Europe in Transition: What the EU Presidential 2014 Debates Tell Us
Nine days ago, a truly extraordinary event took place in the modern history of Europe. Four European political leaders stood on a single stage, making the case for why they should be the next President of the European Union. This first debate, the first time a Presidential debate was held on live television for all Europeans to watch, also marks an important point of transition for the European Union as it makes the leap from dominated by purely European Governments to sharing power with its own citizens.
In a debate dominated by the European economy, international security, energy and Euroscepticism, these four represent the diverse interests of 28 different countries and the values of a diverse European community. Jean-Claude Juncker, representing the European People’s Party (EPP), Martin Schulz from the Socialist and Labor Parties (SLP), Guy Verhofstedt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and Ska Keller for the European Green Party created a lively evening that, while filled with light humor and political drama, brought the discussions of everyday jobless youth, stagnate economies and uncertain futures to the forefront a crucial election that, for many, is a referendum on the Union’s future.
[Click the following link: As it Happened to view the entire debate]
The Euro Economy: Jobs and Bonds
At the top of the agenda, the economy was a soar subject for each of the candidates. Each was asked by the moderator and by members of the audience about the debt crisis, along with Eurobonds. Martin Schulz (SLP) claimed Europe faced the greatest credit crisis since the 1980’s. He iterated the need for a united European banking and fiscal policy, that can invest in businesses, create jobs and jumpstart the economy. Schulz, along with Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP), were heavily supportive of the Eurobond idea, though rejected it without these strong reforms around European fiscal policy. There conversations in this debate are part of the ongoing, but stalemated discussions over how to facilitate a true push for economic accountability in Europe
Yet economic accountability also brings political accountability and a different of focus on what is most important in regulation. Guy Verhofstedt (ALDE) called for closer relations of European states and creation of common policies for growth and sound public finance. In response to critics of his “European Federalism” idea, Verhofstadt said Europe needed more Common Policies on markets like energy while reducing while reducing internal regulations. “Europe needs a new leap forward in integration,” Verhofstadt claims in order to create new jobs and inspire confidence among people and states. Such considerations have traditionally required healthy relationships between key economic powers, principally France and Germany. The paralysis over closer fiscal union comes from an insecurity by states to hand over coveted national powers, even while they have ceded these authorities overtime to the greater benefit of economic growth, for which the Euro is the defining achievement.
Insecurity is Not Just Economics, its also Guns and Oil
The economic crisis is also related to a question of European insecurity over its own sovereignty in the 21st century. This debate is not only about a transition to popular democracy, but one of how Europe will work with its neighbors, such as resurgent Russia, the Post-Arab Spring Middle East, and the United States. Ukraine was the highlight of the discussion, where critics on all sides claim Europe has been indecisive and weak. Juncker pointed out that “Europe’s strength is in it’s soft power, and we need to pressure Russia through dialogue.” Furthermore it’s linked to a stronger need for Europe to achieve energy independence, an anxiety voiced by Ska Keller when talking about jobs and the looming problems of climate change.
However, the positions expressed by these candidates created the perfect forum for Verhofstadt’s own unique position: restarting discussions on the European Defense Initiative. This issue has been a dead letter since Bosnia and has been addressed through NATO. The Ukrainian crisis may be a signal of a changing shift of attitudes. “If Europe can create a strong security pillar, the European Pillar of NATO, then we can have a stronger, coordinated response rather than a three pronged response to outside issues,” said Verhofstadt. There was division on the issue, with Juncker claiming we need to use the instruments of soft power, such as foreign aid. Yet, each one is appealing to constituencies for a more coordinated European reaction to today’s challenges, and through the EU more frequently than individual member states.
The Greatest Challenge: “The European Solution”
This transition displays one important challenge that the new EU President will face: how to balance the aspirations of EuroDemocracy with the interests of European States. The candidates were each asked how they would balance the conflict between the EuroCouncil and the Commission. Juncker told skeptics that “real power lies with the People and people go to the polls to impose their power.” When asked if the EuroCouncil interferes, Schulz claimed “that we need a strong majority in parliament” to advocate for the people and Europe as a whole, not just governments. His commitment was to become President of all Europeans through election rather than a closed doors election by member states. All candidates did more than demonstrate their qualifications. They expressed their independence with a desire to work towards common positions on important issues.
Whether on fiscal and banking unions, federalism, united foreign policy, Europe has to grapple with the need to balance states’ interest with those of a popularly legitimized Presidency. While Euroscepticism was not addressed directly here, we will pursue it in a future publication, as it deals with with the more personal anxieties of Europeans and the emergence of more volatile local politics surrounding EU integration. Guy Verhofstadt claimed the current EU fulfills the dream of a past president, Jacque Delors, who saw the institution as a future voice of Europe. His closing remarks give tribute to Delors and the spirit of this unique movement:
“I think that what we need to understand that instead of the old recipes we have for the last five years, lets try a new Europe, one that is integrating more. I have one name for that, and it is Jacque Delors.”
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