Austerity blame-game dominates EU debate

Austerity blame-game dominates EU debate

Austerity blame-game dominates EU debate

The top candidate for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the 2014 European elections, Martin Schulz (L), and the candidate for the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), Jean-Claude Juncker, are pictured before a debate in Brussels. AFP photo

he five top candidates to head the European Commission swapped accusations on May 15 over the impact of Europe’s austerity measures and the role played by banks in sparking the economic and financial crisis. The elections will take place between May 22-25.

In an often heated debate in Brussels, several candidates were forced onto the back-foot by Greek radical-left leader Alex Tsipras, who wasted no time in denouncing “catastrophic austerity policies” and demanding an exit from “debt paranoia.”

Conservative leader Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg who headed the single-currency Eurogroup for eight years, pounced on Tsipras’s remarks, rejecting the suggestion he had not acted in the best interests of Greece. 

“I worked for years, day and night, to prevent Greece leaving the eurozone,” Juncker said, adding that he had done everything in his power to help the ailing country while endeavouring to get its public finances in order.

Guy Verhofstadt, the candidate from the center-right liberal grouping ALDE, mocked Tsipras’s suggestion that banks and EU banking policies were to blame for southern Europe’s economic woes. 

‘Not a matter of banking’

“In Greece, in Italy, it wasn’t a matter of banking, but bad policies on the part of your political parties,” Verhofstadt told Tsipras, defending the need for fiscal discipline in the EU as it struggles to move out of recession.

“You need fiscal discipline, otherwise you cannot have growth... and that means making no new debt,” Verhofstadt said, adding that the best way forward was to make the most of the EU’s common market by removing economic barriers within the 28-member bloc.

Greens leader Ska Keller, the only woman in the race to become the next president of the European Commission, said that more austerity in the EU would “worsen the situation,” but called on member states to do more to invest in “sustainable jobs” in renewable energy.

Socialist leader Martin Schulz, the outgoing president of the European Parliament, agreed the EU had made a mistake in “unilaterally cutting” spending, but pointed to the fight against tax fraud and tax evasion as the best way of providing relief to state coffers.

The debate was the first of its kind to include all five parties in the running for the Commission presidency, which is the highest executive position in the EU. In a break from earlier formats, three of the candidates spoke English, while Juncker chose French and Tsipras used Greek.

The event, broadcast from the European Parliament building in Brussels by 50 TV stations and a variety of radio stations and websites across Europe, was moderated in English by an Italian journalist.

One of the only two moments of policy agreement in the debate came when discussing the EU’s policy setting on asylum-seekers, following another shipwreck off the coasts of Italy this week which claimed 17 lives.