A snap poll of attendees and online viewers of the Maastricht debate found Frans Timmermans to be the winner of the debate – as the Party of European Socialists (PES) jumped to emphasise in a late-night press release on 29 April, 2019.
Earlier, the lead candidates of the pan-European political parties had sparred in one of the major debates ahead of the European Elections that will crown the next president of the European Commission.
But as it happens, Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party (EPP) candidate pulled out of the debate weeks earlier because he had somewhere else to be (a birthday party, that is). As it also happens, the nonsensical approach of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) to have a whole team of people and then send to the debate one of the less likeable and more polarising candidates, Guy Verhofstadt, instead of Europe’s Competition Queen Margrethe Vestager, also put a dent in the figures.
But going back to the assertion of PES that Timmermans won the debate. Is it true?
According to Politico, Timmermans got 42% in the snap poll. The Greens’ Bas Eickhout got 35%, ALDE’s Verhofstadt 11%, ACRE’s Jan Zahradil 6%, and The European Left candidate Violeta Tomić got 5%.
One thing to consider is that a debate of the Spitzen candidates is more likely to attract pro-Europeans to attend (think Maastricht academics and students) and watch (think EU wonks), skewing the result more in favour of PES and ALDE, and to a lesser extent also to the Greens, but certainly against ACRE and the European Left. More than that, it could turn out that the method used to conduct the poll was flawed and vulnerable to manipulation: Jon Worth, a visiting EU politics and communications professor at the College of Europe and influential European affairs analyst, exhibited how he was able to vote multiple times in the poll by exploiting a security glitch in the online voting platform.
Secondly, with last week’s European Parliament election projections, we have a basis with which we can compare the debate poll results and examine the performance of the candidates.
If we take out all the political groups of the European parliament not represented in the debate, the latest European Parliament projections show the S&D (PES), ALDE, ECR (ACRE), Greens/EFA, and GUE/NGL as follows:
S&D (PES): 149 seats (38% of the seats projected for the parties participating in the Maastricht debate)
ALDE: 76 seats (19% of the seats projected for the parties participating in the Maastricht debate)
ECR (ACRE): 66 seats (17% of the seats projected for the parties participating in the Maastricht debate)
Greens/EFA: 57 seats (14% of the seats projected for the parties participating in the Maastricht debate)
GUE/NGL: 46 seats (12% of the seats projected for the parties participating in the Maastricht debate)
Total seats: 394 seats (figures rounded to the nearest percentage point)
If we take the seat projections of the European Parliament, and use them as the expected results of the debate poll, then we can getter a better sense of who over-performed and underperformed in the debate.
Obviously, the figures here are only indicative, but one thing is for certain: The big winner of the Maastricht debate was not Timmermans, but Bas Eikhout of the European Green Party, who scored 21 percentage points in the debate poll over what was expected given the European Parliament seat projections.
Frans Timmermans also over-performed, with 4 percentage points over expectations.
The rest of the candidates underperformed, with the European Left getting 7 percentage points under the expected score, and ACRE 11 percentage points respectively.
The biggest loser of the evening, however, was Guy Verhofstadt, who came second to last with 8 percentage points under the expected value. Why the biggest loser? The EPP’s withdrawal from the debate meant that ideologically Verhofstadt should have found more sympathisers watching the debate with no one to vote for.