Broadcast all over Europe, in several languages and featuring, for the first time, all five top candidates: The live debate from Brussels was meant to be the highlight of the EU election campaign. Did it succeed?
The leading candidate for the European Socialists was full of praise on Thursday night (15.04.2014), both for himself and for Eurovision, the producers of the debate between the five candidates for the EU Commission presidency.
Until now, said Martin Schulz, the election campaign had been boring, but with such a television debate it had become much more eventful. "The new president of the European Commission is one of us five candidates. He is talking with you!" said the German Social Democrat, to laughter from his opponents and applause from supporters in European Parliament plenary chamber, transformed into a shimmering blue TV studio.
The debate was organized by Eurovision, part of the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of major European public broadcasters. In a first, the debate was simultaneously broadcast in 25 European countries and on many online platforms.
It's difficult to know how many people actually watched the debate. Most broadcasters didn't trust the event to bring in viewers, and banished the program to their specialty channels and news programs. In the UK, the BBC found some space on its parliamentary channel, while in Germany the debate was only available on news and documentary channel Phoenix. DW, however, broadcast the entire event in English.
On social media, at least, it was easy to see that the debate had a following. The candidates have also taken to social networks to reach voters. During the event, an excited young co-host proudly showed off 62,000 mentions on Twitter, linked to such hot topics as "Roma resistance," "transatlantic trade agreement" and "Idaho." These topics, however, had very little to do with the actual discussion during the debate. Idaho?
Toeing the line
The debate was dominated by a huge countdown clock that floated above the heads of the five politicians, keeping track of their speaking time down to the second. Monica Maggioni, the Italian moderator, found it difficult to enforce the time limits, at times getting caught up in the complicated debate rules which candidates had agreed upon before the show. It didn't always seem very clear who should speak, on what topic, when and for how long, and the clock often headed off some real verbal sparring. Instead, everyone politely took his or her turn.
The candidates trotted out their well-known arguments on the euro crisis, unemployment and refugee policy, and every now and then seasoned the debate with a small jab at their competition to the left and right.
The only one to shake things up a bit was the European Left candidate, Alexis Tsipras, who is heading a very successful party alliance against the bailouts and austerity program in Greece. Tsipras called for an end to austerity and further debt, the exact opposite of current EU policy.
"People are rejecting this Europe. This is why we must offer an alternative," he said. "This doesn't mean further expanding European integration. The fundamental nature of the European Union must be changed. We need to offer a new vision. We need an alternative to austerity and strict budgets." Tsipras didn't give specifics for this alternative, and no follow-up questions were asked, either.
Few new arguments
The other four candidates - Jean-Claude Juncker (European People's Party), Ska Keller (European Green Party), Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) and Martin Schulz (Party of European Socialists) - defended the euro rescue, some more vehemently than others.
Verhofstadt spoke out in favor of preserving Europe's common currency, saying that without the euro, national currencies like the former Italian lira or the Greek drachma would simply be devalued, with dramatic consequences for people's savings.
"This is the reality. We have to tell the ordinary citizens that going back to national currencies is mainly against your personal interests, and it's not a solution for our problems," he said.
All five candidates agreed that unemployment was the EU's greatest problem. The conservative Juncker, who as head of the Eurogroup worked to rescue the common currency, saw himself as the protector of the common people.
"I am in favor of a minimum wage everywhere in Greece, everywhere in Europe. I want the people who are working to be able to live from their jobs," he said. "We need a minimum standard of social legislation. If we cannot convince the European people to support the European project, then we'll run into big problems."
On this topic, Juncker was in full agreement with his friend Martin Schulz, who made perhaps the most humble point on the subject. "What we lost is the biggest capital of the European Union: trust. I want to regain the trust of the citizens of the Union by saying that we fight against your poverty, against your misery, and we want to give your children a chance for their future. Then we will get Europe back on track," said Schulz, who has worked in the European Parliament for many years and contributed to this loss of trust.
Now, as a candidate, he is calling for another EU, not more Europe. The hard-nosed European opponents from the far right could not, or would not, have their say. They had not decided on a common candidate to represent their party at the TV debate.
First Conchita, then campaigning
It was hard to say who won the first EU political slugfest. This was hotly debated afterward, in the spin alley - a feature inspired by the American TV debates. Each candidate manned a small stand after the main event, where spectators and journalists could hear more of their arguments.
The 500 people in attendance were mostly party supporters or hand-picked staff members of the MEPs, who audibly showed their support for their preferred candidates. "The whole thing reminds me of the Eurovision Song Contest, but without the music," said a Liberal supporter afterward.
Eurovision also broadcast the music competition just last weekend, in which the Austrian Conchita Wurst was crowned the winner. To date, the song contest has been the only pan-European TV event broadcast in dozens of languages. Now, the electoral debate has been added to the lineup. Not quite as colorful or flashy, and perhaps not quite as exciting as the organizers had hoped.
After the 90-minute debate, the audience left the European Parliament and joined the crowd on Brussels' Place Luxembourg, where every Thursday hundreds of eurocrats get an early start on the weekend with Belgian beer. And this time, instead of football, the surrounding pubs had switched their TVs to the debate.