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The first head-to-head: much ado about very little

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A little bit of European political history was made yesterday, with the first televised head-to-head debate between candidates for the European Commission presidency.

The first debate between Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz– the lead candidates for the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists – took place in Brussels and was broadcast live on France 24, with a replay later that evening on Radio France International.

It is the first in a series of debates between the lead candidates and there is definitely scope for improvement if the candidates – and broadcasters – truly want to engage people in the discussion on Europe’s future leadership.

My overall view on the France 24 / RFI debate is that it that it was rather dull in format and content – everyone was playing things a bit safe. It’s natural for a first debate, but if the candidates and broadcasters want to engage voters, there needs to be more dynamism.

There is definitely scope for improvement if the candidates – and broadcasters – truly want to engage people in the discussion on Europe’s future leadership

Here’s five suggestions for the upcoming debates:

1. Make the candidates stand, not sit: yesterday’s debate was a bit too ‘comfortable’; standing naturally increases the tension and drama. As Belgian newspaper Le Soir put it this morning, the set was more suited to a polite lounge conservation than a political punch-up.

2. Bring in an audience – even if they are silent: the debate lacked a little atmosphere, with the four protagonists – Juncker, Schulz and moderators Caroline de Camaret (France 24) and Dominique Baillard (RFI) – lost in the grand surroundings of the Solvay Library. An audience that can ask questions, or even just provide several hundred pairs of eyes and ears, would help to focus the candidates’ minds on whom they are trying to convince.

Cheering and applause may not help – it is often banned in pre-election debates in the United States, and was a little distracting in the recent ‘Nick v Nigel’ Europe debates in the United Kingdom – but an audience helps build an atmosphere that was lacking here.

Cheering and applause may not help, but the presence of an audience helps build an atmosphere

3. Debate, don’t interview: at times, the ‘debate’ seemed to consist of parallel interviews with rather too little interaction between the candidates. There were many points of agreement between the candidates, but the points of disagreement – which, after all, help voters make their choice – were not seized upon sufficiently by the hosts and brought to the fore.

4. In this case, more is more: while the opinion polls suggest that the other candidates – Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals), Ska Keller and José Bové (Greens) and Alexis Tsipras (radical Left) – stand next to no chance of winning the presidency, their presence will help the debate. As noted above, Juncker and Schulz agreed on a lot; the presence of other candidates, with more radical views, will also help future moderators to exploit policy differences between the candidates of the two leading parties – and to hint at possibly alternative post-electoral alliances.

5. Get out of Brussels: the debate was a bit too high-minded and not sufficiently accessible to a wider audience – although Schulz in particular tried to relate the economic crisis to employment and highlight the need to think about the people around Europe who need a thousand euro more, rather than talk about the billions of euro involved in financial bailouts. Hopefully a change of location – and the presence of an audience – will help the candidates break free of Brussels’ linguistic and intellectual moorings.

And who won? Each party, of course, immediately proclaimed a resounding victory for their man, but in my view Schulz edged it – he was more pugnacious and clearer, while Juncker was much more reserved.

But the EPP candidate’s calm manner – perhaps a canny tactic – certainly frustrated Schulz’s bid to argue his differences with an opponent who didn’t rise to the bait.

The pair debated in French again on Thursday in a programme to be broadcast this weekend on TV5 Monde, a global French-language channel, and Belgium’s RTBF.

However, the first big test – for the candidates and the organisers – comes on 28 April in Maastricht, when the First European Presidential Debate takes place, broadcast on Euronews.

A version of this article first appeared on the Europe Decides website / Photo by Pawel Kadysz on Unsplash