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.”