Blow by blow: First debate between candidates for presidency of European Commission

At The Maastricht Debate 2024 – hosted on April 29 in the city in which the Treaty of the European Union was originally signed – eight candidates for the presidency of the European Commission pitched their vision for the future of Europe. Among them was Dansk Folkeparti’s Anders Vistisen, heading the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group.

Photo: Pixabay/SatyaPrem

The eight candidates for the post of President of the European Commission took part in their first debate on 29 April, ahead of the European Parliament election on 9 June.

The Maastricht Debate 2024, hosted in the city in which the Treaty of the European Union was originally signed in 1992, saw party representatives pitch their vision for the future of Europe to a packed live and digital audience.

Among them was Dansk Folkeparti’s Anders Vistisen, representing the the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group.

The three central topics up for discussion were climate, foreign policy and security, and the EU and democracy.

Revisit the debate here.

The eight candidates are:

  • Walter Baier – The European Left
  • Bas Eickhout – European Green Party
  • Valeriu Ghiletchi – European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
  • Ursula von der Leyen – European People’s Party (EPP)
  • Maylis Rossberg – European Free Alliance (EFA)
  • Nicolas Schmit – Socialists & Democrats (S&D)
  • Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann – Renew
  • Anders Vistisen – Identity and Democracy (ID)

The debate kicks off with an introduction round, in which each candidate has one minute to present.

When Vistisen takes the stand, he calls the EU a “swamp” and von der Leyen’s leadership a “disaster”, garnering sparse applause compared with the other candidates.

Financing the green deal is first on the agenda.

On the subject of balancing climate measures with the livelihood of European farmers, Ghiletchi advocates for balanced policies driven by data, science and facts.

“Certain competencies belong to member states, rather than to the Union as a whole,” he says.

Von der Leyen is challenged on, and rebuffs, whether she thinks Ukrainian farmers are more important than EU farmers. She counters that she supports both, and references that she wants to help Ukrainians to sell grain to the southern EU states.

“Farmers feel the price increases of the Russian war – fertiliser prices up, energy prices up. We have to find a balance,” she says.

20-year-old Rossberg places great emphasis on the importance of the green transition, for business and youth futures: “The green deal is the only chance we have to play a role in the evolving economic landscape where China and the US play ever larger roles,” she says.

Strack-Zimmerman adds that “farmers are not enemies like the left say, and they are not tools to solve the climate crisis as the right say.”

“There is too much red tape for farmers,” she adds. Schmidt agrees.

Next up is the question: How should the EU step up its foreign and security policy in this changing world?

Strack-Zimmerman says we have to create common defence.

“We are a strong continent with 450 million people and we have to start immediately,” she says.

Schmidt is in favour of EU defence bonds. He agrees that “defence is absolutely crucial for Europe” and that there needs to be a pan-European “special defence fund”.

Von der Leyen also advocates for greater military collaboration.

“We need military capabilities made in Europe so that we have interoperabilty between our troops,” she says.

Vistisen criticises the EU’s military approach, but is cut off by Eickhout, who says he is “getting tired” and blames Vistisen’s ID group for being a trojan horse for Russian and Chinese interference.

Eickhout launches a tirade at Vistisen that ends with “clean up your own house!” to raucous applause.

Vistisen cuts back at Eickhout that Denmark has donated vast sums to Ukraine, and Belgium has donated nothing. Eickhout corrects him that he is in fact from the Netherlands.

Moldovan Ghiletchi says his country was the first to feel the consequences of the Russian invasion after Ukraine, and emphasises the importance of maintaining military focus as a bloc.

“This war needs to be won by democracy and freedom. We need more cooperation to defend our shared values,” he says.

Rossberg ventures that the EU cannot agree on a foreign policy, so how can it agree on a security policy?

Baier goes against the grain of the conversation and argues for a political solution, rather than for an arms race, asking “how many more Ukrainians need to die?”

“We need a political solution – which means Russia, Ukraine, NATO need to meet and agree a ceasefire,” he says.

“I’m getting tired of that,” says Von der Leyen. “I’ve been to Ukraine seven times. I’ve seen the body bags. If we want to end this war, we need to stop Putin from fighting.”

Baier pivots to Israel, asking Von der Leyen: “When will the EU put sanctions on Israel to stop its attack on Gaza?”

Von der Leyen responds cautiously with “it would be completely unacceptable if Israel invades Rafah. At that point the EU states would have to sit down and talk about it.”

Strack-Zimmermann pitches in, saying that people in the Middle East want peace too.

“We need a two state solution. Everybody wants peace. This is an old conversation and we need to look to the future,” she says.

Vistisen says the candidates are forgetting “the thing they should be focusing on, which is anti-Semitism”.

He invites Von der Leyen to come to Copenhagen to meet the Jewish community there, who say they feel more fearful of the anti-Semitic climate than they have for decades.

Von der Leyen returns that Jewish people are welcome, valued and respected in the EU and this attitude must never waver.

Baier is not won over. He says his father survived Auschwitz, and he finds Von der Leyen’s response unsatisfactory: “Thousands of people are being slaughtered, and you will sit down with your friends and talk about it?”

Now Baier is asked: How will the EU navigate China’s increasingly aggressive influence in Europe?

He says we need a peaceful, responsible policy, and that China’s involvement must be constructive.

On to the subject of how to address EU migration policy.

Von der Leyen speaks of third-country ayslum processing centres as a means of better control: “We should be the ones who decide who comes to Europe, not the smugglers and the human traffickers.”

Vistisen says the EU should implement Denmark’s policy: “All we need is the political will. The ID party is the only one who wants to deal with it.”

There is a smattering of talk of the UK and its new Rwanda law before Von der Leyen shuts it down with “they left the EU, they can debate their own policies”.

Rossberg brings it back and onto the climate: “It has not been mentioned that the far-right doesn’t want people to come to Europe, but you’re one of the main reasons why people are coming, and will come in greater numbers in the future – and that’s climate change,” she says,

Next subject: EU and democracy.

“How can the EU protect itself from foreign interference?” ask the moderators.

Schmit says there needs to be greater awareness of the link between the far-right, lobbying, shady financing, espionage and interference:

“There are systematic interferences. Far right parties are financed by and encouraged by Putin to support his policies of aggression,” he says.

Von der Leyen agrees, and then attacks ID, calling Vistisen a “proxy of Putin”. Turning directly to him, she says “we will not allow you to destroy the European Union from the inside”.

Vistisen is asked how he responds to Von der Leyen’s accusations of corruption.

Vistisen says he is arguing freely and openly, and that Von der Leyen “didn’t even want [him] on this stage, and the organisers had to think long and hard about it – so who is the enemy of democracy?”

Von der Leyen shocks by saying that she would cooperate with the ECR, depending on the composition of parliament.

ECR is the second most right-wing party in the parliament, where members of Giorgia Meloni’s party and the Sweden Democrats sit.

The announcement stuns the other candidates. Cooperating with the ECR group could be decisive in Von der Leyen achieving another mandate, but she has been riding a cooperation with the left wing for the past five years.

Many topics, little time. On to technology, and the question of whether social media is incompatible with democracy.

Strack-Zimmermann believes we must integrate it into democracy: “it’s our reality, we all use it from morning to night,” she says.

But Von der Leyen jumps to TikTok, pointing out that it is “dangerous” and a trojan horse for foreign interference. She notes that in her work sphere it is banned on corporate mobiles.

“We in the EU must push the world to regulate this field,” she says.

The final question of the debate goes first to the Renew party:

Hungary’s tactics may inspire other countries to dismantle the rule of law. Is the EU becoming hostage to its member states?

Strack-Zimmermann responds that “Hungary’s rules affect the whole Union” and suggests restricting Hungary’s freedom to vote in the EU.

Rossberg replies that she thinks indeed that the Union is being held hostage – but there is a simple solution: “strengthen the European Parliament, strengthen regional committees outside capital cities,” she says.

Vistisen cautions that bringing in new member states to the EU, whose democratic condition is less than desirable, is “gambling with the EU’s rule of law”.

In their closing comments Rossberg and Eickhout are youth focused, with talk of the climate and young political activation.

Vistisen says it’s time for a change and ID is the only group taking a stand against the decline of the Union.

Von der Leyen points to her significant political experience, and adds that being a mother and grandmother shapes her vision. She advocates that “we who love Europe stand united and stand proud”.

Schmit launches several points: the EU must be bold on industry, defence, climate change and social justice, and fight poverty with a strong welfare state.

Strack-Zimmermann reinforces that security is key and that EU prosperity depends on it. She also calls on young voters to mobilise in the coming election.

Baier says he chooses the side of the socially disadvantaged: “You deserve better, and politicians have failed to deliver. Vote for the left,” he says.

Ghiletchi uses his closing comment to talk about liberty.

He reflects that, having grown up in Soviet Moldova, he would never have pictured himself participating in this debate in Maastricht. He urges Europeans to defend their dreams and fundamental freedoms.