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European Union

Opinion: Schulz vs. Juncker - opponents, allies

Europe's top candidates tried their best to attack during a TV debate. But Luxembourg's former Prime Minister Juncker and the president of EU parliament, Martin Schulz, have a lot in common, writes Christoph Hasselbach.

The two candidates initially did point out their political differences, for example when asked whether tax competition in the EU is a good thing (Jean-Claude Juncker) or a bad thing (Martin Schulz).

And still - it was not a proper duel, at least not a duel in the sense of Juncker vs. Schulz, or Conservative EU policymaking vs. the ideals of the European Socialists. The two opponents simply agreed on too many basic things. Actually, Juncker and Schulz came across a bit like secret allies on a mission to defend the European project.

And they have common (invisible) opponents: citizens' lack of interest in the election as well as right-wing and left-wing populism.

The idea doesn't work

Only election night will show whether these (invisible) opponents can be defeated. The idea behind appointing top candidates was to turn the traditionally drab European election campaign into a livelier and more personalized event - and to make it more pan-European. Just as for Conservatives and socialists, there are top candidates for the Liberals, the Greens and the Left. They are touring Europe at the moment and meet each other occasionally at debates like the one in Berlin between Schulz and Juncker.

But as good as the idea sounds in theory - it does not work. That's because the EU doesn't have a common general public, largely because of the many different languages spoken in Europe.

Translated debates are boring

The debate in Berlin was held in German. Juncker, who is from Luxembourg, speaks German fluently. And still, Martin Schulz from Germany did seem to have a slight rhetoric advantage on Thursday. Were they to meet in front of a French-speaking audience, it would probably be Juncker who would outdo his rival rhetorically. If the other candidates had joined the debate in Berlin, it would have had to have been held in English. That would probably have added teeth to the debate, as regards content.

But the translations required for a German-speaking audience would have instantly put out the rhetorical flame. Few people are willing to watch something of the kind. That's probably why the management at public TV channels ZDF (Germany) and ORF (Austria) decided to invite just Schulz and Juncker.

Voters not familiar with candidates

Language issues are not the only challenge. Schulz seemed more popular with the audience simply because he is from Germany. Then again, many people still don't know who he is - not even in Germany.

Juncker, who calls the small country of Luxembourg his home, has even less of a home field advantage anywhere else in Europe. People do tend to know him in Luxembourg and in Belgium. But outside of those two countries, anybody not particularly interested in European politics will hardly know who Jean-Claude Juncker is.

Part of the system

And the top candidates are facing yet another dilemma in their attempt to create enthusiasm for the European elections with skeptical or disinterested citizens.

Juncker and Schulz have been integral parts of the system for years, Juncker as a member of the Council of member states and Schulz as a member of European Parliament. They will hardly reach anybody who already mistrusts the European institutions. While you can attribute a bit of a fresh air to Schulz, who has been campaigning for a stronger Parliament, he doesn't exactly stand for any groundbreaking novelties. Juncker, meanwhile, is the embodiment of the status quo.

Judging from the expected majorities in the parliament, it looks as though one of the two will become Commission President. But not even that is guaranteed. It's not clear whether the heads of state and government will actually appoint the top candidate of the strongest party. It would be a betrayal of voters if they don't, say the contenders. Juncker and Schulz have told the voters that the current elections are also about electing the new Commission President. If this promise is not fulfilled, the two men say it would usher in an era of institutional crisis for the EU - and this fear is yet another thing the two duelists are united in.

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