02 Mai 2024

The lead candidates’ Maastricht debate: Potential and challenges for the EU elections

By Alex Hoppe
A moment during the Maastricht debate
There were eight candidates at the Maastricht debate, but unfortunately only a few tens of thousands of viewers.

On 29 April, the traditional debate of the lead candidates for the European elections took place in Maastricht. Originally an initiative of Maastricht University, also the debate’s third edition was probably followed by a small academic audience only. The evening shows both the potential of the format and the challenges European democracy faces if the lead candidates are to have a real impact on the electoral choices of European citizens.

A total of eight candidates took part in the debate in Maastricht: From the current Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (EPP) to Valeriu Ghilețchi, president of the European Christian Political Movement, politicians of different standing shared the stage. A real debate developed between Bas Eickhout (EGP) and von der Leyen in particular, partly because Eickhout skilfully used his position as the audience’s favourite to interpret the rules of the debate broadly. The remaining candidates failed to impress. Particularly Nicolas Schmit (PES), who currently holds the best chance of challenging von der Leyen. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (ALDE), a rhetorically skilful, vocal actor in German political debates, likewise did not feel at home in this European environment. Anders Vistisen (ID) played the expected provocative role – while adhering to the rules of the game.

The variety of European political parties

It is questionable whether we really needed eight candidates on the stage in Maastricht. Even well-informed voters will have wondered who Valeriu Ghilețchi was, for example. His party does not have a parliamentary group in parliament; only five MPs from different groups are currently members.

Admittedly, the young Maylis Roßberg (EFA) in particular was a refreshing addition to the debate, as her frustration on inadequate climate policy was sincere and her closing statement in particular struck a chord with the young audience. But the goal of bringing European voters closer to the EU and its electoral system is in no way served if several candidates in this debate do not even have a realistic chance of winning a parliamentary mandate, let alone their parties having a parliamentary group. When Roßberg began her closing statement by saying that she would certainly not become an MEP, it must have confused most viewers outside the Brussels bubble. In future, parties and organisers should take this into account when selecting candidates.

Brussels issues

The three core issues of the debate – climate change, foreign and security policy, and European democracy – were previously selected by Maastricht University in a survey of young citizens. They are also considered the most important by the media and the political environment. The moderators set different priorities with their questions, ranging from the general effectiveness of climate policy to detailed aspects of its financing. Current affairs also made an appearance, when much of the climate policy discussion focused on European farmers, or when Walter Baier (EL) switched to the war in Gaza – which clearly struck a chord with the audience.

On the topic of democracy, accusations of corruption flew back and forth between the candidates and the parties they represented. It was also during the discussion on this topic that important issues came to the fore, such as the role of the ECR parliamentary group. Additionally, both von der Leyen and Schmit made clear they are open for drastic measures against TikTok.

The choice of topics as such can certainly be questioned. The latest Eurobarometer survey shows that the fight against poverty and social exclusion is the most pressing issue for Europeans. Defence and security is only third (tied with support to the economy, which was also ignored in the debate). Climate change follows in fifth place and democracy in eighth. A recent Youth Study 2024 in Germany shows similar results. These issues were only briefly touched upon in some of the opening and closing statements, including those of Baier and Schmit. Instead, the organisers put the topic of migration on the agenda, notably under the header of security, which was rightly criticized by Bas Eickhout.

Brussels politics

Even though the depth of the debate was inevitably limited (each candidate had 45 seconds for their interventions), there were some revealing moments: A clear division between those calling for new Eurobonds to finance climate policy (especially Bas Eickhout and Nicolas Schmit) and those who would prefer to supplement the designated EU budget with private investment (Ursula von der Leyen).

The debate became heated when Baier used the brief discussion on the war in Ukraine to address the conflict in Gaza. Several candidates took the opportunity to criticise Ursula von der Leyen for her previous line on this conflict and, supported by the audience in the room, asked her to define red lines. She avoided doing so, emphasising the need to discuss these issues with member states. In general, some of von der Leyen’s remarks on the division of competences seemed to be aimed at the members of the European Council rather than the voters – which may certainly be a sensible strategy, given the appointment process of the Commission president and the current polls.

Overall, von der Leyen seemed comfortable during the debate. Time and again, Eickhout in particular tried to single her out. However, she used her experience of the last five years and good knowledge of existing EU policy. It became clear that the format suited her better than other candidates.

European lead candidates since 2014 have often had a professional background and experience in Brussels. For Monday’s candidates, this was a clear advantage – and in some cases, its absence was at times painfully obvious. The experience of Martin Schulz as a successful European politician who failed in national politics has now become clear to Marie-Agnes Strack Zimmermann, among others. Success in Brussels is no guarantee of success on the national stage – and vice versa.

Strack-Zimmermann visibly struggled to find her role in the debate. Her statements on topics outside her core area of expertise, security policy, were vague and partly incorrect. For example, she referred to the German far-right AfD during the discussion on the ECR group – of which the AfD is not a member. Brussels politics has a different tune to Berlin and not all candidates have mastered it.

The European public

The candidates had agreed to debate in English. Obviously, some were more comfortable than others. Simultaneous interpretation could not hide the fact that the lack of a common language changed the character of the debate. Those who now solely focus on the language skills of individual candidates fail to recognise the bigger problem: the lack of a common language area remains a major challenge for European democracy.

First, because it demands a specific skill set of (EU-wide) candidates. This skill set is easier to acquire growing up in certain regions of the EU and going through their educational systems than in others (not to mention differences of social class). The inequalities on stage last Monday were of course only a fraction of the inequalities in the overall EU population.

Second, because it is difficult for the audience to follow the debates. Yes, the debate was simultaneously translated into several languages – but by no means into all the official languages of the EU. This effectively makes it inaccessible to a large proportion of voters. In addition, with translation we lose a great deal of emotionality, emphasis, and individual character of the candidates – aspects that are crucial for voters’ judgement.

Even if AI innovations could possibly solve the language problems in the medium term, the question remains whether this would be the decisive step towards creating a European public sphere. After all, its absence became abundantly clear again: the debate hardly took place in national media. The national parties did not advertise it, and a quick glance at the national German media shows little (yet some) interest. And of course, there was no live broadcast except for YouTube.

All of this explains the alarmingly low interest: Well under 100,000, and very likely significantly fewer than 50,000 voters watched the debate. The only slight chance of this debate having any impact on electoral choices is national media picking up some of the few substantive highlights – like von der Leyen’s vagueness on a potential cooperation with ECR.

What now?

The Maastricht debate offers several insights into the state of the European elections. First, the European parties continue to take the lead candidates system seriously, as demonstrated by von der Leyen’s late entry: Her absence would have considerably weakened the legitimacy of the debate. The candidates of the other parties took the opportunity to hold her accountable for the past five years. Von der Leyen simply did a relatively good job of answering or evading the questions put to her – which, however, did justice to the format of this debate. It would therefore seem unjustified to speak of a failed debate. In fact, the debate did provide some interesting insights on the candidates’ positions.

At the same time, however, the challenges remain: The debate did not cover the issues that matter most to European voters. It is to be hoped that the second debate will align better with the concerns of voters across the Union and from different social classes. The lack of a common language and, worse still, of a European public sphere was once again evident. Although the organisers made a real effort – including encouraging the organisation of watch parties, to which some 80 organisations responded – the public had little interest in or awareness of the debate. Calls for simple solutions don’t do justice to the complexity of these challenges. But more media coverage and at least some effort by the national parties themselves would certainly be a first step.

Pictures: Lead candidates debate: European People's Party [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Alex Hoppe: private [all rights reserved].

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