The British government confirmed on 7 May that the UK will participate in the forthcoming EU elections. Though Downing Street hopes Brexit will be sorted before MEPs have to sit, Britain will take part in electing the next president of the European Commission in November.
But nothing is certain in the run-up to replacing Jean-Claude Juncker. The process so far has been confusing. The two main European parties, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES), have named relatively unknown lead candidates, respectively the German politician Manfred Weber and Dutch Frans Timmermans.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has ditched the “Spitzenkandidaten” (German for “lead candidates”) process altogether, instead announcing a team of 7 main candidates and a new alliance called “Renaissance” with French president Macron’s list (more on his own disastrous campaign here).
And yet perhaps none of these names matter: Juncker’s successor might well be someone else. The EU Council is expected to name the lead candidate of the party winning the most votes at the EU elections in May, which MEPs then validate, but many are calling to do away with this process altogether. The name of Michel Barnier is buzzing in Brussels, despite his unfinished Brexit business. Although Barnier has not confirmed whether he intends to run, the Brexit negotiator has been meeting with European leaders in what some have termed a “shadow campaign”.
Nonetheless, on 2 May, Manfred Weber of the right-wing PPE, Frans Timmermans of the PES, Guy Verhofstadt of the ALDE Liberals and Ska Keller of the Greens, four of the “Spitzenkandidaten”, debated the future of the European Union at the annual State of the Union event in Florence.
At the Salviati Villa, nestled between hills of pine trees and scenic views of the Tuscan city, the four candidates discussed their parties’ plans for migration, security, foreign policy, social and economic policies and climate. They addressed the growing support for populist candidates in Europe, who are expected to attract voters in the European elections later this month, and warned that EU states must collectively take action on climate change (though the candidates refrained from laying out a specific plan).
The event was the first to reunite the two “main” candidates of the PES and the EPP, as Weber was absent from the first debate in Maastricht. Weber, considered the front-runner for European Commission president despite an unconventional policy slate – he has made “a European fight against cancer” one of his main campaign pledges – delivered a defence that was somewhat dull in comparison with the other three’s attacks.
His opponents quizzed him on the EPP’s unpopular compromise to suspend Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn from the party instead of banning him outright. (Orbàn himself helpfully said of the debate: “I believe none of the candidates are up to the challenge”. So much for keeping him in the EPP.)
The Greens’ Ska Keller, the only female candidate and most radical participant on the panel, is an interesting candidate but an unlikely winner. Referring to EU migration, she reminded the audience that “we know where the boats are, and we are not helping them”. Keller warned that “the poor will be hit hardest by climate change”, and quipped in response to Weber’s support for a European army that while she dreams of new European projects, military expansion doesn’t fall into this category.
The Liberals’ Guy Verhofstadt, meanwhile, agreed with Weber’s embrace of a European army. Known in the UK as the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, and in Brussels as the “Hof”, Verhofstadt stressed that the EU is “late on tech” and needs a single digital market.
Frans Timmermans sounded more statesman-like than the other three. He focussed on taxing technology platforms and making Europe work “for the many, not the few”. This populist reach may serve him well later in the elections, as he will require votes from left-wing MEPs, many of which the UK Labour party could provide.
Timmermans later told the New Statesman that he uses the Corbynite line “quite a lot, because I like it so much… it’s poetry!. He added that the Party of European Socialists want Britain to stay in the EU “because we like them” and not because of the “misguided” idea that the Labour party’s support could help win the Commission leadership.
Aside from this fleeting mention, the two-day conference was relatively Brexit-free. Legend has it that Villa Salviati, where the debate was held, is home to the angry ghost of a female ancestor who murdered her husband’s mistress and can still be heard at night screaming insults in Tuscan dialect. The spectre of Brexit is expected to return to Brussels very soon, and Europe is now set to haunt the UK, as it participates, however half-heartedly, in the crucial May elections.