The lead candidates in the 2019 European Parliament elections have clashed on issues ranging from climate change to the threat of euroscepticism in the only televised debate pitting the six largest political groups against one another. The candidates are running for the office of European Commission president, under the so-called system of Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidates, introduced in 2014 to boost voter turnout.
German EU lawmaker Manfred Weber is considered the favourite, with his conservative European People's Party (EPP) leading in opinion polls for the elections being held across the European Union on May 23-26. He laid out his platform based on EU-wide solidarity, coupled with responsibility, to tackle challenges including youth unemployment and migration, arguing for compromise in areas such as trade and climate change in order to keep everyone on board.
However, Weber came under attack for his environmental credentials from his main contender, Frans Timmermans of the Socialists and Democrats, as well as from Ska Keller of the Greens. "I believe in innovation, not in punishment," Weber said, arguing that the EU should focus on investing in climate friendly technologies rather than introducing climate taxes that could cost jobs.
Timmermans responded that he was "sick and tired," of the excuse that ambitious action on climate change would hurt the poorest. "You know what is really going to hurt? If we do nothing," he said. The Social Democrat called for the introduction of a kerosene tax, as well as a carbon dioxide tax on companies - a measure that Weber opposes. Keller, meanwhile, accused the EPP of consistently voting against climate measures.
The candidates were asked how they would fairly tax corporations, an issue that played into the hands of EU Competition Commissoner Margrethe Vestager, who represented the liberal ALDE group in the debate. The Dane, who is best known for cracking down on loopholes that allowed the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon to avoid millions in taxes, called for digital taxation and a floor for corporate taxation, "or it will be a race to the bottom." Both Weber and Timmermans sided with Vestager on corporate tax issues. Her ALDE group could find itself in a kingmaker position following the elections, if neither of the two traditionally dominant parties can muster enough votes.
The debate also included Czech EU lawmaker Jan Zahradil of the right-of-centre Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists, who argued that less Europe was the answer to the bloc's main problems, as well as Nico Cue, a retired Spanish unionist, representing the European Left group. One notably absent voice from the debate was that of the populist, eurosceptic forces that are predicted to do well in next week's elections.
Timmermans blamed Europe's main political groups for failing to stop their supporters from turning to nationalist or even extremist parties. "That's our fault. Apparently we did not convince them to stay with us. Apparently they believe in these propositions. They are now being disappointed," the Social Democrat candidate said, pointing to the "divisiveness" of Brexit. Both he and Vestager urged Europeans to vote next week. "Voting is power. Go vote in this election and inspire people around you to go vote. Otherwise other people will use it," Vestager said.
Under the Spitzenkandidaten system, the lead candidate of the political group that wins the most votes should in theory be appointed EU commission president, one of the most powerful jobs in the EU. However, the final decision is up to the bloc's national leaders, who have no legal obligation to follow the system.
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