EU party leader debate in Maastricht
MAASTRICHT. A social democrat appealing to vote green? This is what happened last Monday in the Vrijthof Theatre during the first, large party leader debate for the European elections on 23 May. Who will take over from President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker? Five Spitzenkandidaten entered into debate before 750 students. “It is scandalous that Europe is home to 120 million people living in poverty and 21 million unemployed.”
The moderators Ryan Heath from news site Politico and UM rector Rianne Letschert, who appears to have been a presenter her whole life, got straight to the point. Why one of the most important candidates, the German Christian Democrat Manfred Weber, was absent? Because he had a birthday party to attend, with former minister Theo Waigel (80). Even though the invitation for the debate was sent a year ago, says Heath. “So think what you will.”
And why is there only one woman on the stage, Letschert asks? That is not down to the organisation but to the political parties. Letschert will ask the Slovene Violeta Tomic from the Party for the European Left later on, she says.
The other candidates are Bas Eickhout for the Greens, Frans Timmermans for the Social Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals, and the Czech Jan Zahradil for the Conservatives.
The debate, completely aimed at young people, is about digitization, sustainability and the future of Europe. The questions are partly based on a survey held among students.
On the topic of digitization, and especially the power that Google, Apple and Facebook have, the candidates largely agree: the tech giants need to be curbed. But how?
Eickhout demands transparency and better data protection. In addition, these businesses should be forced to pay taxes in Europe.
Timmermans totally agrees and shortly afterwards comes up with a minimum levy of 18 per cent in all member states. But wait a minute, Letschert says; in the past few years you were Vice President of the EU? “Absolutely, but the member states have to give the EU the authority to levy such taxes. They would rather do so themselves, but in the meantime they are forced into providing far-reaching tax benefits.”
Verhofstadt would prefer to stimulate the arrival of European platforms, yes, a kind of European Facebook that would comply fully with all regulations. A form of protectionism, says Timmermans, who doesn't believe in it. “Allow platforms to operate worldwide, but come up with new ideas. Free 5G in cities, which will improve mobility and CO2 emissions.”
And don't be naive, he says: “We need to protect our citizens better, because the Russians are still creating fake news and will also manipulate these elections.” Tomic would like to create a measuring instrument that could distinguish between fake news and real news. To Eickhout's displeasure: “Who would create such an instrument and so determine what fake news is?”
Education, education and education again is the solution, according to Timmermans. “Teach young people how to sift the wheat from the chaff, teach them to be critical thinkers.” No way, people are already capable of doing that, Verhofstadt objects. “The algorithms are the problem, they are the reason why you receive more and more fake news.”
Then the theme of sustainability. With grand words, Tomic refers to the speech made by the Swedish pupil Gretha Thunberg (whom the organisation wanted to allow to speak using a live connection, which obviously didn't work). “Our house is crumbling. Sustainability is the greatest crisis of the 21st century, the continued existence of humanity is at stake.”
Timmermans even appeals for a green vote. Moderator Heath: “Oh, I believe we have news tonight!”
Timmermans: “Green is not the exclusive property of the green parties, but of the whole left-wing spectrum. The left-wing parties should unite, because we are not talking about a beauty contest here but about your future. Maybe the liberals will join in and we would have a real green deal.” And the conservatives? They won't be budged and Timmermans refers to them as “the dinosaurs”.
Zahradil: “I have always loved Jurassic Park.”
His point is: if you move too fast, it would be catastrophic for the economy. “Look at France, where Macron raised the fuel prices just slightly. It led to a social uprising.”
Verhofstadt is glad with Timmermans' statement. “Yes, if the liberals join in, then finally something will happen. As far as we are concerned, the EU needs to become more concrete. “Invest in batteries, in public transport, in cultured meat. After all, it was this very university, Maastricht University, that made that discovery.”
The ‘future of Europe’ is firstly about gender inequality, about the only female on the stage. Would all five take on an equal number of men and women in the commission, if they themselves were to become President? Five hands are raised.
Letschert: “This is taped, it’s on record!”
Such a pity that a heavyweight such as Manfred Weber, who has a great chance of becoming President of the European Commission, is not present.
Letschert then brings up the proposal by the Swedish minister of Foreign Affairs, in which every country should nominate not one but two candidates, a man and a woman.
‘Very good idea,” Zahradil feels. “That would provide enough capable women, an easy solution to the problem.” Verhofstadt and Tomic support this, the latter remarking that the European Left is the only group to have an equal number of men and women in their ranks.
The Greens already have a male and female candidate, says Eickhout. “The President of the European Commission should compel the member states to provide two candidates.”
How would the Spitzenkandidaten tackle unemployment in the future? And how do they feel about minimum wages? If Heath has done his homework properly, he says, the Spitzenkandidaten earn between 3,500 and 23 thousand euro gross per month. Most youths in Europe don't even reach 1,500 euro, if they have a job at all. What should be done?
Verhofstadt wants to increase labour mobility. “At the moment, only 1 per cent of the Europeans go abroad for a job, while we have three million vacancies. To achieve this - and the liberals aren't really keen to say this - minimum wages would have to be equal in all member states.”
Tomic: “It is scandalous that Europe is home to 120 million people living in poverty and 21 million unemployed, including many youths. We want to raise minimum wages to 20 per cent above subsistence level.”
Agreed, says Eickhout. “The consensus on the stage may be confusing to the audience. Because why is there not proposal for a minimum wage then? Because the present European Commission is not open to the idea. The same in the case of internship compensation.”
Applause from the students.
Zahradil: “Do you know how high the minimum wage is in the Netherlands? It is 1,600 euro per month. In the Czech Republic, it is 500 euro. In short, the differences in our economies are huge. Extremely undesirable to harmonise them from above. The EU cannot create jobs, only create conditions.”
Then the closing round, in which candidates make their most spectacular plans public:
Eickhout: the sustainable development objectives must be leading in every policy proposal, even in trade.
Tomic: the EU must tighten its import regulations and not allow products to enter that are the result of child labour or slavery.
Verhofstadt: it is high time for European migration policy to finally prevent thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean Sea every year.
Zahradil: the EU must keep its options open and certainly not develop into the direction of the United States of Europe.
Timmermans: bring about true reconciliation between Europe and Africa.
Every debate has a winner and tonight, it is Frans Timmermans. He is in the lead from the start with the public and wins with 43 per cent of the votes.