Maastricht Debates: What you might have missed

07 May 2024 /

5 min

The candidates were greeted with loud applause. However, a certain favouritism on the part of the audience could be felt throughout the debate. 

During this year’s Maastricht Debates, the European youth had a great opportunity to learn about the different positions of the Spitzenkandidaten regarding the future of Europe.

Climate change and European democracy, as well as foreign and security policy, were the main topics of discussion. Particularly the latter gained significance in light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and recent information from the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, that Iran is “weeks rather than months” away from having enough enriched uranium to develop a nuclear bomb. In addition, the arrest of the parliamentary assistant of the far-right German MEP Maximilian Krah on suspicion of spying for China, and the arrest of a Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka on suspicion of working for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), raised serious concerns about Chinese and Russian influence within the European Parliament and the Union as a whole. 

8 candidates representing various European political parties gathered in the Vrijthof theatre in Maastricht on Monday evening, the 29th of April, to discuss and defend their views on the future of Europe. The event was jointly organised by Studio Europa Maastricht and Politico. The candidates were accompanied by Politico journalist Barbara Moens, and the Dutch presenter and journalist Marcia Luyten.

The debates were unofficially referred to by Politico as “von der Leyen vs. everyone else”, as the current head of the Commission was recently seen as the only candidate with a real chance to secure the top position. Yet, her recent actions have caused much criticism not only from her opponents, but even from EPP members. The Maastricht debates were therefore seen as von der Leyen’s chance to prove that Europe needs her for another 5 years. 

The candidates were greeted with loud applause. However, a certain favouritism on the part of the audience could be felt throughout the debate. 

Bas Eickhout received the loudest ovation after his opening speech. The aim of the opening speeches was to describe the candidates’ concerns and visions for the future of Europe. Anders Vistisen, representing the far-right Identity and Democracy, decided to start his speech in an unusual way, calling Brussels a “swamp” and blaming the European bureaucracy as the source of all problems. “The first thing we will do is to fire Ursula” he said, pointing to von der Leyen standing next to him. 

He persisted in criticising the current European Commission President throughout his opening remarks. However, when he concluded, the applause from the audience was noticeably lower compared to that for Eickhout or even von der Leyen. It was as if he had not expected the audience to hold views so different from his own, and unfortunately for him, it was not the only moment during the evening when he was met with very modest applause or even silence. 

Throughout the discussion on climate, all candidates except Visitsen agreed on the importance of the Green Deal. However, Ursula von der Leyen had to face criticism from Bas Eickhout that there was still a long way to go to effectively tackle climate change while maintaining the competitiveness of the EU’s economy. Only Vistisen emphasised the importance of investing in innovation, and backtracked on the Green Deal. “It makes me really angry that we have to discuss at this round whether the Green Deal should be kept alive, and it is an insult to all these young people and also to me that some people on this stage say that climate protection is not needed,” European Free Alliance candidate Maylis Roßberg said in response to Vistisen’s remarks.

European Left candidate Walter Baier from the Austrian KPÖ received no applause for his position on security threats, where he proposed to negotiate a ceasefire in Ukraine as soon as possible, which technically means freezing the front line and leaving the occupied territories under Russian authority. “If you want to negotiate peace, tell Putin to stop attacking Ukraine,” Ursula von der Leyen replied. However, his question to the current president about when she would impose sanctions on Israel was met with loud applause from the audience. 

Throughout the debates, the problem of Russian and Chinese spies in European politics was raised by Ursula von der Leyen and Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the ALDE Spitzenkandidat, especially in the context of the German AfD party and the French Rassemblent National. Defending associated parties of the ID group, Vistisen reminded von der Leyen and Nicolas Schmit that it was German Social-democrats and Christian-democrats who had made the Union dependent on Russian gas and kept calling Putin a “decent guy to have business with”. In response, Ursula von der Leyen raised her hands and acknowledged that crucial mistakes have been made in the past.

During the debates on democracy in the European Union, the current President of the European Commission said that she would not form a coalition with those who don’t support Ukraine, don’t care about the climate and don’t respect the rule of law. Eickhout asked if she was ready to work with the European Conservatives and Reformists, whose members include Éric Zemmour, who called for France to get a “French Putin”, or with the Polish PiS party, whose previous government strained relations between Warsaw and Brussels over respect for the rule of law. “It depends on the composition of the Parliament,” replied von der Leyen. 

Her answer surprised not only the audience, but also the candidates of the party that supported the EPP in the election of von der Leyen in 2019: the Liberals and the Social Democrats. Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner in von der Leyen’s cabinet and top candidate of the Party of European Socialists, avoided criticising his current boss, but after von der Leyen’s comment on a possible coalition with the national conservatives, he had to remind her that ideology should not depend on the composition of the parliament. 

The statement by the President of the European Commission has sparked considerable speculation regarding its true implications. The announcement has already been framed by media outlets as signalling a willingness to work with far-right parties. While the current Italian Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, and her right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party appear to align with supporting Ukraine, maintaining the significance of addressing climate change, and upholding the rule of law, collaboration with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) means considering the perspectives of parties like Zemmour’s Reconquête or Poland’s PiS party. This strategic move could potentially lead to future challenges for von der Leyen, as it may attract criticism from Liberal and Social Democratic fractions, possibly affecting their support down the line.

At the end of the debates, the audience had the opportunity to vote for their favourite candidate: Bas Eickhout won with around 44%, and Ursula von der Leyen came in second with around 31%. Despite facing a lot of criticism from the other candidates, Ursula von der Leyen was able to face a warm moment of love from the youth by stepping down from the stage to talk and meet young voters. “You are my favourite candidate… after Mario Draghi, of course,” said one of the students, making von der Leyen laugh.

Maksym Valchuk is a Bachelor student at KU Leuven.

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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