Maastricht debate muddles choice for voters, clarifies options for others

What will the next five years look like for the EU? Five European Commission President hopefuls tried to outline their plans and ideas in a debate in Maastricht this week. Here it became clear that following the European Parliament elections on 23rd -26th May, the Christian Democratic European People’s Party (EPP) are going to have to make a crucial choice for the future of the EU.

Speakers at the debate included Frans Timmermans, representing the Party of European Socialists (PES), Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ECR) candidate Jan Zahradil, Guy Verhofstad, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), Bas Eickhout from the Greens, and Violeta Tomić, representing the Party of the European Left. Despite being the debate’s big no-show, Manfred Weber, the EPP’s lead candidate to become the next President of the European Commission, was there in spirit.

Debating digitalisation, sustainability and the future of the EU, it soon became clear that the social democrats, the liberals and the greens were relatively aligned on their views, advocating mostly pro-European and progressive ideas. Zahradil, the only conservative in the room, was the odd one out, as the only speaker to emphasise the need to limit the EU’s legislative remit, for instance on digital tax, and to oppose the recent climate change protests. One thing everyone did agree on was the importance of having a gender balance in the next College of European Commissioners.

Attempting to differentiate his party from the other centre candidates, Bas Eickhout attacked the liberals for voting in favour of restarting trade negotiations with the US, after its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Verhofstadt quickly rebuffed this by promising to no no-longer support trade talks unless the Paris goals are respected.  Timmermans, meanwhile, highlighted that the EPP is way behind on climate change and reached out to the liberals to work together with the other left parties to deliver on green policies. He also called on people to “go vote green”, much to the amusement and appreciation of Eickhout.

While for voters the main differences between the centre parties may not be terribly clear, the EPP will be keeping a close eye on the coalitions that are being built in its absence. Indeed, the EPP is projected to retain its position as the biggest group in the European Parliament and therefore stands a chance of delivering the next President of the European Commission (possibly Manfred Weber if EU leaders agree). Their conservative friends, the ECR, on the other hand, may well lose their place as the third biggest group to the liberals, who will then follow the social democrats in second place. With the extremist parties also expected to gain many seats, the dynamics of the European Parliament will likely change, making it potentially more complicated for the Christian Democrats to forge a coalition.

Green Bas Eickhout plainly laid it out to Manfred Weber in the debate: “Is he going to build a majority with the progressive parties that really want a different Europe… or is he going to [be] … working more and more with the right?” The first option may seem more appealing but might also cause a backlash from EPP members such as Hungary’s conservative Fidesz party. The second option has already been tested by EPP members in national governments, showing that the alliances with far-right parties can be quite strenuous.

The lead candidates of the six parties will hold a debate in Brussels on 15th May. Maybe more light will be shed there on the EPP’s views and what to expect from the EU over the next five years.