The clock is ticking in the run-up to the European elections! The debate is getting more heated and not only because we are fast approaching election day.
The political climate is very different from 2014. The insurgence of anti-European parties is a new and major feature of these elections. Among its many consequences, it has further polarised debate between the traditional parties – EPP and PES – and their representatives. Indeed, we have listened to more confrontations between Timmermans and Weber during the debate that took place in Florence on 2 May than between Juncker and Schulz over the whole campaign in 2014.
Both the Spitzenkandidaten of the two main parties are suggesting that the coalition they want to run will be shaped by a work-plan based on the electoral programmes rather than a simple addition of seats in the EP. This has consequences. From an institutional point of view, it means that the European parties have finally entered the race, making the Spitzenkandidaten process something more than an interesting procedure for EU-nerds. As the vast majority of European citizens are still unaware of this process and how it works, we can hardly claim that it has resolved the EU’s democratic deficit. Yet, it means that it is finally moving onto the right track and towards the democratisation of the appointment of the European Commission.
Secondly, both candidates are thus running on a sharper and better defined platform. They are not trying to look too cooperative with each other and, if anything, Weber spent most of the time during the debate hosted by the European University in Florence to attack Timmermans. The latter reacted by underlining the unsustainable programme of the EPP in terms of trade policies and climate change and winking at the greens rather than at him when mentioning that the Sustainable Development Goals should be the guiding light for the next Commission mandate.
Ska Keller, Spitzenkandidat for the Greens together with Bas Eickhout, shined more brightly than the other candidates. She received less direct attacks than Timmermans from Weber so she had more opportunities to make her points sharp and clear. She addressed the need for investing in the transition towards a sustainable development model – and in the creation of green jobs - rather than in a European army. The latter is however considered a fundamental step forward by Weber and Verhofstadt, to whom Timmermans rightly responded that the EU Member States should first agree on Foreign Policy and then maybe create a joint army. He had a pragmatic and still idealistic stand, and Ska Keller nodded her agreement.
Migration was - not surprisingly - a rather divisive issue, although all the candidates agree that the real deadlock lies in the Council and they all praised the ability of the Parliament to reach a broadly supported proposal for the reform of the Dublin regulation. While Timmermans stressed the contradictions behind Orbàn and Salvini shaking hands, he also said that if human rights are respected and the UN is fully committed to it too, refugee camps outside the EU can be accepted as a solution for managing refugee reception. Weber stressed instead the importance of controlling borders, while Ska Keller insisted on the need to address a humanitarian crisis with humanitarian solutions.
The discussion on the future of the European economy was also quite polarised. Weber spoke first, stating that investments in innovations, trade and an effort to decrease the bureaucratic burden on SMEs should be prioritised. Verhofstadt talked about the need to centralise the EU budget and to complete the single market with its digital dimension. Keller said that we need to put an end, once and for all, to austerity dogmas and that priority should be given to investments in the care system, education systems and the green economy. Last to respond was Timmermans, who highlighted that first there needs to be a solution for the shrinking middle-class, which he considers the most important issue for the recovery of the European economy. His proposal is thus to implement a thorough programme for fiscal justice that taxes tech giants and boosts investment in the circular and sustainable economy.
All in all, it is clear who is trying to put forward progressive proposals and who is still friendly with regressive forces. As the network for progressive Civil Society Organisations working to advance social justice, we can but hope that the next Commission will be composed of a coalition of pro-European parties who aim at making EU democracy more participatory and its policies oriented towards a sustainable society. Don’t miss the next election debate on 15 May!