European election ‘leaders’ debate likely to be less politically tense than Eurovision

Rivals in election debate will be looking to land a blow on Ursula von der Leyen

When senior EU politicians face off against each other during the main debate of the EU elections on Thursday afternoon, the atmosphere will probably be somehow less politically charged than the Eurovision in Malmo a fortnight before.

The official debate is organised by the European Broadcasting Union, which also runs the annual song contest, overshadowed this year by disputes and infighting over the presence of Israel in the competition in light of its ongoing war in Gaza.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will be the most — and for many voters the only — recognisable face on the debate stage. She is the lead candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right grouping that includes Fine Gael, which is expected to remain the biggest force in the European Parliament when the votes are counted after June 9th. Von der Leyen will be joined by four rivals, most of whom will be looking to score a decent hit on the commission president to package into a viral social media clip afterwards.

The current EU commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, will be there for the centre-left group the Socialists and Democrats

Terry Reintke, the 37-year-old MEP from Germany, is the European Greens candidate in the debate. Reintke, who spent a summer in Dublin learning English as a teenager, is seen as an asset for the Greens electorally. However, they are widely predicted to lose a significant chunk of their seats.

The current EU commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, will be there for the centre-left group the Socialists and Democrats (S&D). A former minister for labour in Luxembourg, Schmit was largely an absent presence in a previous joint election debate late last month. As a commission colleague of Von der Leyen’s, he is somewhat limited in how far he can go in criticising his boss and has so far avoided doing so directly.

Sandro Gozi, an Italian politician who later became an MEP in France, representing the centrist Renew group, which counts Fianna Fáil among its members. It is expected to be the other grouping that loses seats next month. The European Left has put forward Walter Baier, a past chairman of the Communist Party of Austria, to argue its corner.

Topics expected to dominate the debate on Thursday include defence and Ukraine war, environmental policies, the state of the European economy, and migration policy. Those on the stage are the lead candidates of their respective political groupings, known as the “spitzenkandidat”, or in the case of the Greens and Renew one of two and three co-lead candidates.

The spitzenkandidat system is a means of the European Parliament trying to exert influence over who the national leaders of member states nominate for the top EU job

There has been some controversy in the run-up to the debate about who is allowed to participate. The hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) groups have not subscribed to the idea of lead candidates, and so the EBU has said they cannot take part.

The spitzenkandidat system is a means of the European Parliament trying to exert influence over who the national leaders of member states nominate for the top EU job. The idea is that the lead candidate of the largest political group after the election would be put forward to become the next commission president.

That was not what happened five years ago when the EPP’s lead candidate was Manfred Weber, the somewhat polarising German MEP. Despite the group winning the most seats in parliament, Weber’s bid to become commission president was unceremoniously torpedoed by the national leaders, who instead opted to tap Von der Leyen for the role.

The far right is predicted to be a much bigger force in the next parliament, narrowing the current governing majority made up of the EPP, Renew and the Socialists & Democrats

Now Von der Leyen is running for a second term as head of the commission, this time as the EPP’s lead candidate. While it is still expected she will be backed by national leaders, she will face a tougher time building a coalition of MEPs to confirm her reappointment.

The far right is predicted to be a much bigger force in the next parliament, narrowing the current governing majority made up of the EPP, Renew and the Socialists & Democrats. During the debate, Von der Leyen will likely come under pressure to rule out turning to the ECR, which includes Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice party.

Observers have downplayed such a scenario happening, given any serious attempt to rely on the hard right to cobble together a majority to secure Von der Leyen’s re-election as commission president could result in a collapse of support from MEPs in the centre and centre-left.

The election debate starts at 2pm Irish time and can be watched online here.

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