#EurovisionDebate was EU democracy in action – now let’s not let governments spoil this

, by Juuso Järviniemi

#EurovisionDebate was EU democracy in action – now let's not let governments spoil this
The debate took place in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

The Eurovision debate, aired live from the European Parliament in Brussels, marked the biggest night in the 2019 Spitzenkandidaten race between political parties’ candidates for European Commission presidency. In other words, what we saw on Wednesday night was probably the biggest embodiment of genuine pan-European debate between 2014 and 2024.

The night represented progress in achieving a Europe of citizens – but not everyone wants to let the people decide who should lead the EU. European citizens must next stand up to attempts at backroom deals by national governments and fight for the principle of public debates between President hopefuls.

According to the European Broadcasting Union, Wednesday’s debate was broadcast in 22 countries. Additionally, various web broadcasts were offered. Not all of the 22 countries had the debate on their main channel; nonetheless, the list of broadcasters for the debate is reasonably impressive. Moreover, as was highlighted by the hosts, the #TellEurope hashtag trended in various countries during the night.

It’s hard to expect average viewership figures to have reached the levels of national-level debates, the three hosts may have been somewhat maladroit (as far as spectacles go, Politico Europe’s Maastricht Debate did a better job), and the European Parliament’s YouTube live stream embarrassingly only began working halfway into the debate. However, one can be reasonably content with the European public sphere that was created around this debate. If only it were like this more often than once every five years!

Pro-European consensus in evidence

As for the debate itself, the candidates were mainly on the same lines, with the exception of the GUE’s leftist Nico Cué and the ECR’s anti-federalist Jan Zahradil who visibly provided distinctive visions of Europe. According to the candidates’ speeches, the mainstream parties were in agreement on policies like digital taxation, climate action and unity in foreign policy – they just differ on the means and on the modalities. Left-right divisions were not too hard to discern, however: it’s not surprising that Nico Cué called for a European minimum wage and that the Social Democrat Frans Timmermans proposed a minimum rate for corporate taxation, while the EPP’s centre-right Manfred Weber highlighted strengthening the Single Market and openness to trade.

While the liberal ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager and the Greens’ Ska Keller delivered a solid performance, the most memorable of the candidates was Frans Timmermans. Well-known as a charismatic speaker, Timmermans hit home punchy lines like ‘Alexa, when are Amazon going to start paying taxes’, and calling the Brexit-ridden UK ‘like Game of Thrones on steroids’. Of the candidates, it also was Timmermans who, very concretely, made his voice heard the loudest, while avoiding appearing shouty.

After a slow start of twenty or thirty minutes, the challenges candidates threw at each other enabled them to genuinely challenge each other on their records and ideas. Ska Keller’s challenge on why Manfred Weber’s EPP voted against reforming the EU’s emission trading scheme, and Weber’s takedown of Jan Zahradil through citing EU disunion on Venezuela as an example of why qualified majority voting on foreign policy is needed, were just a couple of examples of true political debate witnessed in Brussels.

If the debate seemed to bounce quickly from one subject to another, one explanation is the fact that the televised Spitzenkandidaten debate was such a rare occasion. When you have an hour and a half every five years, you naturally cram in as much as possible. Moreover, the more this pan-European style of debating becomes a norm, the less time the hosts need to spend on justifying the existence of the debate by repeating the numbers of online viewers and tweets.

Next up: Let’s defend our right to decide

Compared to any election debate between national-level candidates, the Eurovision debate was eminently worthy of TV airtime. The debate never strayed away from substance, it was not at all too complicated for a non-expert citizen to follow, and it brought new faces to Europeans’ TV screens. Building on Wednesday night’s debate, Europe needs more of this.

The irony is that less than two weeks after the debate that brought European democracy to citizens’ homes, national leaders will convene in a bid to snatch the power away from the people. Some national governments would prefer to sneer at the candidates who make a campaign and share their views with the public, instead pulling a new figure onto the throne from the shadows after the elections have been held.

Those who watched the debate on Wednesday and liked what they saw will soon need to defend their right to a sequel. Active citizens should stand in defence of the Spitzenkandidaten process that, through debates like Wednesday’s, has proven itself to be the most viable way to decide who should lead Europe.

The New Federalist is the web magazine of The Young European Federalists (JEF), a non-partisan youth NGO with over 13,000 members active in more than 35 countries. Founded in 1972, the organisation strives towards a federal Europe based on the principles of democracy, subsidiarity and rule of law. JEF promotes true European citizenship, and works towards more active participation of young people in democratic life. JEF is a transpartisan organisation and is not a political party: it is not running in the European elections but campaigns to make European citizens aware of the elections and their stakes.

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