EC Presidential Candidates Face Off in Televised Debate
Four of the candidates for the European Commission Presidency took part in a live-broadcasted debate in the Dutch city of Maastricht on Monday night.
Martin Shulz, nominee of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People's Party, Ska Keller of the Greens, and Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) debated on the key EU issues such as unemployment, the economy, and immigration.
Verhofstadt made a strong claim for creating more jobs over the next years as the top priority for Europe. He stressed that the Commission must take a more central role and assume greater responsibilities to reverse the negative trends. The ALDE candidate was extremely critical of the proponents of national politics, who "wish to retreat within national borders as a solution". He was adamant that the crisis must be tackled on a European level, in which the common market must be further developed, with less regulation, but more unity.
The focus of Shulz's argument was bringing the economy back to the people. The Socialist candidate claimed that the major force behind the Eurozone crisis is the irresponsible behavior of financial speculators and the major capital holders. He urged his colleagues to "talk less about billions and millions and more about those living with thousands".
Keller stressed the importance of encouraging a greener economy for Europe, one which would focus on sustainable development rather than short-term profits. She argued that the European politicians must do a better job in listening to the real demands and problems of the people and to address them adequately.
The EPP candidate Jean-Claude Juncker often found himself cornered by his 3 opponents on the various issues. He dismissed claims that he supports more austerity, answering that "I am in favour of sound public finances". However, he outlined the importance of setting clear preconditions for Eurobonds if they are to be introduced.
On the issue of Euroskepticism, all candidates agreed that extremist parties should not be tolerated and that their agenda is based solely on populist propaganda, which does not offer plausible solutions to Europe's problems. However, Juncker's denouncement of the far-right was somewhat restrained and diplomatic. When pressured by Verhofstadt to explain the presence of populist parties with extremist rhetoric within his own EPP (referring to Berlusconi and Orban), the former PM of Luxembourg said that he had "condemned" such rhetoric and refuses to work with anti-European parties.
The Socialist and ALDE candidates agreed that Europe is in need of a common immigration policy and rules. The debate here was more heated between Keller and Juncker. The German human rights activist looked repelled when her opponent said that "Europe cannot bear the burden of all the world's misery on its territory", distinguishing between refugees and economic immigrants. According to Keller, more attention must be paid to the needs of asylum-seekers, who are not simply coming over for fun or more money.
On the topic of Ukraine, Juncker argued that those who criticize the EU for being too weak in its response do not realize that the alternative is war. Meanwhile, Shulz expressed his hope that Europe and Russia would be able to focus on their common interests through dialogue, a point shared by Keller as well. In this department, Verhofstadt was the most heated proponent of new and broader sanctions against Moscow.
The initial polls of the website EuropeDecides.eu showed Verhofstadt as winning the debate, followed by Keller, Shulz, and Juncker – somewhat of a peculiar result keeping in mind the strong electoral base of the two mainstream parties, EPP and PES.
The next debate between the EC Presidential candidates will be on May 15.