Will anyone vote for these two men?

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Will anyone vote for these two men?
Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker are the lead candidates for the biggest blocs in the EU Parliament. Photo: DPA

The more power the EU Parliament gains, the less interest voters have in it. The introduction of “top candidates” for parties in May’s elections is supposed to change this, but who is going to vote for them, asks Michael Wohlgemuth.


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The lead candidates representing the different political blocs in the EU Parliament are supposed to give the election a European-wide face.

The current parliament president, German Martin Schulz is the Socialists’ candidate and the Conservatives’ choice is former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Smaller parties are also getting in on the act. The Liberals have even named two lead candidates - former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and vice-president of the European Commission Olli Rehn, as have the Greens - MEPs Ska Keller and José Bové.

The choice for the European left is the Greek leader Alexis Tsipras.

But what does this mean for the election and voter turnout?

I expect we will only see the faces of these candidates on placards and billboards in their home countries where they are reasonably well-known and are also supported by their home party.

I do not think that Martin Schulz will smile down from posters of the Labour Party in Manchester.

And I do not think Conservatives in Athens will make a song and dance of Junker – a former president of the EU’s finance ministers (Eurogroup) – being their candidate.

Surreal debates

You can also look forward to the first pan-European broadcast TV debate among the top candidates. But how will this work?

Should all seven party groups be invited? What language should the debates be held in? Schulz, Juncker and Verhofstadt could hold a decent discussion in German but that would not go down well in France.

Stick to your own language and it becomes a battle of interpreters and thus hardly more exciting than a committee meeting of the European Parliament.

Fighting for what?

In Germany at least there is little difference between the top candidates. What would Schulz and Juncker argue about in front of a German audience?

They largely agree with each other. Both are equally supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel who govern together and shunned European issues in the German election campaign last September.

This is likely to lead to a low voter turnout and to an above-average performance of EU-critical parties who should gain more seats than ever this year.

Inflating the Brussels bubble

The discrepancy between the opinions of the European policy elite and the EU citizens also remains a problem. Almost all of the leading candidates belong to the elite of the "Brussels bubble".

Almost all will campaign for strengthening the European Parliament, to give the EU more powers and to increase the EU budget.

That is now not only unpopular in Britain but also in France and even in parts of Germany.

The idea to make the EU parliamentary elections more important is not wrong per se. My only problem is it can easily backfire.

The appearance of the top candidates can make the discrepancy between voters and the EU political elite more obvious and thus, contrary to the original intention, lead to either an even lower turnout or more votes for the eurosceptics.

Professor Michael Wohlgemuth is director of think-tank Open Europe Berlin.

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