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EU Elections: The Final Debate

After Florence (2 May) and Maastricht (29 April), the European parties’ Spitzenkandidaten  debated yesterday in the European Parliament in Brussels. Many anticipated a more animated debate than the previous ones, but at the end the debate once again left most viewers unsatisfied.

One of the few themes on which a clear difference between the candidates’ opinions was visible, was the issue of tackling climate change. Manfred Weber (EPP) stated that the EU should become climate neutral by 2050, but he also warned for the cost of certain measures. Frans Timmermans (S&D) stressed the efforts he and his party, but also the Greens already took. The Greens’ Ska Keller addressed Weber on this theme by confronting him that he voted against ambitious climate objectives in the European Parliament. On top of that, Margrethe Vestager (ALDE) added that current Commissioner for Climate, Arias Cañete “didn’t make amazing work because he is EPP, he did that because he is part of the Commission.” It was clear that Weber and the dominant position of the EPP were under direct attack from the other candidates.

The real surprise of the evening was when Timmermans suggested to form a progressive coalition with the leftist forces in the European Parliament, including the Greens and the European Left Party. With this left coalition, Timmermans wants to break the center right’s monopoly in the European institutions. Still, based on recent polls, Timmermans’ coalition would only have 250 (out of 751) seats in the new European Parliament, clearly not enough to form a majority. In addition, if the UK eventually leaves the EU, the European Parliament will be left with only 705 seats, but the S&D will lose also the seats of the Labour party (while Brexit would not affect the EPP). Timmermans also left some space to work together with the new centrist-liberal Renaissance group, but the question is whether they want to work together with the European Left. All in all, the proposed progressive coalition would find it hard to maintain a majority.

For Margrethe Vestager, it was her first time participating in a debate since Guy Verhofstadt was the face of ALDE in the Florence and Maastricht debates. She missed this opportunity to clarify the new direction of ALDE and to explain what the cooperation with the party of the French President Emmanuel Macron concretely entails. Still, she did make a good impression regarding her own experience as Competition Commissioner.  She said on taxes: “A tax haven is a place where everyone pays their taxes.” A not so subtle hint to the tech companies she attacked the last years.  Also Timmermans reacted that “we should keep asking Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant: Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?”.

The Brussels debate was the last European-wide Spitzenkandidaten debate in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections. The lead candidates will now continue their campaigns in the EU Member States until 23 May when the elections will officially start.

The Maastricht Debate: potential future European Commission president?

On 29 April, and for the first time in the current European Parliamentary elections campaign, Spitzenkandidaten of the European political parties debated each other on current and future European topics. Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest political party, the European People’s Party, did not participate. According to a snap poll after the debate, this first round was won by Frans Timmermans, the candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES).

The themes of the debate were digital Europe, sustainable Europe, and future of Europe. Regarding digital Europe, it was clear that all the lead candidates wanted stricter regulation for technological companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. On the issue of climate change, each candidate expressed support to the student climate strikers, except Jan Zahradil (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe). In addition, both Timmermans and Bas Eickhout (European Green Party) pledged to make climate policy a priority for the new European Commission. In the last part of the debate, the candidates had the chance to present their proposals for a more prosperous Europe. Asked if the candidates would support a gender-equal Commission, all candidates committed themselves to a more gender-balanced institution.

In addition to these discussions, every candidate had the chance to indicate what their priorities would be for the next European Commission. Timmermans was in favor of better cooperation with Africa. Guy Verhofstadt (The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) stated a joint European immigration policy as his priority. It should come as no surprise that Eickhout said that combating climate change would become a determining factor in all EU policies. Zahradil stated that the EU should listen more to the citizens in the Member States. Finally, Violeta Tomic (Party of European Left) stated that the trade agreements that Europe concludes must become stricter in order to fit European standards.

While the debate was ongoing in Maastricht, Dr2 Consultants was front row at the Future of Europe lecture by EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (European Peoples’ Party), at the Catholic University of Leuven. While Barnier is not an official Spitzenkandidat, he has previously indicated his ambition for the most important job in the EU.

In his speech about the future of Europe, Barnier was optimistic, but he stressed that Europe needs to renew its capacity now to protect its citizens and borders. According to Barnier, protecting and projecting Europe is what people expect of the EU but due to a lack thereof, populist parties are on a rise on the whole continent. “The European dream is not part of the past, but we must shape it now.”