The European Commission President Election Debate that BBC1 and BBC2 missed


Only Euronews and the internet were covering the debate between the lead candidates for President of the European Commission – with candidates representing The Labour Party, The Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Conservatives, UKIP and others with their European partners have not selected candidates.

EuroNews (see here) were the only channel on telly that I could find screening the debate – even though there was a several second delay in the live feed. (Twitter seemed to be ahead of the game).

Shame on the BBC

Shame on you Charlotte Moore, (controller of BBC One) for not scheduling this debate

Shame on you Kim Shillinglaw, (controller of BBCTwo and BBCFour) for not scheduling this debate.

Oh – and shame on any of you who criticise the above two on grounds of their gender. My issue is with a specific decision that the two of them were responsible for (or should have been) in deciding not to broadcast the debate.

Shame on you James Harding, Director of News and Current Affairs.

Shame on you Danny Cohen, Director of TV.

Why did the two of you not push for this debate to be broadcast?

“Hang on a minute, aren’t you personalising this?”

I want some f–king accountability. I want an explanation from a human being who will stand up and be counted, and justify why it wasn’t broadcast live. We’re living in a time when our democracy is broken. Our democracy is so broken that I’m standing with my dragon fairy Puffles for election on a platform no one (to my knowledge) has stood on: Digital democracy – where we are encouraging people NOT to vote for us but to contact and question the other candidates FIRST (see here) – and only then look at what we’ve got on our ‘living’ manifesto (see here) and writing #Puffles4Cambridge on their ballot papers if they like what we’ve got in terms of ideas.

“Why should it have been broadcast?”

For a start, this was a debate between the European leaders of the main political groupings in Europe – ones that several of our main parties are part of. This is one that is an integral part of the European elections in May 2014. It’s not just ‘Vote Labour/Tory/LibDem/Greens/UKIP’ in this election, but on which political grouping and possibly who you want to be President of the European Commission if that’s what you want to vote for.

In the case of Labour, they are nominally supporting Martin Schultz who heads their group, even though the Labour leadership in the UK don’t like his policies (see here & note the taint of ‘nepotism’).

In the case of the Liberal Democrats, they are nominally supporting Guy Verhofstadt, even though they have issues with his policies. (See here).

In the case of the Greens, they are much more engaged with and supportive of their top candidate, Ska Keller. (Me and Puffles met her this year). Her messages seem to align with much more of what the Green candidates here have been campaigning on.

The traditional centre-right grouping had Jean Claude Junker of the European People’s Party – strange that his website’s language is English yet there is no political party from England in his political grouping in Europe. Make of that what you will.

“But hang on – there were no representatives for the Conservatives or UKIP groupings!”

True – but this wasn’t because they were banned. The group formed by the UK Conservatives, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group made the decision not to stand a candidate for President of the European Commission – see here. I’m assuming the same for the group UKIP are part of the EFD Grouping. In the same way that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband were offered a platform in the Farage-Clegg debates, the two groupings turned them down.

“So…they had the Clegg vs Farage debates, but not the #EUDebate2014 one on telly?”

Exactly – the #EUDebate2014 being the hashtag, which the show’s moderators said was getting over 10,000 tweets per minute. Not sure how many of those were spambots, but an impressive nominal figure none the less.

Personally I thought the Clegg vs Farage debates were good for democracy – irrespective of what you thought of the format, the audiences and the individuals debating. (As it turned out, the public according to the polls indicated Farage won by a landslide) It was politics on the telly. In one sense Clegg had the least to lose in those debates. He knew that. He knows his party faces a wipeout at the European elections next month. Hence running on a platform of being the opposite of UKIP as far as Europe is concerned – see here. Nick Clegg presented what I thought on the face of it was a compelling and confident party election broadcast – see below.

…the problem with Nick Clegg (amongst other things) is that in the eyes of many viewers, he has no credibility. Powerfully spoken with reasonable arguments, but because he’s Nick Clegg, people other than Lib Dem loyalists won’t run with it. Hence why the Green Party lampooned both the Lib Dems and UKIP at the same time, with what I thought was one of the best party election broadcasts getting just the right balance of humour and seriousness.

“So, who won what in the Eurosausage debate?”

I found the debate overall to be quite compelling. The only think I felt it lacked was a strong Euro-sceptic voice on the platform – but that was because the Euro-sceptic parties chose not to take part. Again, a shame because I think this was bad for democracy. I found Juncker of the EPP to be unimpressive as a speaker. I found his demeanour to be…complacent. I didn’t detect much passion unlike the other speakers.

I found the other speakers to be much more compelling in tone and body language, as well on the issues too. But then all three of them are closer to my political disposition so perhaps that’s understandable. That’s not to say a centre-right speaker who was a good communicator could not have made a good case. I’ve seen a number of speakers (mainly women as it turns out) from the Conservative side who I find to be engaging speakers and who can present reasonably compelling arguments that test me intellectually. This I like – even if I don’t agree with them politically. That’s probably what struck me about Mr Agnew of UKIP at the recent European hustings in Cambridge (see my write-up here) – his arguments did not test me intellectually. For all the bad press UKIP get in progressive political circles, they have people in their ranks who can make enough of a compelling argument to test those in favour of the European Union in principle.

Ska Keller stands out

I’m not going to ‘deconstruct brand Keller’ in terms of her being different due to age/gender/dress sense/hair cut etc. The reason being that out of all of them, for me she was closest to being ‘the complete package’ that appealed to someone like me. While Schultz for the Labour/Socialists group and Verhofstadt for the Liberals and Democrats group made a number of very compelling and strong points, I didn’t get a sense that they were part of the ‘new generation’ with the imagination and the energy to solve the problems facing Europe as it declines vis-a-vis the other economic blocs growing across the world.

Although Ms Keller has very little chance of becoming President of the Commission, she’s got a very bright future ahead of her. If I was an adviser inside the European Greens, one thing I’d be looking for (assuming the UK doesn’t get an in/out referendum on Europe) is to have one of the new intake of Green MEPs from the UK (assuming some get elected) in the team around her – and publicly associated with her.

What did Verhofstadt and Schultz have to say that was impressive?

Schultz was stronger on social justice issues – and probably had more policy depth than Keller, whose focus was on big picture radical culture change rather than policy-specific detailed issues. Schultz at the start staked out his territory by going after tax avoidance and tax evasion.  I felt he didn’t follow it through as strongly as he could have done. It’s a shame he didn’t mention UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories – because that would have forced the issue on Ed Miliband – and made things easier for tax justice campaigners inside Labour.

Verhofstadt was the first person to mention to the moderators that they didn’t ask a question about women and gender equality – a massive issue in my book and one that isn’t taken seriously enough by mainstream politics in the UK. This is because there are not enough women in decision-making positions to form a critical mass that changes culture. After all, which were the parliamentary sessions that decided women’s sanitary products would be VAT-able for tax but men’s shaving products were exempt? A group of people somewhere chose to take those decisions. Why?

Verhofstadt was also the person that really got into the detail of all things digital and privacy, as well as using social media to engage with young people. Juncker for the EPP seemed utterly out of his depth on this subject.

Dealing with extremism

All four of them came down against this in principle. But I didn’t get the sense – in particular from Juncker and Verhofstadt whether they understood to what extent the structural failures leading to the economic policy failures are driving people into the arms of more extremist parties. Only Ms Keller seemed to make the connections between wider global issues (and political issues generally) rather than the theme of ‘in the EU or out of the EU’.

A one-sided debate?

Well…it was. Although me and local Cambridge Tory Andy Bower come from different parts of the political matrix, his tweet about the debate being a federalist echo-chamber resonated.

While I found it very interesting – tweeting away like mad, it needed a competent and high-calibre Euro-sceptic voice. It certainly wasn’t a Jeremy Paxman-style grilling. Although the moderators did a reasonably good job of maintaining the tempo of the debate, the questions were not particularly searching. Nor was there anything in there that could have tripped up any of the candidates. A well-researched and more critical moderator or panellist/candidate would have given the four candidates featured a much more bumpy ride.

“Isn’t that a cultural thing though? After all, in the UK we’re used to politicians being given a hard time in debates”

I think there’s room for a bit of both. From the times I’ve been in Continental Europe, they have the panel discussions where issues are unpicked in depth. I remember watching one show when I was in Austria for the month in the run up to the 2006 general election there. Although my German wasn’t fantastic – it was post-GCSE/pre-A-level, I could make sense of what was being discussed. Personally I’d like to see more of this in the UK, but not lose the passion for political debates that the Continental Europeans I met during my ‘roaring 20s’ said we were famous for. At the time, I found ‘British style Parliamentary debates’ being popular with the students as a format.

That perhaps was one of the things that struck me about the commission presidential debate overall. I don’t recall remembering any points where the candidates really went after each other. They stuck to the issues rather than tearing shreds out of each other and their political groupings.

“If the debate had been screened say on BBC1 on prime time telly, what would have been the impact?”

The first reaction would have been along the lines of the Conservatives and UKIP not being represented – and the BBC taking a kicking on those grounds. (Grounds I have comprehensively busted). The second is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have found out who their figurehead in Europe was. The third is that as this coincided with the launch of the Green’s national European manifesto – in the top 3 politics stories on the BBC – they would have experienced a surge in interest on the links of ‘Cleggmania‘ in the 2010 election campaign.

“Would that interest have lasted?”

A surge would have had the media pack heading to Brighton to examine the Greens’ record running a (minority) council – a very difficult experience that could easily cost Caroline Lucas her seat in Brighton in 2015. Certainly the spotlight would have put extreme pressure on Ms Lucas along with party leader Natalie Bennett and other senior Green politicians standing for the European Parliament.

“Will there be another debate like this?”

No – not as far as I am aware prior to the 2014 election. Which is a shame because it was a missed opportunity for people to hear European politicians in their own voices and would have allowed them to come to their own judgement.





9 thoughts on “The European Commission President Election Debate that BBC1 and BBC2 missed

  1. Actually, there will be another debate, in around two weeks, only days before the election. Just thought you might like to know.

    Other than that, I do agree, not broadcasting the debate was extremely shortsighted of UK broadcasters.

  2. 8th May, 2015 CET on ORF (Austria) and ZDF (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz on the “Duell” programme, presumably in German

    9th May at 1830 CET on RAI (Italy), a debate between Schulz, Juncker, Bové and Verhofstadt at EUI Florence, I presume in English, interpreted? ( (scroll down to the bottom)), follow on Twitter #SoU2014

    15th May at 2100 CET from Eurovision and EBS, and made available to national broadcasters (inc. BBC!), predominantly in English but also with interpretation (, and to be debated on Twitter using the tag #TellEurope, with 5 candidates – Schulz, Juncker, Verhofstadt, Keller and Tsipras. It is supposed to bo onto PPC Parliament

    20th May, 2100 CET on ARD (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz and the leading candidates of German political parties for the election on the “Die Wahlarena” programme, in German (

  3. “After all, which were the parliamentary sessions that decided women’s sanitary products would be VAT-able for tax but men’s shaving products were exempt? A group of people somewhere chose to take those decisions. Why?”

    EU VAT directives, I’m afraid! EU VAT harmonisation means no new 0% rated products and services can be introduced. 5% is the lowest rate any country is allowed to set. The existing UK 0% items are permitted to stay. Most countries don’t have a 0% rate.

    So women’s sanitary products were set at the lowest rate permitted at the point the question arose in Parliament in 2001, which is 5%, down from standard rate.

    (Exempt is actually a different thing, and less good than the 5% or 0% rate. An organisation selling 0-rated goods can reclaim VAT on the things they purchase for their business, but doesn’t need to charge it on sales. At the 5% rate, you are mostly buying in goods and reclaiming VAT at standard rate, then selling goods with 5% VAT, so it could have a lower consumer sales price. Organisations selling exempt supplies cannot reclaim VAT on their inputs, but don’t charge it on their outputs. Insurance is an example of an exempt supply. I’ve no idea of the top of my head what shaving foam is, but it’s probably not exempt.)

    Yay, VAT!

  4. Hello, there was a feature about the debate on the World at One this lunchtime, though ironically, given the BBC didn’t show it, it was more about its being televised than about the debate itself, with little substantive discussion of the candidates or their relative positions. (Because both are produced by the European Broadcasting Union, the premise was a kind of forced comparison with the Eurovision Song Contest). I felt, listening to it, that it was being treated more as a curiosity than as a serious debate in which we had a stake. However, interestingly, in the intro Martha Kearney mentions a second debate in May which apparently the BBC will be broadcasting. So maybe someone’s been listening… The item’s here (from about 39.45 in):

  5. “While I found it very interesting – tweeting away like mad, it needed a competent and high-calibre Euro-sceptic voice.”
    Depends surely what you mean by Euroskeptic.

    If Euroskeptic means somebody who believes that Brussels over-regulates and more power could sensible be handed back to the nation states in some areas…. then yes. If Euroskeptic means a less destroy the entire infrastructure then the answer must be “no” as it doesn’t fit within the terms of the debate.

    Now if the UK wants to have its own debate on its membership of the EU then obviously that is our right. However currently the UK EU debate is being driven by UKIP, who have an odd mix of polices that completely contradict one another, which should set some alarm bells ringing:-

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