What a TV Debate Can Do

Last Monday’s TV debate on Euronews shows that this year’s European elections are different. By Daniel Schade.

Euronews EU debate

Monday’s TV debate on Euronews, broadcast from a packed auditorium at Maastricht University, was a premiere for Europe-wide democracy. For the first time in the history of the European Union, four out of five candidates for the presidency of the European Commission faced each other for 90 minutes in a format that is usually reserved for national elections. Despite widespread fears that such a debate would prove that European politicians are inept at true party competition, Jean-Claude Juncker, Ska Keller, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt did their utmost to show that these European elections will be different.

The mere fact of holding such a debate is impressive enough, yet those who followed it were able to witness that the format actually worked. It is true that not everything worked as smoothly as one is used to from the national level. Often the answers and questions appeared rushed, and rather than providing an equalizer, the strict time-keeping cut some interventions off when they were about to become interesting.

However, the biggest fear that EU-level politicians are only capable of discussing incomprehensible bureaucratic issues far removed from European citizens did not hold out. While the format of asking questions helped in this regard, it was mostly the candidates themselves who aimed at making statements that sounded like a true electoral campaign.

The second-biggest fear, that a debate held in English amongst four non-native speakers would contribute to a disaster in the making, was proven equally wrong. The two native speakers hosting the debate were clearly at an advantage over most of the candidates in terms of wit and the precision of their language; however, the fact that some of the candidates sometimes struggled to find appropriate words was equally beneficial for the debate. While they normally master political speech in their native languages, being able to hide non-answers in expressions that do not mean anything, any such attempt became blatantly obvious in English.

In terms of the issues debated, it became clear that the different candidates do indeed differ as to what kind of future they envision for Europe, and that they are committed to shaping the continent along their lines of thought. The only time when all candidates seemed equally lost was when they were being asked about the future of Ukraine. Just like national politicians, the candidates do not seem to have an answer as to how best to deal with the situation developing at Europe’s eastern fringe.

The most common element in their contributions was not verbal, however, as their mere presence at such a debate indicated their willingness to change how democracy functions at the European level, even if this comes at a price. For instance, Juncker, who is normally very well-spoken in French and German, clearly struggled the most with having to get his ideas across in English. Yet he agreed to take part in such a debate.

Overall, this TV debate is a symbol of how different these European elections are going to be from any previous ones. Without changing the treaties governing the European Union, Europe’s political parties have managed to establish a true electoral campaign with clear front-runners, a tour of the candidates across Europe, and now a true TV debate. All of this contributes to the expectation that whichever party will win the election can indeed choose the Commission’s president, despite the prior practice of solely discussing this amongst heads of state and government.

The only thing that is missing from this campaign now is that not only the candidates, but also the media take it seriously. The debate as such was only televised on Euronews, and coverage in Europe’s print media was hard to find. Fortunately another debate, this time amongst all five candidates, will be held in May. The fact that it will be produced by the European Broadcasting Union should mean that it would be televised on many public channels across Europe. Until then, the media should start taking this electoral campaign seriously. It would be a shame if the first true attempt at having a Europe-wide campaign would go unnoticed by its citizens.

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