Candidates in the race to replace Jean-Claude Juncker clashed over jobs, climate change and how to fix the European Union at a special debate in Brussels on Wednesday night.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party and among the highest-profile figures vying to become the next European Commission president, praised Juncker and set out a plan to bring economic "responsibility" and stability across the bloc.
But an impassioned Frans Timmermans, leader of the Party of European Socialists, said that nothing less than a Europe-wide minimum wage would create economic growth.
To huge cheers from the audience, he also called for the Erasmus scheme to be expanded to every young in person in Europe.
Nico Cue, head of the European Left grouping, said the EPP and partners had failed to fix youth unemployment despite years in power. "We have to put an end to precarious work, get back to proper labour contracts and not just zero hours ... and we need a minimum wage worth getting up for in the morning," he said.
'Doing less, but better'
Jan Zahradil, chief of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, said the EU should step back and allow businesses to create jobs.
He said outgoing Juncker's "old and outdated scheme of (an) ever-closer union" was over and proposed an EU that was "scaled-back, flexible, decentralised and which respects all its members, big or small."
Brussels should be "doing less, but better," he said.
Ska Keller of European Green Party said austerity was “a big mistake” and “a blow to that European promise that we would be jointly creating prosperity.”
No compromise on climate
She also challenged other candidates who proposed longer timescales in reducing carbon emissions. “We cannot compromise with the climate and say ‘wait a bit’,” Keller said. “We know the things we need to do, we just need to do them but other groups have voted against this progress.”
Margrethe Vestager, of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, said Europe’s priority should be forcing companies such as Amazon to pay their fair share of tax. “For me, a tax haven is a place where everyone pays their taxes,” she said.
Vestager also called for the EU to be "more hard-nosed" in its trade deals to reflect Europe's status as the world's largest economic bloc.
However, Keller said free trade should not come at any cost.
"We need to watch out," she said. "If we just extract raw materials from other countries it is not good for a global system of development. We should be careful what trade is done and for what aim."
The panel included: Nico Cue (European Left); Ska Keller (European Green Party); Jan Zahradil (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe); Margrethe Vestager (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe); Manfred Weber (European People’s Party) and Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists).
You can watch the full debate here:
Before the debate, Euronews spoke to each of the candidates directly. You can explore what they told us, below.
Frans Timmermans (Party of European Socialists)
Timmermans, the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES), believes we need to improve and adapt the EU to the challenges it faces and will face in the future.
He told Euronews we need to defend European values such as women's rights, adding he thinks other world powers are trying to impose their beliefs upon Europe through commercial measures to weaken the bloc politically.
Ska Keller (European Green Party)
Keller, the European Greens' frontrunner, criticised the misrepresentation of people in the European Parliament. She explained that the parliament is mostly populated by men in their fifties or older, which does not reflect our society and she thinks everybody should be represented. The Greens' politician wants to represent young people and listen to their needs and opinions in her work.
Violeta Tomic (European Left)
In the European Left's (EL) manifesto, it's clear that the party wants the EU to fight neo-liberalism and to tackle topics such as globalisation, world peace, democracy and social justice, gender equality and promote a self-determined life of people with disabilities. Nico Cue will represent EL in Wednesday's debate.
President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE group) Verhofstadt told Euronews he wants to defend democracy and equality at a time of rising nationalism, which he sees as threatening Europe's fundamental values. He wants to combat gender inequality, gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Margrethe Vestager will represent ALDE in Wednesday's debate.
An eager rock fan, Zahradil, 56, compared the bloc to a "broken record" and has made "let's retune the EU" the cornerstone of his election campaign.