On 15 May, six candidates for the European Commission presidency debated for one hour and a half in front of a live audience in the Parliamentary plenary chambers in Brussels. The debate touched upon climate, migration, trade, and economics. Regrettably, digital did not seem to be a priority for the candidates as they mainly focused on other topics. However, when discussing corporate taxes, the candidate of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Frans Timmermans joked about Amazon’s virtual assistant and declared: “We should keep asking ‘Alexa, Amazon when are you going to start paying taxes?’“.
Frans Timmermans as a coalition-builder
Besides Timmermans’ intended puns (he also mentioned Brexit by comparing the United Kingdom to “Game of Thrones on steroids”), the Socialist spitzenkandidat used the debate as an opportunity to call for a left-wing coalition from far-left, greens and liberals. He asserted that “an alliance going from [Greek prime minister Alexis] Tsipras to [French president Emmanuel] Macron” was possible and needed to make climate crisis a priority for the next Commission. According to him, Greens nominee Ska Keller and European Left’s Nico Cué should consequently join the Socialists to form a progressive alliance.
Targeting Manfred Weber
The German nominee of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) had to handle many attacks from his fellow candidates as he sought to ease some of the doubts about his lack of previous executive experience. Also, he found himself in an uncomfortable position as he tried to defend existing Commission proposals and EPP policies (like adding 10.000 staff to the EU’s border and coast guard) while calling for the opening of “the next chapter” for the new EU executive. Challenged by Frans Timmermans over the Socialist candidate’s proposal on Europe-wide minimum wages and Portugal economic plans, Manfred Weber declared: “They are not asking about minimum wages. The young generation is asking for jobs, good paying jobs. That’s why we need a good economic policy to create jobs”.
The cautious Commissioner
Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, one of the most popular candidates, was cautious in her first debate as ADLE candidate. She stayed away from concrete proposals, or heated exchanges with fellow candidates, only challenging Manfred Weber by telling him he could not claim credit for the EPP for the Commission’s efforts as Commissioners are not party politicians but work together. Vestager steered clear from naming and shaming Member States as tax havens, earning applause by saying that “a tax haven for me is a place where everyone pays their taxes”.
A conservative opposition
With no candidates from the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) as well as from the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), Jan Zahradil, the nominee of the European Conservatives and Reformists party (ECR), endorsed the role of the right-wing candidate. He often outflanked Weber to the right, criticized the “outdated scheme of an ever-closer Union” and instead called for an “EU which is scaled back, which is flexible, which is decentralized.” He eventually said asylum and taxation policies should remain with Member States and wished for a European Commission “which respects national governments and cooperates with them, which doesn’t fight them, doesn’t patronize them, doesn’t lecture them”.
Based on projections of the EU parliament, the ‘progressive’ coalition as wanted by Frans Timmermans (Socialists, Greens and the far-left) would hold in total 328 seats, not enough for a majority in the 751-member parliament, although the liberal group is likely to be bigger than expected with Macron’s En Marche party coming onboard. This leads some analysts to conclude that, in the end, the center-left and center-right will have to reach an accommodation.