Will anyone vote for these two men?

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.

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

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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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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.