Making Europe Visible: Why the European elections need a Spitzenkandidaten TV debate during prime time

, by Marie Menke, translated by Bastian De Monte

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Making Europe Visible: Why the European elections need a Spitzenkandidaten TV debate during prime time
A TV debate is an easy way to figure out which party best reflects your own views. Photo: CC0

It’s election time this May. But the candidates standing in these elections remain unknown to many citizens. JEF Germany started the campaign #EuropaMachen for a better European Union. The New Federalist and its German sister edition Treffpunkt Europa look at their demands.

Today’s topic: a European Spitzenkandidaten TV debate during prime time! The Maastricht Debate YouTube live stream had fewer than 200,000 viewers – a poor result. Proponents argue such a more prominent debate will help citizens make informed decisions, critics consider it an inappropriate format.

What’s it all about?

The Members of the European Parliament are not sitting together with their fellow nationals but form political groups: That means that it’s not Germans next to Germans, but Conservatives next to Conservatives, Social Democrats next to Social Democrats, etc. Most of these groups have nominated lead candidates: the so-called Spitzenkandidat of the political group to come out first in the elections is then meant to become Commission President. Last time in 2014, the European People’s Party won the biggest share of votes and its Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker became head of the European Commission.

The Spitzenkandidaten are widely unknown faces to many, however. In order for them to gain some attraction and for citizens to actually know who they are voting for, there are several debates on TV. JEF argues that this should happen during prime time!

What do critics say?

Some critics simply don’t deem the European elections important enough to be covered by the big broadcasters – especially not during prime time when you could also air new episodes of popular TV shows.

Others criticise the format: They say it’s not Spitzenkandidaten who should get media attention but the candidates in the respective electoral district. They argue that such a TV debate works in countries like the US or the UK with two-party systems. As there is much more competition in the European elections, sceptics think it is impossible to give everyone the chance to speak and that such a debate would only reinforce the position of bigger parties, making it harder for smaller parties to attract voters.

What do supporters say?

Those supportive of the idea say it is feasible: All parties which successfully ran for an EP seat the last time should send a candidate to the debate. On a different note, such a debate, they argue, would also underline the European character of these elections: Usually, citizens can only vote for candidates in their own country. A German voter (in Germany) cannot vote for a Romanian candidate, for instance. The last elections in 2014, however, saw two Spitzenkandidaten from two different countries heading the biggest parties – Martin Schulz from Germany and Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg. A TV debate would emphasise that the elections are indeed a cross-border vote which should represent citizens.

Moreover, proponents remind of the public broadcasters’ educational mandate. It is their task to inform citizens appropriately for them to take a well-informed decision. A TV debate is thereby a good chance to get to know the candidates’ positions. And after all, such formats are pretty common for national elections.

What’s your opinion?

Annika Klein
Chief Translator at Treffpunkt Europa
“We experience Europe every single day, for example, when we drink French wine, go on holiday in Italy, or have a nice chat with Erasmus students from Poland. European politics, however, is pretty theoretical and abstract for many people, even though it’s us citizens who constitute this Europe. We all have a voice we should use if we want to have a say over what kind of Europe we want. To strengthen this, we need to make Europe more visible – for example by airing a European TV debate during prime time.”

“Unfortunately, there’s not much publicity for the European elections – in Germany, for instance, the parties are not really canvassing. We want to change that. For European elections, it should be clear and visible that the elected candidates are European deputies. And yes, there’s the lead candidates but they’re not really known. Any debate between these Spitzenkandidaten, where citizens can get to know their positions, should air on TV – also in Germany – and indeed at prime time!”
Laura Wanner
Vice-President JEF Germany

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