liberal Guy Verhofstadt, Green Ska Keller/Jose Bove or lefist Alexis Tsipras – will improve EU democracy.
EUobserver took to the streets of five European cities to see if the idea had made itself felt beyond the Brussels bubble. And, if not the idea itself, whether people had heard of the candidates for the three biggest political groups: Juncker, Schulz and Verhofstadt.
In the Czech Republic, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland the overall result was the same among those interviewed: a lack of knowledge about the candidates and a lack of awareness of how their vote could influence who becomes the next commission president.
On top of this was the oft-expressed sentiment that either the EU elections don't matter or are not worth bothering about.
Here is some of what they said:
The spitzenkandidaten have not made much of an impression, writes Katerina Safarikova in Prague. Even though Verhofstadt was in the Czech capital twice in recent weeks, the public at large has never heard of him. The same is true of Juncker and Schulz: although some said the names ring a bell nobody interviewed by the EUobserver knew who they were or what they did. Questions about who leads the new European Commission and how voters can influence this seemed distant from people's lives.
Zuzana Lesenarova, 36 years, (bank employee):
"Juncker, is he German? It rings a bell somehow."
"I don't think of my choice having an influence on the European scale. I'm examining the candidates here. In any case, I would not vote for domestic lunatics only to secure a vote for a proper guy at the helm of the Commission."
Stepan Korcis, male, 39 years, (graphic designer):
"I have never heard of any of those names."
Milada Vorlova, female, 76 years, (pensioner):
"I don't know of those names. Oh wait, the name Schulz says something to me. But I don't know what exactly."
Daniela Davidkova, female, 22 years, (coffee-bar employee):
"Not a single name says anything to me."
"I don't know whether I will vote this week. I'm still hesitating who to vote for, so I don't think of the potential influence of my vote when it comes to the new EC boss."
Jaroslav Novak, male, 38 years (bartender):
"Never heard of. Not a single name."
"At the end of the day, it's all equal who wins this time. I won't influence it anyway and maybe next time someone from the opposition wins. So what does it matter?"
"The TV debates ... are just fine, but not for me."
Of the 25 or so people that EUobserver approached in the north-east of Paris only a handful agreed to talk about the EU elections, writes Florence Morice. Even fewer felt that their vote could influence the choice of the next commission president, or that this choice could change anything in their every day lives.
Simon 34 years old, (musician):
"Yes, I do know Jean-Claude Juncker. He is a candidate for the presidency of the European Union. So is Guy Verhofstadt. They both come from Belgium, I think. Regarding Martin Schultz, he is the socialist candidate ... I did not watch the TV debate ... I have no idea how my vote could influence the commission president choice. How?"
Alex, 28 years old, (seller):
"Juncker, Shultz and Verhofstadt? They are German people, aren't they?"
"I think it has something to do with some elections that will take place next week, isn't that it? Are those people candidates? I don't know really. I don't know either who is the president or the current head of EU Commission. No idea."
Anne, 25 years old (nurse):
"They are candidates at European elections, running to be European deputies. I know that Martin Schultz is socialist, that's all I know. I don't know much about the others. I know José Manuel Barroso. He is current or former (I don't know) president of the European Union ... I don't know how my vote can influence the commission president choice."
Stella 67 years old (hairdresser):
I've never heard of any of them … candidates for European commission president? I don't know much about it. And I did not watch the TV debate. I am not interested and I never vote in European elections. I don't see the point because I think that in the end they just do whatever they want."
"I really don't believe that my vote could influence the commission president choice."
The main newspapers on Friday (16 May) made no mention of the previous day's live TV debate between the candidates, writes Alvise Armellini in Rome. There was only one article about the debate in Il Fatto Quotidiano, an anti-establishment newpaper. However, a few more articles appeared on Saturday. There were 127,000 viewers for the debate, carried on RAI, or 0.48 percent of total viewers at that time.
Francesco Faenza, early 40s (newsagent):
"I've seen their names printed somewhere, because of the work I do, but no, I don't know any of them, and I do not feel like they represent me"
"The only European leaders I know are Merkel and Hollande."
Beatrice Salciarini (cafe owner):
Have you heard of Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz or Guy Verhofstadt?
"No, since I am not thinking of voting I am not really informed ... I think I've heard of Schulz, he's the guy that was called a 'kapo' by Berlusconi, but I don't know the others."
Maria Cristina Vianelli (housewife, in her 70s):
"Yes, I heard of Schulz and Juncker, I read about them in the papers."
She had not seen the debates and said the spitzenkandidaten idea was not encouraging her to vote.
"Not really. I'm voting thinking more of Italian issues."
"Schulz perhaps will help put pressure on Merkel to be less harsh."
Massimo Malgeri, (taxi driver in his 40s):
"Of course I've heard of them, especially Martin Schulz – we had that big international embarrassment when Berlusconi attacked him."
How did you hear about the candidates? "I'm not your average taxi driver: I read a lot."
What do you think about this spitzenkandidates idea, and what should their priorities be?
"Hmm, I'm not sure that Schulz would really be able to make an impact on Merkel ... me, I am more for a referendum on the euro, like [Beppe] Grillo has proposed. Sure, there are pros and cons, but even serious economists in Italy and elsewhere have started to say that the euro is not working."
There weren't many people on the streets of Rotterdam who were able to name the Spitzenkandidaten, writes Peter Teffer. The candidates' names tended to be half-remembered or, if not, their nationality was mixed up: "That Belgian, he really wants it, right?" or "Juncker, that Italian".
Cor Overkamp (retired customs officer):
Overkamp plans to vote for the Dutch Christian Democrat Party. He says the fact that Juncker is a spitzenkandidat is a bonus. "I like his calmness and self-assuredness."
Matthijs Luyendijk (student):
"I'll vote but these names don't ring any bells."
"Were there debates about Europe?"
Pieter Johan Goussand (student):
"Maybe there should be a guide for dummies," he said, after realising he was not familiar with the names of the top three candidates.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon in Goclow, south east Warsaw, where scores of children, parents and grandparents were gathered at a local playground and cafe, the race for the post of commission president seemed very distant, writes Lukasz Lipinski. Despite chatting to almost 20 people, it was almost impossible to know that there will be an EU vote on Sunday (25 May).
Barbara Zaluszkiewicz (lawyer):
"I know Schulz is a leftist but I wouldn't like to talk about the political options."
Tomasz Piątkowski (sprayer):
"I don't recognise these names. I know that Jose Manuel Barroso is now a president of European Commission. I am aware that European elections are approaching, but I've never thought about who could become Barroso's successor."
Beata Skok (entrepreneur):
"I don't care that much who will become the president of the European Commission. It is too far from my everyday life, which demands most of my attention. I have heard the names of the candidates for this post, I watch the news, but I can't even remember which parties they represent."
Ilona Miller (teacher):
"The names of the candidates for president of European Commission are not recognised in Poland, we hear only about the local campaign in our country. Polish parties don't even say which political grouping they will represent in the European Parliament. I am interested in the European elections, but I've never thought about who can become the new president ... It would be great if it was someone from the new members of the EU."