17th Oct 2019

Timmermans calls for left-wing coalition at debate

  • Six candidates from EU-wide political parties faced off in a 90-minute debate (Photo: European Parliament)

With little over a week to go until the European elections, the lead candidates from Europe-wide political families clashed head-to-head on Wednesday night (15 May) in a tepid debate that touched upon climate, migration, trade, economics and dealing with Europe's populists.

In the last debate before the elections, held in the European Parliament's building in Brussels, the six main candidates offered little concrete steps to tackle Europe's social and political challenges, often got tangled up in Brussels jargon, with only conservative Jan Zahradil, and far-left Nico Cue challenging the status quo.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Socialist candidate and commission vice president Frans Timmermans used the opportunity to call for a left-wing coalition from the far-left, greens and liberals.

"My offer is let's work together in the next five years so that we make sure that the next commission puts the climate crisis on the top of its agenda and I am sure we will convince many, many people in the liberal family so that we create an alliance going from [Greek prime minister Alexis] Tspiras to [French president Emmanuel] Macron," the Dutch politician said.

The push reflects an effort to break the dominance of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) in EU politics, which is still likely to be the biggest party in parliament after the election, but expected to suffer major haemorrhages at the ballot box.

Based on projections of the EU parliament, such an alliance would hold in total 328 seats, not enough for a majority in the 751-member parliament, although the liberal group is likely to be bigger than expected with Macron's En Marche party coming onboard.

Meanwhile, the EPP is expected to win 180 seats, conservatives 66 seats, with populists and nationalist getting 107 MEPs. Building a majority alliance will be a struggle for the centre-right as well.

Group leaders will hold their first meeting on 28 May in Brussels, two days after the elections, and hours before EU leaders meet in the Belgian capital for an extraordinary summit to discuss the results.

Weber as target

It was no surprise that the EPP's top candidate, Manfred Weber was at the centre of attacks from fellow candidates, and the Bavarian politician held his ground, but failed to stand out as the obvious would-be leader for the next commission, and put to rest doubts over his leadership experience.

Weber said he wanted to "open the next chapter" for the new EU executive, but then defended existing commission proposals and EPP policies, like adding 10,000 staff to the EU's border and coast guard.

Weber - who got rid of a tie for the debate, in an effort to reinforce his image of being a local politician close to the voters - at one point challenged a much more combative Timmermans and clashed over the Dutchman's proposal on a Europe-wide minimum wage, and Portugal's economic plans.

"They are not asking about minimum wages. The young generation is asking for jobs, good paying jobs. That's why we need a good economic policy to create jobs," Weber told Timmermans.

Later Timmermans accused Weber of wanting to punish Portugal amid a financial crisis, even though the current commission approved the struggling country's budget plans. "That's not true," Weber retorted timidly.

Timmermans blasted out a few signature witty one-liners, evoking Amazon's virtual assistant when talking about corporate taxes, saying "We should keep asking 'Alexa, Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?'", and referring to the popular TV series when talking about Brexit: "The UK looks like Game of Thrones on steroids".

Margrethe Vestager, who has been praised for her work as competition commissioner, was cautious in her first debate as a liberal top candidate.

She stayed away from concrete proposals, or heated exchanges with fellow candidates, only challenging Weber by telling him commissioners are not party politicians but work together.

Vestager steered clear from naming and shaming member states as tax havens, earning applause and cheers by saying, "A tax haven for me is a place where everyone pays their taxes".

Little opposition

The exchange, dubbed "Eurovision Debate" (organised by the European Broadcasting Union, who are also running the annual song contest), lacked real debate with the eurosceptics and the populists who are expected to surge in the election.

Furthest to the right on Wednesday night, Jan Zahradil, candidate for the European Conservatives and Reformists party (ECR), criticised doing more on EU level and an "ever closer union", and argued for an "EU which is scaled back, flexible, and decentralised".

Zahradil argued for finding the right balance between national and EU level, said asylum, taxation policies should remain with member states, and changed Weber's plan to introduce majority decision making on foreign affairs issues.

"I would like a European commission, which respects national governments and cooperates with them, which doesn't fight them, doesn't patronise them, doesn't lecture them," he said, referring to ongoing battles between the European commission and eastern member states over distributing migrants, and questions over rule of law and democracy.

Zahradil warned of policies that could further divide eastern and western member states. Timmermans defended the commission's proposals on distributing migrants across EU members, saying solidarity goes both ways.

"We need solidarity, not only for things you like, but also for things you don't like, and if central and eastern European countries don't accept solidarity, borders will be back sooner or later where they don't belong," the Dutch politician said, referring to a possible breakdown in the Schengen passport-free area.

Weber repeated his proposal to introduce sanctions, including suspension of EU funds, for member states which scale back on the rule of law, after his party clashed with Hungary's nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, a plan that could make it difficult for him to build alliances on the right after the elections.


As candidates debate, more names surface for EU top jobs

Candidates from EU political families clash at the closely-watched debate in the European Parliament - but the elections themselves, plus lukewarm support from heads of government, could upend previous calculations.

EU's centre-right make Weber their man to replace Juncker

The centre-right EPP party's congress wanted to show unity - but divisions remain after the political alliance lined up behind Germany's Manfred Weber as their 'Spitzenkandidat' ahead of next year's European election.


Spitzenkandidaten debate in Maastricht minus Weber

Five candidates discussed what they would do if they were the next president of the European Commission. But the big absentee of the evening was the candidate of the European People's Party.


Belgium's trade unionist running to replace Juncker

The refugee from Franco's Spain, who ended up working for an arms manufacturer, is now running to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission president. He tells EUobserver why the Left are 'idiots' for not joining forces at the May elections.

Dutch socialists on top in first EP election exit poll

Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans looks like the big winner in the first exit poll from the 2019 European Parliament election. British voters also cast their ballots amid predictions their prime minister is about to fall.


Don't tell the Dutch - but Timmermans 'won'

The victory of the Dutch EU commissioner is news across the EU, yet the Netherlands is not allowed to publish the official result until Sunday evening.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  2. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  3. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  9. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  12. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  5. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  6. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  7. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  8. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  10. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  11. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us