UCL European Institute


The First European Presidential Debate

01 May 2014, 12:00 am

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The recent televised debate between party candidates for the EU's top executive post, the President of the European Commission, was a politically and democratically exciting first.
Dr Christine Reh
30 April 2014

In October 2013, Michael Shackleton, in a comment on this website, mapped the "long march of the European Parliament"-on towards the "high politics" of nominating (rather than simply approving) the next European Commission President, and leading to a first genuine (rather than "second order") political contest in the upcoming EP elections. On 28 April the Parliament-and its Europe-wide political parties-marched a little closer towards both goals.

On that day, Europe saw its first ever televised debate between party candidates for the EU's top executive post, the President of the European Commission. The Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker (Conservatives), the French-German duo José Bové and Ska Keller (Greens), the German Martin Schulz (Socialists), the Greek Alexis Tsipras (Far Left) and the Belgian Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals) were chosen in parties' (online) primaries and electoral congresses between December 2013 and March 2014, giving faces to their parties' manifestoes ahead of the EP elections in May. Taking the results of these elections "into account", the EU's heads of state and government will nominate the official Presidency candidate, who then needs to be approved by the newly elected Parliament.

The debate between four of the candidates-Juncker, Keller, Schulz and Verhofstadt-was animated, engaging, truly European and at points confrontational, though certainly less so than had the Far Left's Tsipras been among the contenders. The debate was driven by a shared commitment to the European project, to solving "problems without a passport" jointly, and to basing supranational politics on citizens' involvement and open debate rather than on the "backroom deals" (Schulz) of the European Council. The debate brought together four politicians, chosen by parties across the whole EU, discussing with each other in one language, on topics of high political salience for the young European voters in the audience. The debate showcased some, though far too little, concrete disagreement over the Commission's future policy agenda: the management of the financial crisis; (economic) migration; (renewable) energy; crisis management in Ukraine; the EU's "soft power" on the global stage. The debate was constructive enough to demonstrate that trans-national party politics is possible, but sufficiently controversial to show that there is a genuine choice in May.

And, yet, the candidates faced challenges unknown to those competing in national TV duels.

First, none of the four contenders is-yet-an official candidate for the EU's top executive post. According to the Treaty, Europe's governments nominate-and Parliament merely approves-the Commission President. Since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the nominating governments need to take the EP election outcome "into account". This novel provision has been interpreted in a characteristically expansive way by the Parliament and its political groups, and may transform the complex balance between Europe's governments, Parliament and Commission. Indeed, if-and it remains an "if"-Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Tusk & Co. play along and nominate the candidate of the party that wins a majority in May, the constitutional balance will change-de facto shifting the power to nominate the Commission President from national governments to trans-European parties, and (further) politicising the supposedly independent Commission. Yet, the heads of state and government may interpret the Treaty literally and nominate a candidate of their own choosing-even if Monday's televised debate makes this one bit more difficult, and even if, in the eyes of some, such a move would spell the end of supranational democracy (Verhofstadt).

Second, post-elections, the Treaty requires the Parliament and the government chiefs to engage in "appropriate consultations". Yet, conflict over the nomination is likely. Politically, the primaries have turned up two unlikely lead candidates: a federalist on the centre-right (Juncker) and a German austerity sceptic on the centre-left (Schulz); should the Party of European Socialists come top in the vote, the centre-right European Council would need to nominate a centre-left Commission President. A win by the centre-right European People's Party may facilitate agreement among governments, but since no single party will win the required majority of 376 seats, the nominee needs to build a supporting coalition in the new legislature. Hence, elections will not be followed by the automatic nomination-and subsequent parliamentary approval-of the winning party's top candidate, but by a three-level search for compromise: between the 28 heads of state or government, between the European Council and the European Parliament, and inside the new legislature.

Third, in spite of the call for "less regulation and more policies" (Verhofstadt), the debate was short on concrete proposals and promises-and understandably so. Not only were individual speaking times highly restricted; the Parliament's and the Commission's ability to lead are very limited on the three topics that were put to the candidates: economic governance, Euroscepticism and foreign policy. This dilemma is all too familiar: highly salient issues (employment, the EU's future direction, the crisis in Ukraine) remain national prerogatives or continue to be dominated by governments in the (European) Council; the day-to-day solving of trans-boundary problems on which the Commission leads and the Parliament co-decides (the digital market, online data protection, renewable energy) do not top the voters' agendas. The four candidates managed the challenge well-with Keller in particular calling for a focus on policy rather than polity-but the scarcity of concrete proposals was telling. 

Fourth, the novel nomination process has great potential to offer the long missing electoral connection between Europe's citizens and Europe's Parliament: for the first time in the history of EP elections, citizens may see a direct link between their vote and the choice of the EU's leadership. A campaign focused on personalities excites voters more and may increase both turnout and media coverage; and Monday's live Euronews broadcast across the whole EU, paralleled by avid Twitter following, may have planted the seed for a Europe-wide public. Yet, coverage in the mainstream media was disappointingly limited-especially compared to the Clegg-Farage duel in the UK earlier this spring-and even if both media coverage and voter turnout pick up later this month, the cause may not be political engagement with a campaign focused on candidates, but protest against the austerity politics of the Eurocrisis and scepticism about the European project more generally.

The four candidates will meet for a second televised debate on 15 May. There is a strong case for reaching out to a wider audience and for presenting more concrete policy choices, and there should be much more mention of the upcoming EP election itself. Yet, Monday's debate in Maastricht was a politically and democratically exciting first, which will make it difficult for Europe's governments to ignore the choices made by Europe's parties and citizens. 

  • Dr Christine Reh, Senior Lecturer in European Politics, UCL School of Public Policy