Four of the five official candidates for president of the European Commission are debating tonight in the Dutch City of Maastricht, an event which is being broadcast live across the European Union on pan-European news channel Euronews.
The 90-minute debate will feature the two front-runners to replace José Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker of the centre-right EPP and Martin Schulz of the centre-left PES, as well as Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberals (ALDE) and Ska Keller of the Greens.
Juncker and Schulz met for a live debate on 9 April, but Monday’s debate is the first in which Verhofstadt and Keller – a German who shares the Greens’ top slot with José Bové of France – will also participate. Polls suggest that the centre-right European People’s Party and the socialists are running neck and neck, far ahead of any of the other groups.
Alexis Tsipras, the candidate from the European United Left (GUE), has declined an invitation to participate, according to Maastricht University, one of the co-hosts of the debate. Tsipras is the only candidate from outside the ‘eurobubble’, and his absence will probably be felt tonight. The far-left, known by its French acronym, GUE, is projected to win some 20 seats in the next European Parliament, in addition to the 35 it held in 2009-14. It may even become the Parliament’s third-largest group, overtaking the Liberals.
The debate at Maastricht’s Theater aan het Vrijthof will focus on education, employment and youth engagement – issues supposed to be relevant to young voters, who are expected to make up the bulk of the 700-strong audience. (Another co-host of the debate is the European Youth Forum.)
Refresh this page for live updates from the debate.
20:35: The debate has concluded. It all seemed a bit rushed, and the candidates seemed unsure or surprised by the format. Verhofstadt and Keller really started to shine towards the end of the debate, while Schulz and Juncker seemed to lag behind. By the end, it was Guy Verhofstadt who left the best impression. He had the clearest vision and most memorable lines.
Check European Voice newspaper on Wednesday for a full analysis of the debate.
20:30: The candidates have just given their closing statements.
Juncker: “We have been discussing too long tonight relations between institutions. People are not interested in institutions, they are interested in solutions”
Schulz: “I want to be the first president not appointed in a back-room deal”
Verhofstadt: “The Conservatives are defending the status quo, and the Socialists think that with new debts we can emerge from the crisis. We need a new leadership, elaborating a vision for the future.” He says his model as European Commission president would be Jacques Delors.
Keller: “Europe needs to give a voice to all people, including marginalised people.”
20:23: Allegations of US spying on Europeans are now being discussed.
Keller is the most vocal on this topic, saying the US response to the revelations has been completely unacceptable. “It’s not enough if they stop spying on Merkel, they have to stop spying on all of us.”
Juncker says the US response has not been adequate, and the issue needs to be brought into the TTIP free trade negotiations.
Click Here: United Kingdom Rugby Jerseys
20:17: The conversation has moved on to energy and energy dependence on Russia. Ska Keller says the main centre-left and centre-right parties have watered down EU legislation on renewable energy, and this has made the EU more dependent.
Juncker says “On digital we are dependent on the US, on oil and gas we are dependent on Russia. We have to organise this in a different way.”
“Putin is testing Europe, and our reaction has to be to try to organise our energy in a different way in order to escape the power of blackmail that Putin has.”
20:10: The candidates are now being asked about the situation in Ukraine.
Juncker is asked about the criticism that the EU has been too weak. He says those who say that are not fully thinking about the alternative – which is war.
Verhofstadt says first round of sanctions made a big difference on the ground, and the EU should now go further with sanctions.
Keller says using cold war rhetoric will escalate the situation. She says Geneva accord needs to be given time to work.
The argument is getting quite heated. Given that the European Commission president doesn’t have very much influence over EU foreign policy, this is taking up quite a lot of the debate.
20:01: The candidates are being asked about digital issues now.
Schulz says “We are today completely dependent on the US. The question is, can we create a European market.”
Keller and Verhofstadt point out that the European Parliament has tried to make the EU more assertive in this area, but member states have blocked their efforts.
19:57: Both Verhofstadt and Keller are noticeably more relaxed as the debate goes on, and they are now outshining their rivals from the two mainstream parties.
19:50: Candidates are now being asked about immigration.
Verhofstadt says the EU should have a common immigration system like in the United States, allowing a certain number of people to come in and then have burden-sharing between member states.
Keller says more attention needs to be paid to asylum-seekers.
Juncker says the EU is losing economic potential by losing immigrants. “We need a lot of immigration in the next years.”
Schulz says the EU needs common immigration rules. He says there needs to be a system of political asylum that accepts people for a temporary period of time, as many European countries did for the Lebanese during the civil war in that country.”
19:35: Candidates have been asked about the rise of Eurosceptic and extremist parties across Europe.
Schulz points to the risks. “The tendency is European citizens not taking these elections seriously. If they don’t take this seriously we’re going to get more of these people in the parliament. For me as a German it is unacceptable that a nazi party would sit in the next parliament”
Verhofstadt says the concerns and fears of European citizens needs to be taken seriously, but dealt with in a better way.
Keller says she has seen parties of the centre-right have taken up the slogans of the far right. “By repeating the slogans of the far right you are only making them stronger”.
Juncker says he will refuse to work with far-right in next parliament. But Verhofstadt says there are Eurosceptic parties in Juncker’s EPP group. He points to Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Victor Orban of Hungary.
Verhofstadt says that the best way to counter Eurosceptics is to attack their proposed solutions, not their analysis of the problems in the EU. “All the solutions they are proposing are that all problems will disappear once we retreat behind our national borders.”
19:30: The candidates are asked if it would be acceptable for the European Council to choose someone not on this stage to be the next president of the European Commission.
Guy Verhofstadt gives a resounding no. “It will be the end of European democracy if after this election the Council takes someone outside, then it is just a little game.”
19:26: The candidates are asked, “How can you reassure us that you’re capable of carrying out these proposals when the real power lies with the European Council?”
Juncker responds “The real power is with the people”.
This is met with groans and laughter from the audience.
Verhofstadt agrees with the question’s premise, that the Commission has been weak compared to the Council. “We need a Commission in the lead, like it was in the time of Delors. He took the lead, and that is what we need now.”
Juncker later comes back to the issue, saying the Council is being unfairly attacked. He points out that the Council is made up of the democratically-elected national governments. Juncker is the only one on this stage coming from the Council rather than the European Parliament.
19:18: The candidates have been asked their stance on eurobonds. Jean-Claude Juncker says “I was in favour when the question first occurred, but I also made it clear that it’s only possible with a number of preconditions put into place.” He says these preconditions are not in place, and will not be in place during the next five years.
Schulz also says he supports eurobonds but he has to be a “realist”, that the majority of people do not support the idea.
Verhofstadt asks if it’s the majority of Europe that opposes them, or the majority of Germany.
19:14: Jean-Claude Juncker asked if he regrets his push for austerity as chair of the Eurogroup, and whether the term “lost generation” weighs heavily on him. He says he does not regret his decisions. “I am in favour of sound public finances.”
19:10: Guy Verhofstadt: “Jobs jobs jobs is the only priority for the coming five years. But we need another Europe for that. We need a new Commission that is a leader, not a follower.”
19:06: The first questions are focused on the economy. All four candidates seemed to get off to a shaky start.
19:03: The candidates have just been introduced. Ska Keller of the Greens clearly received the loudest applause from an audience of mainly young people.