Germany's Manfred Weber and the Netherlands' Frans Timmermans hope to succeed EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In a debate aired on German TV, the two discussed climate change, taxes, terrorism and migration.
Germany's Manfred Weber and the Netherland's Frans Timmermans — the two leading contenders to be the next European Commission president — went head-to-head in a televised debate in Germany on Tuesday.
Climate change, taxes, terrorism and migration led the discussion between Weber, a vice-chairman of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, and Timmermans, previously vice-chairman of the EU Commission.
The European elections will be held from May 23-26. According to recent polls, the European People's Party, a bloc of conservative parties to which Weber belongs, is likely to remain the strongest party in the next parliament with 24%, while the Social Democrats would keep their share of the vote at 20%.
Ambitious climate goals
Timmermans accused the EPP of being "dinosaurs" when it comes to climate change.
"The European Commission president has to become personally responsible for climate change," Timmermans said. "If we wait another five years we have lost, and the EPP are dinosaurs in this question."
Weber denied the charge, saying that the EPP "is ambitious" in combattng climate change, adding that his focus would be on lobbying other continents such as China, the United States and Latin America to join the fight.
Weber said he was in favor of ambitious climate protection targets by 2050, but said a tax on carbon dioxide should not be imposed on the poorest and weakest through higher fuel and heating oil prices.
Social Democrat Timmermans said he wants to make climate protection a top priority. He argued not only for a CO2 tax but also for a kerosene tax to offset the tax advantage for climate-damaging air travel.
Weber also agreed that the unequal tax treatment of rail, car and air travel must be ended.
Timmermans also said the voting age should be lowered to 16 because "young people know what they want; teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg also knows what she wants."
Returning EU militants
On terrorism, Weber argued that European nationals who fought for militant groups including "Islamic State" should not be allowed to return home and should face prosecution outside of the bloc.
"Let us talk to our Kurdish partners and make sure that those who committed atrocities are subjected to fair punishment there," said Weber.
Timmermans meanwhile suggested setting up an international tribunal to prosecute the crimes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that more than 10,000 "Islamic State" fighters are also being held by the Kurdish forces - many with foreign nationalities.
Strategies for Africa
When it came to migration policy, Timmermans promoted comprehensive reconciliation with Africa.
Europe needs a "massive Marshall Plan" for the neighboring continent, Timmermans said, adding that this would allow for society - economy, education, rule of law – to be modernized. After this, Europe could talk to the African countries about migration, he said.
Weber also called for closer contacts with Africa, but said, above all, he relies on trade agreements and special partnerships with the countries.
Shaping the European Parliament
To make the EU more democratic, Timmermans argued for transnational lists, meaning that Finnish or Italian candidates, for example, could also be elected in Germany.
Weber rejected this idea and said candidates should be as locally rooted as possible.
In a moment of agreement, both candidates said that if they were elected they would fill half of the EU Commission with women.
EU's heads of state and government get final say
Under the so-called Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) system, most pan-European political groups have nominated a top election contender.
The understanding is that the top candidate of the political group that wins the most votes should be appointed president of the European Commission, one of the most powerful jobs in the EU.
However, it is up to the EU's heads of state and government to appoint the commission president, and they have no legal obligation to follow the system.
law/se (dpa, AFP, Reuters)