Well, we know that the candidates to be the next European Commission President are, at least, united on #BringBackOurGirls.
That much was evident in the final moments of the May 15 live television debate, as each of the five major candidates – Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party, Martin Schulz of the Party of European Socialists, Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, Ska Keller of the European Greens and Alexis Tsipras of the European Left – dutifully held up their placards in unison in solidarity with what was become a global cause.
But, in the 90 minutes of debate, much else about fissures in the the debate about Europe, or more specifically, the European Union, was as apparent as some of the bids by the candidates to play to their respective domestic crowds (the reference by Tsipras to the controversy unleashed in Greece by the Financial Times report, for example).
Anyone who might have argued 20 years ago that the ideological debates of Europe were over had ample evidence that, in reality, they are not.
This much emerged, time and again, not only in the the questions over the path remaining out of the economic crisis, but also on foreign policy (read: Ukraine and Russia).
There seemed to be also, a symbolic division, between a Europe of world-weary experience, of the art of compromise and a memory of negotiations (Juncker) and the enthusiastic, idealistic if painfully vague younger Europe (Keller).
Juncker’s Europe is one of being mindful of debt, of cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth, while the Europe of Verhofstadt is one of the bold opportunity intrinsic to the bloc’s numbers (after the economy debate, he enthused that the idea of Europe should be defended not only solely on the basis of the peace it maintains, but the potential for job creation and innovation that it creates).
Tsipras, the man fighting three election contests (his own, the Greek local elections and the Greek European Parliament elections) seemed ready to ransack the vaults for the sake of everyone, “stop the austerity,” he hammered, early on. He spoke of a European New Deal, but with the pace of proceedings through the torrent of questions, we never quite heard what this meant.
Verhofstadt deployed his telling point against the other parties – that the old recipes (read, the solutions advocated by the EPP and PES) had been used and had not nourished Europe.
Schulz, the German who was the most American in the gladiatorial arena of live television political debates and arguably the best at cramming in his point-per-second ratio, three times managed to highlight his talking point about the need to act against tax evasion. That is once more than Green Keller managed to mention climate change, a rather poor show for someone who otherwise, in policy terms, seemed to have little in the way of policy to distinguish her from Juncker or Schulz.
The foreign policy issues preoccupying Europe got proportionately little, say 10 minutes, of the whole.
Verhofstadt, the liberal, came across as the most hawkish, reading out a letter sent to him and the other candidates by Garry Kasparov, challenging them that if they failed on Ukraine, what is their EU worth? Strong, personal, credible sanctions against the people close to Putin – something that the Russian president “would understand” was the Verhofstadt recipe.
But Tsipras seemed to be of the opposite end of the spectrum, of the softly-softly approach of his country’s neighbour Bulgaria, of no “Cold War language”, of opposition to sanctions, of dialogue. (“Pass the borscht, Mr Putin, and do tell us which bit of Eastern Europe tempts you next”).
Juncker and Schulz agreed, in differing phrasing, on one point: Europe wants no war. No revelation there, and it is not as if any candidate did. There was a realpolitik in the face of Schulz as he spoke of the possibility of stepped-up sanctions against a future recalcitrant Russia, with the realisation that it could never come to anything more than that.
On refugees, Verhofstadt wanted a common European policy, a legal and economic one, and plaintively he noted that the United States, Canada and Australia had coherent policies but Europe, none.
He also, whether one agrees with him or not, was the most coherent on the issue of the display of religious symbols, arguing for an EU-level policy, part of the defence of the fundamental freedoms meant to be held dear by Europe, such as freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Schulz was next in line in the coherence stakes, arguing that private expression of religion and public spaces (“which should be neutral”) were two quite different things.
In that part of the debate, other arguments were hard to follow, which is a polite way of saying that they were rife with internal contradictions.
Their visions, towards the close, also ranged from the vague to the specific.
For Juncker, a Europe that gets past the old divisions – north and south, old and new; for Keller, a Europe that focuses the debate on jobs, social problems and climate change; for Verhofstadt, a Europe that needs leadership, and his three priorities “jobs, jobs and jobs”; for Tsipras, a Europe that belongs to its people, and for Schulz, a Europe that opens its doors and windows to allow everyone to see who is doing what.
Quite who will get the chance to implement, or try to, his or her vision will become clearer after European Parliament election results are announced on the night of May 25, and then in the political dealings ahead of the July 14-17 election of the next European Commission President.
For now, all that is left is the tweets (including one from Bulgaria challenging Schulz on his PES party leader Sergei Stanishev attending events where hammer-and-sickles are flown and an EU flag subsequently was burnt) – tweets adding up to 63 000, meaning that the EC President debate posed no challenge to the Miley Cyrus twerking record many times that; and, of course, the polls to decide just who won the debate.
Pending the casting of ballots, for now.