eudebate@yanfreeman Ian Freeman reports from Maastricht on the first television debate between the lead candidates for European Commission President:

On Monday, 28 April, four of the five leading candidates for the next President of the EU Commission met in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to debate the future of the EU. This historic occasion is the first in a series of debates leading up to the European elections, 22-25 May.

This year’s European elections, promoted under the tagline ‘this time it’s different’, promise to have their biggest impact so far on the balance of European political power. For the first time, the political family winning the most seats in the European Parliament will present their chosen candidate for approval as next President of the Commission.  This development, an outcome of the Lisbon Treaty, is being put into practice for the first time, meaning that either Martin Schultz (representing the centre-left) or Jean-Claude Juncker (centre-right) – nominations from the leading European parties – are the two individuals very likely to replace Manual Barroso as the next President of the Commission.

Previously the EU’s ‘top job’ has been decided solely by Member States, through ‘back-door deals’ and negotiations between national Prime Ministers and Presidents sitting on the European Council. The Council may still ignore the results of the election and appoint a Commission President of their own choosing; however this shift in political gravitas towards the European Parliament has been carefully crafted to tackle the ‘democratic deficit’ label that plagues the EU. By linking the European elections results to not only the balance of power inside the Parliament, but to the President of the Commission itself, the vote at the end of May places the EU’s future political direction further into the hands of European citizens.

On 9 April, Schultz and Juncker went head to head on French TV, in a debate characterised by a lack of policy distinction. However, on Monday, 28 April, in Maastricht, the front runners were joined by Guy Verhofstadt, (ALDE, centre, the Liberal Dem. MEP’s sit with this political family) and Ska Keller (European Greens). Organized into three parts, the debate saw candidates face questions based loosely on the economy, Euro scepticism and foreign policy. In general, there was broad agreement between the candidates especially with Keller (Green) and Verhofstadt (ALDE) echoing Schultz (S&D) on many issues.

Verhofstadt, the ex-Prime Minister of Belgium, distinguished himself as the most pro-integration candidate, continuously pushing further European cooperation to tackle issues ranging from unemployment and immigration to foreign policy coherence. Keller, a German MEP, built upon Schultz’s and Verhofstadt’s ‘pro-citizen perspective’ by presenting a number of grass roots, bottom up solutions to many of the EU’s problems. It was however, the views of Schultz and Juncker that carried the most weight for the assembled audience of Maastricht University students and European press. The two candidates differed when drawn on their views regarding the influence of the European Council. Juncker firmly placed the Council at the centre of the EU’s power structure with Schultz, the ex-President of the European Parliament, resolutely calling for more institutional autonomy for the European Parliament and Commission in respect to the Council.

Schultz put in a lively performance, demonstrating a predictably wide knowledge of EU policy and a general passion that sat in stark contrast to Juncker’s more measured demeanour. Schultz distinguished himself by outlining a number of concrete ways he would lead the Commission differently compared to the current (centre-right) incumbent Mr. Barroso. One such pledge was to initiate a common system of legal immigration into the European Union – a stance supported by Verhofstadt. On foreign policy, Schultz also went against Juncker in promising to publish the Commission’s mandate on the current EU-USA trade talks, increasing transparency on negotiations towards the biggest trade deal in history.

A distant fourth in the snap polls conducted on the online platform of the debate, Juncker cut a lethargic figure, demonstrating little overt enthusiasm for the issues on the floor. In the context of the crowd – a room packed full of young Europeans sympathetic to the views of Keller (Green) and Verhofstadt (extreme pro-European) – the poll and performance will trouble Juncker little. General polls for voter intention still point to a close race between the EPP and the S&D for dominance of the European Parliament. Yet undeniable, this debate is a first for EU politics and signals the slow emergence of truly continental political personalities. History was indeed made on Monday in Maastricht so perhaps this time it really is different.

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