Three key moments from the first debate with lead EU candidates

Three key moments from the first debate with lead EU candidates

The Maastricht debate, co-hosted by Politico Europe and Studio Europa, lasted one hour and a half and saw a continued exchange of political ideas, which ranged from fiery and passionate to awkward and stilted.

On stage were the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, the aspirants to preside over the European Commission after the June elections: Ursula von der Leyen (European People's Party), Nicolas Schmit (Party of European Socialists), Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party), Bas Eickhout (European Green Party), Anders Vistisen (Identity and Democracy Party), Walter Baier (Party of the European Left), Maylis Roßberg (European Free Alliance) and Valeriu Ghilețchi (European Christian Political Movement).

All of them had a chance to defend their platform but not all of them shone equally.

Here are the three key moments of the debate.

'Clean up your own house!'

The night had one distinct leitmotiv: virtually all candidates on stage took turns to assail the main representative of the far right, Anders Vistisen.

The gloves came off during the second segment, devoted to foreign and security policy, when Vistisen denounced mainstream parties for exploiting the war in Ukraine as a "camouflage" to change the EU treaties and abolish the right to veto.

It was then that Bas Eickhout, from the Greens, snapped back, calling out the Identity and Democracy (ID) group for being ridden with allegations of Russian and Chinese influence. These cases have caused the alert of the European Parliament and are already subject to criminal investigations in Belgium and Germany, respectively.

"Maybe before you're teaching everyone, clean up your own house!" Eickhout told Vistisen, leading to loud applause in the room.

Vistisen tried to stand his ground, arguing the ID group has taken the accusations "seriously", and took aim at von der Leyen for her scandal involving the undisclosed texts she sent to negotiate a mega-deal with Pfizer for COVID-19 vaccines.

Von der Leyen did not take the bait and plundered on: "If you look at the electoral programme (of Alternative for Germany, an ID member party), you will see that it echoes the lies and the propaganda of the Kremlin. So clean up your house before you criticise us!"

Vistisen fought back, saying his fellow politicians had been "on the right side of history" while Germany had been "on the wrong side" when it came to Russia and China. But this backfired, as the audience loudly booed.

Tensions over Ukraine and Gaza

The foreign-policy segment delivered another heated moment.

When asked whether Ukraine should give up parts of its territory in exchange for a lasting peace deal, Walter Baier, from the Party of the European Left, condemned the Russian aggression and said it was time for a "political solution," which he did not specify. But he then abruptly shifted the conversation to the Israel-Hamas war, urging the EU to impose sanctions against Israel the same it did on Russia.

The moderators insisted on the question of territorial concessions, which he again avoided with a vague answer on achieving a ceasefire.

"I cannot understand how anybody could defend the idea that we should continue this war until when? Until the last Ukrainian soldier has died?" he said.

"I'm getting tired of hearing that," von der Leyen riposted, evoking her trip to Bucha. "If you want to end this war, Putin just has to stop fighting. Then the war is over!"

Baier demanded the floor again and brought back the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians since 7 October. "When will the European Union put sanctions on Israel to stop the war in Gaza?" he told the incumbent.

Von der Leyen echoed the EU's official line, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself "within the limits of humanitarian law and international law," and called for a ceasefire, the release of hostages, the increase of humanitarian aid and work for a two-state solution.

Eickhout asked her if the invasion of Rafah, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to carry out, would be her ultimate "red line."

"I'm never drawing red lines but I think it would be completely unacceptable if Netanyahu would invade Raffah," she said.

"And what does that mean?" he asked.

"Then we sit down with member states and act on that," she curtly replied.

The ECR shadow

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party was the only one absent on Monday but enjoyed more prominence than some of those present.

Eickhout directly asked von der Leyen if, during a potential second term, she would work with the hard-right, Eurosceptic formation, which encompasses the likes of Fratelli d'Italia (Italy), Law and Justice (Poland), Vox (Spain), New Flemish Alliance (Belgium), Civic Democratic Party (Czech Republic), Sweden Democrats (Sweden) and Finns Party (Finland). Reconquête!, the party of France's Éric Zemmour, has recently joined.

While von der Leyen has been openly critical of the ID group, whose far-right positions have outraged pro-European parties, she has been more reluctant to denounce ECR after developing a good working relationship with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

"Where do you stand on ECR?" Eickhout said. "It's time that you are clear that you are not going to cooperate with ECR."

"First of all, it's the European Parliament that has to find majorities," she answered.

She then delivered an off-topic explanation of why the rule of law was important for the EPP, which prompted the moderator to intervene and repeat Eickhout's question.

"It depends very much on how the composition of the Parliament is and who is in what group," she said.

"What?!" interjected Eickhout.

This created an opening for Nicolas Schmit, who, despite representing the second-largest party in the Parliament and working as European Commissioner, faded into the background for most of the debate.

"I was a bit astonished by your response, saying it depends on the composition of the European Parliament," Schmit told von der Leyen, who is his boss.

"That was something a bit strange because values and rights cannot be divided according to some political arrangements. Either you can deal with the extreme right, because you need them, or you say clearly there is no deal possible because they do not respect the fundamental rights (that) our Commission has fought for," he went on.

"We have fought for LGBT rights, we have fought for equality, media freedom, and I see in some countries where the extreme right, ECR by the way, is in power, they do not respect that. They are already abolishing your rights. So this has to be precise!"

So who won? Who lost?

The clear winners of the night were Ursula von der Leyen, who used her eloquence and gravitas to strike back against accusations from the right and the left, and Bas Eickhout, who proved combative and compelling with his biting counter-arguments.

By contrast, Anders Vistisen was roundly lambasted for his disruptive ideas and frequent references to Denmark, his home country, which prompted Eickhout to note that "this is a European debate."

Meanwhile, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann fell flat with a scripted, stiff performance that made her look lost and meandering. At one point, she attacked Hungary for "stopping everything in the European Parliament," when, in fact, the veto power is only exercised in the EU Council, where member states gather. Later, she referred to Article 7 of the EU treaties, which allows for the suspension of certain rights if a member state is found to have persistently flouted EU values, as "Paragraph 7."