The five major candidates elected by their respective European parties to become the next president of the European Commission are debating today in a (mostly) English-language debate on the future of the European Union.
It’s jarring enough that a debate among two Germans, a Greek, a Luxembourger and a Belgian on the future of Europe is taking place officially in English. I’ll have some more thoughts in the coming days on the contest among the European Commission presidential contest.
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For now, as I watch the debate, the candidate with the most energy is former almost certainly former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. He’s the candidate of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE), currently the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament, and comprised of many of Europe’s economically and socially liberal parties.
Verhofstadt, who belongs to the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD, Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten), served as Belgium’s prime minister from 1999 to 2008, and he’s more responsible for orienting Belgium toward a Thatcherite economic orientation than just about anyone else in the past four decades in that country (Belgium will also hold its national elections on May 25, the same day as most countries will vote in the European parliamentary elections).
He’s also the candidate with the best tie, hands-down. Can you imagine a US presidential candidate wearing such a fashion-forward tie on the campaign trail, let alone a presidential debate?
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that Verhofstadt is the candidate who have been in power only a year ago and the center-right Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister and presidential candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), was the candidate who had been out of office for six years. It’s clear why Luxembourg last year, for the first time in decades, turned away from Juncker and toward a new government.
What’s most clear from the debate is that neither Juncker nor the candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES), German social democrat Martin Schulz, can channel the same kind of populist appeal that Verhofstadt can. Frankly, it’s rare to hear someone like Verhofstadt channel real energy and passion in favor of the European project — be it a common immigration policy or banking policy or data privacy or whatever.
The discussion on the potential EU membership of a newly independent Scotland or Catalonia is a case in point. Schulz and Juncker cautiously talked about respecting constitutions and national processes, and noted that there’s no blueprint for the technical role of the EU. Verhofstadt, however, called out the outgoing Commission president José Manuel Barroso for his negative remarks that have been interpreted in some circles as unduly taking sides with UK and Spanish unionists and against Scottish and Catalan nationalists. Barroso has cautioned Scottish and Catalan leaders often that they won’t be eligible for automatic re-admission to the European Union — and he’s also warned that their membership candidacies will be difficult.
Given the role that the European Council will play in proposing a candidate, and given the near-certainty that no bloc will win an absolute majority of seats in the European Parliament, it would not all be surprising to see EPP and ALDE form a coalition. Neither would it be surprising if Europe’s national leaders, sitting on the European Council, who trust and know Verhofstadt well, turn to him as a compromise candidate to become the next Commission president.