Rivals for the top job in Brussels went head-to-head live on TV for the first time on euronews on Monday night.
The debate in Maastricht featured four main contenders for European Commission President, though the European Left candidate Alexis Tsipras declined to take part.
They clashed on the economy, and the EU’s influence and future direction.
Next month’s elections for the European Parliament are expected to see gains for eurosceptic and far-right parties.
The current president of the European Parliament is aware it could radically alter the makeup of the chamber.
“The problem in the European election is this tendency of citizens not to take the European elections serious(ly), and if they don’t take it serious(ly) we have more of such people in the European Parliament. For me as a German, it is unimaginable that a Nazi party could sit in the next European Parliament and once more make a propaganda for the ideology of Adolf Hitler,” Martin Schulz, European Socialist Party candidate, told the debate.
The debate came on the day the US imposed more targeted sanctions in protest at Russian action on Ukraine. The EU was expected to follow suit but has been accused of being too soft.
Jean Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party said:
“Those who are criticising Europe for having a too weak reaction, they do want to go for a war because that’s the alternative to sanctions… We have as a soft power to dialogue, and to put pressure on Russia.”
Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats called on the EU to do more to stand up to the Russian president.
“Putin shall not stop if he sees a weak European Union which is not capable to launch – I am not saying economic sanctions – but at least personal sanctions against the entourage of the people around Putin,” he said. “The Americans for example are tackling… the oligarchs. We have not the guts to tackle the oligarchs for the moment.”
The debate on Ukraine and Russia quickly led to a discussion about Europe’s reliance on Russian gas – and whether the EU is doing enough to develop alternative sources of energy.
“I absolutely think that we should restrict our energy dependency from Russia… and I think it’s a shame that the European Union budget exactly in this research – and also support for small and medium enterprises, exactly in the areas of renewables and energy efficiency – has been reduced by my dear colleagues here,” said Ska Keller, the European Green Party candidate.
Finally the four speakers were invited to sum up their vision of Europe’s future – and why they would make the best President of the European Commission.
Jean Claude Juncker, European People’s Party: “I would like to unite and to reunite Europe. I’m strongly against drawing new division lines throughout Europe, we have division lines enough. I’m against this European atmosphere, dividing Europe into the north, and the south, I have and we have to reunite Europe.”
Martin Schulz, European Socialist Party: “I want to give back to the Europeans justice and fairness, and to show that European institutions are there to care about their individual interests as ordinary citizens. I want a Europe of citizens, and not a Europe of banks and (speculators).”
Guy Verhofstadt, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats: “I think what we need is a new leadership in Europe. A new leadership that is breaking away from the old recipes of the conservatives and socialists – conservatives who are mainly defending the status quo and socialists who think that with new debts they can emerge from the crisis, what (the debts) is simply the origin of the crisis.”
Ska Keller, European Green Party: “We greens, we want to propose a Europe that cares about the people – that is not only a Europe of the single market, that is not a Europe of the big business, but that is a Europe which cares about the social rights of people.”
As before, the new European Commission President will not be directly elected. But under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council – the heads of state and government – will have to “take into account” the result of elections to the parliament when making their choice.