Report: The Maastricht Debate Aftermath

By Maeva Chargros

On Monday, April 29th, the first official debate of the European elections took place in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Organised by Politico with their usual partners, it featured five out of the six main groups running for the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are set to happen from May 23rd to 26th.

This debate was meant in every way to target young voters, for a number of good reasons. One of them being that young people are currently getting more and more involved in politics worldwide, be it through the Fridays for Future demonstrations or other “channels”. Therefore, the three main themes of this debate were picked accordingly: Digital Europe, Sustainable Europe, and the Future of Europe. Here are some observations pertaining to the content – but also the general atmosphere impression.

Stable Leader: Frans Timmermans (S&D)

Very honestly, Frans Timmermans was the most well-prepared candidate for this debate. He knew all the topics thoroughly, he was able to articulate specific proposal for each main question, and he did not wasted time on any unnecessary argument. However, it is easy to be in this position for someone who is currently dealing with all these topics as Vice-President of the European Commission. Slight advantage that he definitely seized. Showing leadership at every level, he called for Europeans to “vote Green”, reminding everyone that “there is no competition”. Indeed, the Dutch politician chose to be transparent about his intentions in case he was to become the next President of the European Commission: alliance with the Greens, the Left, and an open-door to negotiations with ALDE. Timmermans did not forget to build on the momentum created by the Spanish general elections on Sunday (28.04) evening – including regarding gender equality, which seems to be among the top priorities of all five candidates.

He is the clear winner of this debate, if we dare to forget his neighbour standing at the centre of the stage.

Star of an Evening: Bas Eickhout (GREENS)

Now, you may not know his name, or you are just unable to pronounce it right. No harm in that, Dutch is known for being othe weirdest language to pronounce, right? (From a French. Let’s make room for some irony here, thank you)

Bas Eickhout (photo)  was, according to my very biased opinion, the real winner of Monday’s debate. The Greens are far from leading the polls, despite the urgency of the environmental crisis. This candidate has barely any chance of becoming the next European Commission President, unless… Unless, perhaps, their party keeps working that hard on their campaign. Apart from Frans Timmermans, who had a clear advantage over most of his opponents as I mentioned, the Green co-lead candidate was the only one piling up concrete proposals, clear aims, and even clearer red lines. He did not hesitate to call out on stage those who use political campaigns to lure their voters, and then act differently. For once, the Greens did not seem like the weak hopeless candidate desperately trying to be audible. I am rather certain that Greta Thunberg thought: “if only they could get this result at the elections in one month…!” For at the end of the debate, Eickhout had no less than 36% of positive votes from the audience (watching online and offline) on his side. Not bad, compared to the 7.3% they got in the last European elections.

Ups and Downs: ACRE & ALDE

ACRE’s lead candidate for the elections, Jan Zahradil, did a fairly good job at making his political family look serious. Indeed, his main competition is composed of various parties related more or less directly to the EFDD and the ENF, who keep claiming the EU is the worst evil ever, while showing at every European election with a very busy agenda and a very empty programme. Meanwhile, ACRE – at least through its Czech Spitzenkandidat – seems to be turning down the volume of divisive and hateful attacks. For instance, he did mention multiple times the term “national”, but did you notice how many times he used variations such as “regional” and “local”? This was music to my federalist ears, though he probably did not intend to have this effect. Indeed, I highly doubt ACRE would appreciate federalists taking their “multiple levels” discourse to the level of implementing it – each region has its own specificities, don’t forget that… And ACRE has a good point with stating this fact. You simply cannot approach the same issues with the same methods in Île-de-France and in Olomouc, right?

On the down side of the spectrum lies very unfortunately ALDE. The Liberals’ candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, failed at convincing anyone – and for a simple reason. He was ready for a one-man-show, not for a political debate. He brought up very little concrete measures, ideas, while attacking his opponents – and he lacked the Greens’ candidate’s wit to make his remarks relevant. For instance, creating a European Facebook is a brilliant idea, until Timmermans and Eickhout remind you that it is not exactly the job of the European Commission to do that. Facilitating entrepreneurs’ ambitions (through investments, not austerity measures) should be at the heart of any liberal agenda – instead of low-key defending China’s model of creating their own version of everything so they can control it better! Unfortunately, smart, sustainable investments and fighting back austerity were themes mainly tackled by the Left, Green, and Socialist candidates. ALDE definitely missed out its opportunity to shine – once again, for the same old reasons of personal agendas…

As for the candidate for the European Left, Violeta Tomic, I am still trying to understand what this party’s programme is about, since her comments could be summarised with: “we want to change the system, a big revolution, but we have no idea how and what for”. Nevertheless, those big ideals will certainly be useful if the left-wing of the parliament wants to counter its increasingly extreme and popular right-wing.

In conclusion, as a somewhat still young European citizen, I can only hope that ACRE’s message went through: if you want more national competences, if you think the EU is going too fast and not focusing on the right issues, this group should get your vote, not EFDD, nor ENF. ACRE has the decency to come up with a programme for each term, to work on actual proposals, and to show up to the big events – just like they show up to the European Parliament to debate, negotiate, and vote.

If you want to put environmental policies at the core of all European legislation in the next five years – opt for the Greens. Another option would be to vote for the Socialists, though it would require a socialist perspective on all other topics, of course.

As for the conservatives, I will let you guess what Manfred Weber’s “no-show” means about his consideration for Europe and its future: again, ACRE should be your choice, or other independent candidates, unless you care about Europe as much as the EPP cares about its rule of law and values. It only took them years to address the Orbán issue, after all.

By the way, here goes a link for the second debate held at the European University Insitute in Florence.

The final words of this article are, obviously: on May 23-26, vote. Make your voice heard, wherever you are, whoever you are, whichever political party you support. Vote, and make sure the politicians you vote for are honest, reliable, and determined to represent you and your rights.

Featured picture: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

Advertisements