Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Campaign will be Televised

The European elections will have televised debates between the Europarties for the first time. The European Broadcasting Union, which works on the Eurovision Song Contest, will be organising debates between the candidates for the presidency of the Commission. Screening the debate live is optional for the public broadcaster members of the EBU, so the event is unlikely to get equal coverage across the Member States, but it's a big step forward in giving the elections a "European" flavour. There will be two debates: one between the candidates of each of the political groups in the European Parliament (on the 15th of May) and one between the two main candidates (on the 20th of May).

European Voice reports that the first debate will be between the candidates of each of the Europarties (which are made up of like-minded national parties), rather than just between the candidates of the largest Europarties that are more likely to take the presidency. This means that the debate will need to be very well managed. With five or more candidates debating, the moderator will have to have a firm grasp of proceedings to make the most of the opportunity. The second debate between two candidates can develop more naturally, but here the moderator will have to ask good questions designed to highlight the differing positions of all the candidates and draw out the main policies as well as policing speaking time. 90 minutes isn't a lot when divided between 5 speakers!

The language of the debate will be an interesting issue. Apparently, the EBU wants the candidates to debate in English to prevent awkward translation delays that will break the flow of the debate, but candidates have the choice of speaking in their native language. Will the candidates plump for English in the hopes that they can reach a wider audience (and perhaps avoid potential translation errors from tripping them up), decide to debate in their own language (showcasing linguistic diversity - or simply being a more natural way to debate for a candidate), or a mix of English and their native language? There will probably be a mix in practice - if candidates can communicate well to voters in different languages, then they will probably try to make that connection.

Who will debate is another topic. The European Greens have two "top candidates" to choose from: Bové and Keller. Fielding Bové may be a good way of boosting the Green vote in France, and as an anti-globalisation campaigner he may have a bit more name recognition (though Keller may appeal to a broader swathe of voters in practice). Since there will only be one televised debate with a Green representative (unless they poll very strongly), the Greens will have to make the choice. Apart from the Greens, the European Conservatives and the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group aren't fielding any candidates for the Commission presidency - will they put forward one for the debate?

The debates will take place one week before the elections on the 22-25th of May. Given the traditional low interest in the European elections, it's probably a good idea to stage the debates close to the election date, though this might leave little time for the second debate to have much of an impact. The impact the debates make will be a factor in deciding whether selecting candidates for the Commission presidency really is the potential political bonus that most Europarties think it could be. But they should give the media big ticket events to report on (as long as they are interesting debates!). They should certainly put the parliamentary orientation of the national parties in the spotlight, as journalists can ask the awkward question: so, do you agree with your pan-European candidate on...?

Forget 2014 being Europe's Twitter election - the more interesting question is could it be a TV election?

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