The six potential candidates to succeed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker clashed last Wednesday at the last Spitzenkandidaten debate, the Eurovision Presidential Debate, hosted by the European Broadcasting Union in the European Parliament’s Brussels hemicycle. In theory, that should have been the highlight of the campaign season. In practice, the value of any such exercise, which, at the national level, is widely followed and has the capacity to move chunks of the electorate, was significantly undermined by a great number of factors, a combination of politics and structural deficiencies:
First and foremost, the six people that were on stage last Wednesday did not even come close to being the six most likely to be nominated to the position of the President of the European Commission. There is an increasingly strong likelihood that the next President was not on stage. Forget the entire discussion about the legal foundation of the process, largely based on the interpretation of Article 17, paragraph 7, of the Treaty on the European Union. The power-grab -at the expense of the European Council- attempted by the European political parties and the European Parliament, which, in 2014, sought to take almost complete control over the process by adding the power to nominate to their power to approve, is currently being undermined by the parties themselves: the process became a parody of its former self the moment ALDE decided to nominate a seven-strong team and the Greens two top candidates, instead of a single one. The Spitzenkandidat process was championed as the closest to a direct vote for the President of the European Union’s executive we could get without a treaty change. Through the vote, Europeans were also voting for their preferred Commission President, we were told. Which one of the ALDE seven, Kassandra asks? Let’s assume that ALDE turns out to beat every other party to first place. That annuls the automatic claim to the top job that the parties fought extremely hard to establish in 2014. Which one of the ALDE seven will automatically become President in that scenario? Out of the six people on stage last Wednesday, three make part of teams: a seven-strong group for ALDE, and a duo for each of the European Greens and the European Left. Beyond that, there is always politics: if, for at least a couple of months now, the EPP heads of state have been discussing the possibility of nominating Michel Barnier or a candidate other than their party’s Spitzenkandidat, as it is widely rumoured around town, why did they nominate Manfed Weber in a party congress last autumn to begin with? Their support towards the Spitzenkandidat process was lukewarm even then. What will they tell the voters once nomination time comes? Would not that further undermine the democratic credibility of the European project? Why take that risk? Unless they think the entire Spitzenkandidat process is irrelevant, given that no one is watching. Which brings us to the next two points.
According to the European Parliament’s own research into the 2014 elections, on average, only 5% of those Europeans who voted five years ago listed the chance “to influence the choice of President of the European Commission” as one of their top-three reasons for voting. It has always been taken as a given that elections are run on national agendas. The significance of national factors could as well have increased since 2014, together with the rise of nationalism and the increasingly higher preference of national governments for national -instead of European- solutions, irrespective of the nature of the problem. Does that mean that it was a debate for the European Quarter bubble only?
That presumption could have been diffused had the debate been widely watched by European voters. Fast-forward to 1:23:05 of the official version of the video posted on the European Parliament’s YouTube channel: one of the three journalists that hosted the debate, Annastiina Heikkila, announces that 5,000 people are watching on YouTube, 28,000 of Facebook and 7,000 on Twitter. That’s 40,000 people. Or less than 0,0001% of the European population. Obviously, that was not all: the debate was transmitted by 103 broadcasters according to the EBU, or 50, according to the European Parliament. In its post-debate debrief last Friday, the latter institution’s representatives claimed that 2.4 million people followed the debate on the European Parliament’s main Twitter account. What does that stand for? What is the right number? It would be interesting to see an aggregate figure that includes online and TV broadcasting and retransmission. By comparison, 84 million viewers watched the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 on TV, with another two following live on YouTube and eight million on Facebook. And if you consider that to be an unfair comparison, let’s judge the interest in the debate against the standards the European Parliament has set: its “Today I’m being born” video has reached more than 100 million view online.
There were six candidates but there are eight parliamentary groups in the European Parliament. The extreme right, EFDD and ENF were excluded. According to the Parliament’s own prediction, those two formations will win 14.3% of the vote. If the “others” and the “non-attached members” are added, who were also absent, that brings the count up to 23.7%. That means that the views or choices of almost one in four Europeans might not have been heard in the debate. The fact that EFDD or ENF did not nominate a top candidate is not an excuse. It will not be Kassandra advocating for the extreme right. But such groupings use exclusion to gain power: the democratic forces are simply playing into their anti-establishment rhetoric. Why not unmask them in public? Or win by the force of our arguments? When was democracy afraid? One could have agreed to an exclusion had the centrist forces created a cordon sanitaire around extremism. But they have not. Some of those centrist parties happily share government with the extremes.
Overall, this was a debate by candidates who are mostly candidates in name only, largely because of the actions of their own parties, for a position that only influences the decision of a tiny fraction of European voters, watched by an even smaller number, and where almost a quarter of the views were not represented. Why have such a debate then? Isn’t that a disservice to European democracy? Why not have all party group leaders debate next time? That would at least solve the doubts over the veracity of the candidacy of the speakers. Or, rename it to the inter-party debate.