By Irene Kostaki-Journalist, New Europe
The lead candidates, or so-called Spitzenkandidaten, chosen from the European political families to compete in the upcoming European elections took to the stage on Wednesday evening to debate policy issues and to make their case to become the next Commission president.
Nico Cué for the European Left, Ska Keller for the European Greens, Jan Zahradil of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and Margrethe Vestager for the liberals and ALDE were joined by Germany’s Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Frans Timmermans from the European Socialists (PES) as they engaged in a verbal debate about the future of Europe.
A week shy of the bloc’s elections, the six of the candidates for the EU’s top position faced-off with the EPP’s Weber struggling to match Timmermans’ verbal powerhouse performance. Weber found it difficult to get the Socialist and the Liberal candidates, and his more important rivals, to fall in line with his talking points. The bloc’s top position candidates debated on a wide scope of EU politics agenda items, including migration, climate change, taxation, social policy, and the EU’s position in the US-China trade war.
Timmermans proposed an 18% minimum standard of pan-European corporate tax and said that empty warehouses are not the future for the EU’s economy, a sentiment echoed by Vestager who said, “We need to put a floor under corporate taxation as such, because otherwise, it will just be a race to the bottom”.
With the help of interruption cards, an attempt was made to keep the debate alive, a trick that worked well for this debate, even if most of the candidates used the cards mostly against Timmermans, on an attempt to make him slip, but the First Vice President of the European Commission performed well on stage.
Weber tried to push back Timmermans, advocating against Timmermans’ will for a minimum wage. Posing the paradigm of the austerity and crisis-hit Portugal, Weber underlined that the current Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici comes from the Socialists, as well as the present and the current Eurogroup presidents, Timmermans’ compatriot Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the Portuguese Mario Centeno, respectively. The Bavarian politician added that when he visited Porto during his campaign, young Portuguese asked him about “jobs that pay well” and not about minimum wage. “The young generation wants good jobs, with good wages, to establish their families. And for that we need good economic policies, “he said.
Timmermans, who didn’t miss the opportunity to call for a left-wing coalition, recalled the good results of the policies promoted by the Portuguese premier António Costa’s government in the opposite direction from those advocated by the EPP. The Socialist top candidate attacked Weber for insisting on austerity measures in response to the last financial crisis, reminding him that he had an even harder position than Juncker on the issue. “Manfred Weber said ‘no, punish Portugal, punish Portugal’,” said Timmermans, while Juncker examined first the plans of Portugal, putting its proposals on the table for discussion. “Then Manfred Weber said from the European Parliament ‘No, we will not allow this. we should punish Portugal.’”
With 116 seats predicted to go to far-right populists and pro-Brexit parties, the candidates discussed whether they should cooperate with that spectrum – yesterday absent from the debate panel – with Weber not offering a helping hand to the anti-European extremes. Zahradil of the ECR kept his downright critical tone against the EU, advocating for a Europe that does a lot less, better, a slimmer version that would suit more in the model of the nation-states cooperation, rather than that of Weber’s plan for an “ever-closer” union, that Zahradil found “outdated”.
As for the cost of the energy transition, Weber and Zahradil teamed up against big plans of imposing to companies an expensive transition. With jobs in the automobile or coal industry in danger, Keller suggested that the political instruments, the measures are known, pointing out that the problem likes to the lack of action. “The other parties here have always voted against progress in the fight against climate change. It’s a hot topic, urgent. What would she do to change that? For example, stop all subsidies that affect the climate, every year we spend billions of euros on the European level.”
“The EU has to change the way it provides the subsidies to member states,” agreed Zahradil, while Keller, taking a step further, supported setting Paris Agreement goals as part of any policy aspect, focusing on trade. According to Keller, the EU needs “to take into account the emissions caused by the trade agreements” and therefore make sure that the Paris agreement into the trade agreements.
Belgian candidate of the radical left Cué suggested that it should be the big polluters that contribute to the 70% of the emissions that should be targeted. “One does not attack the big polluters these multinationals, who are responsible for almost 70% of the world’s pollution, do absolutely nothing! On the other hand, I am totally opposed to moving the problem towards the taxation of the weakest citizens, as Emmanuel Macron does in France, it is totally unacceptable,” added Cué on Macron’s measures that have sparked the great yellow vests demonstrations in France.
“I do not agree that retirees or poor people of this society are the losers in this process,” said Weber, against Timmermans opinion on the subject. “People tell me if you implement the goals of the Greens it is not viable for companies,” added the EPP candidate. The EPP supports the 2050 decarbonisation plan, according to Weber, as the Commissioner for Environment, Miguel Arias Cañete is an EPP member, “and this is the reason why he did great things”.“Cañete did not do great things because he is EPP, but because he is part of the Commission. [Transport Commissioner] Violeta Bulc did not decarbonise transportation because she is ALDE,” Vestager replied Weber.
But after this strictly timed show, if there was a winner, it was Timmermans. Cué, Zahradil, Keller and Vestager performed at the expected level. All except Weber, the favourite of the number one political power in Europe, clearly outperformed by his main rival, Timmermans.
However, most importantly, most likely, it could be that none of the six candidates of a debate broadcasted by 103 channels accesses the globe, will be one of the real finalists, after Europeans get out the vote next week on 23-26 May, ahead of the 28 May extraordinary meeting of leaders, who wish to have the first word in the EU institutions chairs pick.