Success: a genuine and worthy debate with conflicting ideas
By many standards, this second European debate was a success. Alexis Tsipras, candidate for the European Left Party, was present, unlike for the previous debate, which introduced more controversy and widened the political spectrum. The 5 candidates expressed their ideas in a detailed, articulate and enthusiastic way (particularly fro Guy Verhofstadt), in the clear politicised fashion that you would expect from a mature democracy. In addition, candidates had more time to structure their answers this time (one minute, against 30 seconds in the first debate), which allowed for much more substance – that was one of the criticisms of the first debate. Furthermore, the themes covered were much more numerous than last time: youth unemployment, austerity, banking regulation, benefits of EU membership, Ukraine crisis, Catalonia and Scotland separatisms, immigration, religious symbols, low turnout to European elections, corruption and lobbyists, unofficial EC candidates, and the “why should Europe vote for you?” question. Finally, there were more than 63,000 tweets during the debate, which is much more than the first one (around 40,000).
…But was this really what we wanted?
Despite all the above-mentioned aspects, one can wonder whether this debate actually missed a point, which the first debate captured well. Language, to start with: the standard European citizen can reasonably be expected to speak and understand a bit of English, but not English, French and Greek. Those who watched the debate on Euronews surely felt lucky that they suddenly had an opportunity to improve their Greek and French language skills, but perhaps this is not really what they were after. It is fair to let candidates speak in the language of their choice, but it can leave voters with a blunt feeling of misunderstanding and distance, which is exactly the opposite of the purpose of the debate.
Second, this debate was much less interactive than the first one, which is a pity. Why force candidates to answer questions to a journalist when in reality we want to see them address and attack one another? The purpose of this election is to put a human face on an institution. The first debate allowed candidates to show their personalities, so voters can know them better: at this stage of the campaign, the content is more a means to bring candidates closer to citizens. It is too much of a European habit to have hour-long technical debates between unknown people. The first debate took us far away from this old habit; the second debate brings us a few meters closer to it.
Finally, and more importantly, the big absents from this debate were European citizens themselves. Here, the contrast is stark: the first debate took place in a University in Maastricht, where students could stand up and directly ask questions, and people who asked questions through Twitter were named and singled out. The second debate took place in Brussels, in the European Parliament, with no direct questions from people but only from one journalist, and tweets were not individualised. Furthermore, and just like for the first debate, several mainstream public channels across Europe simply did not display the debate.
This online newspaper has long been arguing for a more closely integrated Europe, with a dynamic political structure worthy of a 21st Century democracy. From many points of views, this debate ticked such boxes: most candidates’ proposals were intelligent, well structured, dynamic and reflected clear set of values linked to their respective parties. They offered an actual vision for Europe – a skill that many national politicians lack. However, in order to come truly closer to European citizens, it needs to go down the road of interactive conflictual politics (1st debate) rather than a one-to-one polite Q&A with a journalist (2nd debate). Some might say this is just communication, but it is part of the game.