In the lead-up to televised debates, our secret columnist in Brussels Schadenfreude provides a summary of the achievements and failures of the candidates
Four candidates for the post of president of the European Commission will soon oppose each other in a series of televised debates. Schadenfreude has been looking at the CVs of the four possible successors to José Manuel Barroso. His antenna tells him that the likely winner of the election is Jean-Claude Juncker, in light of his varied experience of all things European Union. But Policy Review is placing and taking no bets. Democracy is a funny thing.
The names will probably mean nothing to most readers. No problem. All but one will soon be out of the public eye. The European Peoples Party – right-wing groups – are backing Juncker. Aged 59, Juncker is a Luxemburger with a long career of political service. He was prime minister of Luxemburg from 1955 to 2013, holding the European record for his length of time as a head of government.
Pocket-sized Luxemburg has traditionally been an active champion of European co-operation. It was in monetary union with Belgium from 1927 until both parties became founder members of the eurozone. Luxembourg was a member of the Benelux Economic Union from 1958 to 2008, when that body was renamed the Benelux Union. It was one of the six who composed the European Economic Community.
Juncker was also president of the Eurogroup from 2005 to 2013, having had first hand involvement in EEC matters as his country’s finance minister. In 2013, the Luxembourg government resigned in the wake of a scandal involving illegal wire-tapping conducted by the country’s intelligence service. Juncker would bring to the commission presidency his long years of ministerial involvement in the work of the EU and his understanding of and support for economic integration. These qualifications may, however, count against his candidacy in what is likely to be an enlarged anti-EU faction in the next European Parliament.
Martin Schulz, born in 1956, is the candidate supported by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. He is currently president of the EP. Schulz was elected to the European Parliament in 1994, following an active career in the politics of North Rhine Westphalia where he was the youngest mayor in the land.
In 2013, he strongly supported in the EP a proposal brought forward by Baroness Catherine Ashton – the European Council’s high representative for defence and security policy – with the aim of setting up a European Air Force tasked to survey conditions in troubled areas. The proposal has not made the running. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has spoken against it.
Schulz has been at the centre of two well-reported incidents in the European Parliament. He interrupted a speech by Silvio Berlusconi by telling him that he would nominate him as a “capo” – the leader of the inmates of a Nazi concentration camp. And he accused Godfrey Bloom, a former UKIP member of the EP, of being an “undemocratic fascist”. Bloom has opposed Britain’s foreign aid on the present scale. Schulz also led the move to reject the list originally proposed for the present commission, demanding a new nomination. He can count on support among the old hands of the EP but the biter may be bit.
Guy Verhofstadt, born in 1953, is the leader of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament. In 1985, he was deputy prime minister. His youth and strong free-market views earned him the nickname ‘baby Thatcher’. His Flemish- based Liberal party lost support in the early 1990s and Verhofstadt withdrew from public life until returning to power as prime minister in 1999, and again in 2003.
In 2004, he was nominated as president of the next European Commission but lost out in the European Council, where he was opposed by among others then United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2007, Belgium was plunged into political confusion and Verhofstadt – having lost power – was invited to head up an unelected interim government in order to secure the passage of a budget. He was elected as an MEP in 2009.
In an election interview he said that one of his objectives, if appointed president of the commission would be to restore the body’s authority and transform it from being not much more than a “secretariat of the Council of Ministers”. This may count against him in the European Council. Verhofstadt’s European credentials are impeccable but Belgian politics is a world of its own
Ska Keller is 32 years old and German. In the European Parliament, she represents the Federation of Young European Greens and leads the Alliance 90/The Greens. Keller is a vociferous spokesperson on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. Her slogan is that she “puts people before frontiers”. Her candidacy is sincere but she is generally considered unlikely to win the commission presidency. She shares her nomination by the Greens with José Bové.
Bové, aged 61, is a French ecologist who is a member of the European Parliament’s Group of Greens. He is a member of the EP Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and of the Committee on International Trade. His joint candidacy, sharing the nomination with Keller, addresses the importance of saving the planet from ecological disaster. Some critics say opinion is divided on whether earth is in deep trouble but the scientific consensus would seem to be on the side of the Greens.
So as EU politics steps into a new arena whereby candidates battle each other in front of TV cameras for the benefit of European citizens, one question remains on everybody’s lips. Will anyone one bother to watch beyond those in the Brussels Bubble, who are already fully engaged in the policy issues? Sadly, we fear the answer is ‘probably not’.