A Distinct Lack of Excitement Battle for Brussels Less Than Tense

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The candidates for president of the European Commission have run campaigns aimed at personalizing EU politics and boosting the democratic legitimacy of the post. But try as they might, public interest in the European elections remains tepid.

Against the somewhat incongruous throbbing bass of Survivor’s “Burning Heart,” an elderly man with gray hair and a black pinstripe suit is making his way through a throng of cheering Christian Democrat delegates, many of whom are holding up banners reading “Juncker for President.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) main candidate in the election for the European Parliament, climbs up to the stage. He looks tired. It’s mid-May, he’s in the town of Rotenburg an der Fulda in Germany and into the 37th day of his campaign. Volker Bouffier, the local state governor of Hesse, wishes him luck. “I’d rather have a beer,” whispers Juncker. “A beer for Jean-Claude!” calls Bouffier.

“I feel like Obama,” says Juncker during his speech. The US president also has to travel across an entire continent when he’s on the campaign trail, he remarks, “only he has Air Force One and I just have a bus.”

A few days earlier, on the road somewhere near Bremen, another bus carrying his rival Martin Schulz from the Party of European Socialists (PES) pulls in to an autobahn service station. His stomach rumbling, Schulz disembarks and spies the neon sign of a fast food restaurant. His hunger turns to indignation. “Burger King?!” he exclaims. “Can’t you find me something decent?”

His staff remain impassive. They’re used to their irascible boss. He’s not as angry as he looks — he’s a typically tempestuous North Rhine-Westphalian, and it’s just his way of letting off steam. They tell him to try the Serways restaurant. “Serways?” he rages, erupting into unprintable expletives. Still fuming, he walks across the parking lot. It’s been a long day. He’s visited five different cities in the last few hours, as well as a steelworks, a thermal power station and a care home. He’s given two speeches in town centers, been interviewed, made phone calls and arranged appointments. And at the end of all that, all there is for the European Parliament president to eat is a curried sausage and fries at a service station in northern Germany.

Personalizing the Vote

For the last few weeks, an experiment has been underway in Europe. For the first time in history, candidates are vying with one another for the highest office in Brussels, the presidency of the European Commission. In the European elections taking place this week, 410 million people are casting their vote not only for a party but for that party’s candidate. It’s an innovation that has personalized the race, turning it into a stand-off between two rivals.

Martin Schulz, 58, and Jean-Claude Juncker, 59, are going head-to-head in the 28 countries of the EU, drumming up support and cooperation everywhere from Estonia to Portugal, from Ireland to Greece. But will this experiment be successful? Can an election campaign underway in so many different countries actually work?

After all, the elections are taking place at a time when the Brussels is looking to the general public more than ever like a bubble. The last five years have seen the economies of many Southern European nations collapse, debts spiral and in some regions, unemployment among the younger generation has reached 50 percent. The euro crisis catapulted the bloc into an identity crisis.

Voter indifference was a problem even in the last European elections, five years ago. Putting faces to the parties is intended to jolt the electorate out of their EU fatigue — but are the candidates for the EPP and the PES different enough to make the vote interesting?

Even if they are, the biggest challenge still lies ahead. The vote amounts to a referendum on whether or not the EU can become more democratic. A number of leaders of the EU member states resent the fact that the European Parliament wants to determine who will head the next European Commission — because nominating the candidate is actually their job, according to the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, and all the European Parliament does is vote on their proposal. In this respect, the two rivals, Schulz and Juncker, have a common adversary: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Who is that?”

In early May, Schulz is out canvassing on the streets of Lisbon. It wasn’t long ago that the Portuguese were protesting over austerity measures with posters showing Merkel with a Hitler moustache. Germany is seen by many here as overbearing, and the last thing they want to see is a German candidate succeed their very own José Manuel Barroso as Commission president.

Three cruise liners are anchored in the harbor on this particular day, and thousands of tourists are ambling through the historic city center, rubbing shoulders with camera people, photographers and members of the Portuguese Socialist Youth. In the center of the melée is Martin Schulz, sweating profusely. He stops by the downtown offices of a start-up and introduces himself to a young man with curly hair and a white t-shirt. They stand face to face, the desk between them. It feels a little claustrophobic.

“My name is Martin Schulz and I’m running for office as president of the European Commission,” he says. There’s a brief pause. The two men look at one another in silence. “And what do you do?” asks Schulz.

“We’re an Internet company with offices in London and Lisbon,” the young man answers. He seems to be as unfamiliar with the European Commission as he is with Schulz himself, despite the fact that the German has a fairly high profile as the current president of the European Parliament.

Few people on the streets of the Portuguese capital recognize him. Some of them stop and stare when he walks by. “Who is that?” asks one woman in French. Schulz waves when he’s waylaid by a group of German tourists.

One of the biggest difficulties facing both Schulz and Juncker is boosting their profile across the bloc. That entails adjusting to various cultures and holding impassioned speeches in foreign languages. To some extent, the election campaign has boiled down to a test of the candidates’ respective linguistic skills. Schulz speaks fluent French and English, and can also give a speech in Spanish and Italian. Juncker, meanwhile, is confident in English, German and French.

Nevertheless, both candidates have been known to get their languages mixed up. Taking part in a panel discussion last week — in the final throes of the election campaign — Jean-Claude Juncker fumbled for a word in French. “How do you say ‘tank’ again?” he asked French politician Bruno le Maire in German. At an event in Madrid, Juncker ended up with two sets of headphones round his neck, neither of which worked. “I’d better learn Spanish next time,” he joked.

The former prime minister of Luxembourg, Juncker visited 32 cities in 18 EU countries on his two-month-long campaign trail, from Helsinki to Madrid, Cyprus to Ireland. He gave 27 press conferences and over 300 interviews. Most of the time, he traveled in a blue bus emblazoned with a “Juncker for President,” slogan but covered the longer distances in a chartered plane.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, he was greeted by 15,000 fans in a football stadium; in Braunschweig, Germany, he appeared in the local Eintract stadium, debated with businesspeople, pressed the flesh in the Vienna Naschmarkt and visited the BMW factories in Munich. His rival Martin Schulz had an even busier schedule. The campaign proved to be a journey through European cultures that must on occasion have left the candidates not entirely sure in which city they’d woken up.

Too Many Similarities

It’s Friday, May 9. The Piazza della Signoria in Florence. In the Palazzo Vecchio’s awe-inspiring Salone dei Cinquecento, the floodlights are still trained on the stage where Juncker and Schulz just ended the first of what will be nine televised debates, held in English.

Schulz pushes through the crowd, which has been hand-picked. It consists of a few students from various international faculties; a lot of men in suits; a smattering of party supporters and a handful of spin doctors. Schulz reaches the far end of the room and disappears into an elevator.

“One and a half hours of wasted time,” he grumbles. “We didn’t talk about youth unemployment, the economy or the euro.” Instead, they spent half an hour discussing institutional matters. “We’re chasing our tail,” he seethes.

Both Juncker and Schulz are battling a lack of public interest in the elections. Days before the polls open, even the educated middle classes have a hard time naming the two main parties’ frontrunners. There’s a distinct absence of excitement surrounding the European elections.

The trouble is that their platforms are just too similar. Both are fervently pro-EU, both would like Brussels to become more democratic and both want to see greater powers returned to governments and regions. Neither the candidate of both the center-right and the center-left rules out debt-sharing, even though they both deny it.

No amount of prime time slots can turn their campaigns into compelling viewing. In Germany, their last TV debate was watched by an audience of less than 2 million, with considerably more viewers glued to a detective show on another channel. Even “Germany’s Next Top Model” fared better in the ratings.

 

A Question of Power

The majority of people couldn’t care less about the European elections. Juncker and Schulz cut their losses and didn’t even bother campaigning in Britain, where the EU is so unpopular it wouldn’t have been worth their while.

After the candidates’ first TV debate earlier this month, Peter Tauber, the secretary general of the conservative Christian Democratic Union in Germany, organized a small party for Jean-Claude Juncker at a think tank aligned with the party in Berlin. He was keen to have his picture taken with the guest of honor and had brought along a shirt that read “TeAM Europe,” the AM standing for party leader Angela Merkel.

But the German chancellor has nothing to do with the European Parliament, and Juncker wasn’t playing ball. Why should he be chummy with the secretary general of a party that hasn’t really had his back throughout his campaign and which puts its own leader on the posters rather than him?

Disagreement between Juncker and Merkel has been brewing for months. On the face of it, it’s about her lack of support. But the feud goes deeper, and is as relevant to Schulz as it is to Juncker. It’s a question of power. Who gets to choose the president of the European Commission? The European Parliament or the heads of European states and governments?

Merkel long dug her heels in when it came to naming a candidate for the European conservatives, fearful that the Commission was becoming too mighty an institution. She only relented once the Social Democrats named Martin Schulz.

Juncker bore the brunt of her hesitation. He was allowed to open the CDU’s party conference in Berlin in early April but otherwise failed to get a word in edgeways. Three weeks later, he vented his frustration at the state parliament in Düsseldorf when asked why he didn’t have any campaign posters in Germany.

“That’s it!” he thundered. “I’ve given countless interviews but interviews are no replacement for posters,” he went on. “I can’t tell the German CDU what to do but by all appearances, we just don’t exist.”

In contrast, the SPD has gone all out and put up posters of Martin Schulz all over the place. Matthias Machnig occupies an office on the fifth floor of the SPD headquarters in the Willy Brandt House in Berlin. A seasoned campaign manager since the Gerhard Schröder era, he has 80 people working for him. In a rare display of unanimity, Schulz, Machnig and party leader Sigmar Gabriel have all been pulling together in recent weeks in their opposition to Merkel. But the European election polls still show the SPD tailing well behind the CDU.

A Failed Experiment?

It’s a Sunday afternoon in May, and Schulz’s campaign bus is navigating the narrow roads of Málaga in Andalucia. Suddenly, a thought strikes him. “Didn’t you win last night?” he asks a Dutch staffer, referring to the Eurovision Song Contest that took place the previous evening.

“No, Conchita Wurst won,” she replies.

Schulz is silent for a moment, then pulls a face. “Conchita who? Conchita Wurst?” Schulz looks aghast and is just about to say something else when another staffer interrupts. “Martin, just so you know, you tweeted her your congratulations last night.”

The last few weeks have been exhausting ones for Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker. The campaign is drawing to a close. Both of them were most successful in their parties’ respective strongholds — Schulz in North Rhine Wesphalia, socialist Andalucia, Malta and among Berlusconi’s detractors in Italy.

Juncker, on the other hand, went down well in Eastern Europe and a few of the southern nations.

But there were parts of the Continent that neither of them reached. They visited euroskeptic countries fleetingly if at all, and the difficulty of appealing to voters as a non-native candidate was made blatantly obvious time and time again. Even in Germany, a survey carried out by TNS Infratest for SPIEGEL showed that only 21 percent of the population said that the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission sparked their interest in their European election. Most people barely noticed them.

On the face of it, this exercise in European democracy seems to have failed. In fact, it has created a new reality with significant political ramifications. Weeks of campaigning have ensured that it is now highly unlikely that anyone other than Schulz or Juncker will become the Commission’s new head. Government leaders have lost their sway — with only 13 percent of the population of the opinion that they should still decide who gets the top job, and 78 percent welcoming the fact that the general public now has a say in this key appointment. In this respect, European democracy has surely been furthered.

Last week, as his plane readied for landing in Paris, Juncker lit a cigarette, filling the cabin with smoke. “Europeans can’t believe that the parties were serious about their candidates,” he mused. The campaigns were too late in getting started. He stubbed out his cigarette and took stock. “There’s no open line of communication between the public and Brussels,” he says. “Not yet.”

On his way home from southern Spain, Martin Schulz is looking out of the window of his chartered plane, down on the Sierra Nevada mountain range receding below him. He’s just finished a meal of asparagus and salmon, has taken off his tie, opened his top button and is singing to himself. He too is in a contemplative mood as he considers whether the election campaign of the last few months has been a success.

“Basically, if one of us becomes president of the Commission, then his campaign was a success,” he says.

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