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EU elections 2014: Schulz vs Juncker - the battle to become President of the European Commission that should be captivating Europe

Kicking off a series of articles on next week’s European and local elections, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson looks at the unprecedented race to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso – and explains how the outcome will affect us all

The beers flow. A man in a baby suit bends over as another gently whips him with a bright red cat-o’-nine-tails. The crowd ends a largely incoherent song with chants of “Juncker, Juncker, Juncker”.

For a campaign criticised in some quarters as lacklustre, there certainly seems to be a lot of excitement on the stage set up to welcome the leading candidate in Europe’s first presidential election race. If this is how the European Union plans to throw off its institutional image and persuade the younger generation to vote in European Parliament elections next week, it might just work.

Unfortunately, by the time the former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker steps out of his campaign bus, the real welcoming party has re-commandeered the small stage. It turns out the handful of young men and women were outnumbered by revellers from a stag party, who after a bit of good-natured banter teeter off clutching a “Juncker for President” sign.

While this may not be exactly what Brussels eurocrats had in mind when they devised the new system, it fits in with the general idea: to raise awareness that the European elections opening a week today go beyond national politics, and to re-engage voters by giving them a person to rally behind for the EU’s top job.

For the first time in the European Parliament’s history, the 715 lawmakers elected next week will be able to put forward their choice for President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm responsible for the day-to-day running of the bloc. The parliament’s political groups have been asked to send candidates out on US-style campaign tours, and – in theory – the group that wins the most seats will have its nominee approved by the EU’s 28 national leaders. Our votes matter – but while the decision on who succeeds José Manuel Barroso probably has a bigger impact on Europeans than the outcome of the US presidential elections, it attracts far less interest.

Sixty per cent of voters surveyed across Europe by Ipsos-Mori last week still have no idea who Mr Juncker or his main rival, Martin Schulz, are. This could be put down to teething problems in the inaugural campaign, flaws in the system itself, or the poor public perception of the two leading candidates. Both are fiercely pro-EU, at a time when many people are fed up with unemployment and austerity and are expected to turn in droves to protest parties.

“These guys are all cut from the same cloth,” says Stephen Booth, research director at the Open Europe think-tank. “They are all associated with the Brussels elite that has led Europe into this situation where we are desperately looking around for ways to get people engaged.”

Between 15 and 30 per cent of seats in the new assembly could go to anti-EU parties on the far left and right. But in the televised debates so far, the unemployed young Greeks bitterly opposed to austerity would not have heard their views, nor would a middle-Englander worried about an influx of Bulgarian workers. Instead Mr Juncker, representing the centre-right European People’s Party, and Mr Schulz for the Socialists & Democrats broadly agree on the EU’s crisis response, only really differing on the intricacies of the best economic policies for sustainable growth.

Though important, these issues will hardly be drawing millions of viewers to the BBC Parliament channel today for one of the last debates. The candidates’ appeal is equally lost on a British government seeking an ally in Brussels to help it repatriate powers rather than a cheerleader for greater integration.

Other countries, however, have been more receptive. Of the six candidates running, only Mr Schulz and Mr Juncker really have a shot at the job, and they are pounding the campaign trail as the election approaches. In the German city of Fulda, Mr Juncker watches politely as a brass brand powers through “I’m So Excited” and “Hit The Road, Jack” – presumably a reference to Mr Juncker’s 26-city campaign tour rather than their feelings about his presence in the German town. The veteran of European politics then takes to the stage for an understated speech peppered with dry humour. Jokes about not needing Brussels to regulate his shower taps so long as he gets wet would probably go down well with British voters, if only they got a chance to hear them. But the Juncker Bus will not be pulling into any town near you.

David Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from the EPP in 2009 because he deemed them too federalist. The group in parliament he subsequently created has refused to field a candidate, so Tory voters will not be casting a ballot for any of the pan-European candidates next Thursday. The Labour Party is a member of the Socialists & Democrats, but they too have declined to host Mr Schulz, whose strong pro-EU views are seen as too toxic for the party in Britain right now.

“It’s for the heads of EU governments to propose the candidate for Commission President to the European Parliament, not the other way round,” says one British diplomat. “Rather than limiting the field of candidates, we want EU leaders to be able to choose from a wide selection of qualified, experienced and diverse candidates who can deliver the reform that the EU really needs.”

Until now, that is exactly what has happened: heads of state have disappeared behind closed doors and emerged with their choice to lead the bloc. This fondness for deal-making with little public scrutiny has led to soaring mistrust in the EU, which in turn has helped push down voter turnout in European Parliament elections from 62 per cent, in the inaugural poll of 1979, to 43 per cent in 2009.

Giving voters a say in the top job is meant to held bridge the EU’s famous democracy deficit. But the language in the Lisbon treaty is unclear: national leaders must name their candidate “taking into account” the election results. Depending on how they interpret that, they could ignore the whole presidential campaign and plump once again for their own man or woman. Names doing the rounds in Brussels include the IMF head Christine Lagarde, the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

But Mr Juncker said that doing that would lead to “a real democracy crisis” and a stand-off with the parliament, which could refuse to approve the leaders’ candidate. Mr Schulz says it would be “a mockery of the voters”.

The question is whether Mr Cameron’s views are shared by others. Simon Hix, who is monitoring the polls for the London School of Economics, says it is going to he hard for leaders in countries like Germany and France to ignore the result, as the Schulz vs Juncker campaign has attracted more press coverage.

As his bus trundles through the Germany countryside, Mr Juncker concedes that the candidates have struggled to reach out to Europe’s 400 million eligible voters. Last Saturday, tens of millions tuned in for the Eurovision Song Contest. But Mr Juncker knows he can’t match the appeal of Conchita Wurst. “I don’t wish that because politics is a serious matter,” he says. “The Eurovision Song Contest is of a different category.”

The key players: Parties in the EU

The two parties whose votes will decide the identity of the Commission President:

European People’s Party (EPP)

Current seats: 274

Forecast seats: 212

Member parties: Most of Europe’s centre-right parties, including France’s UMP, Fine Gael of Ireland, and Hungary’s Fidsez. The most influential is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. David Cameron pulled the Tories out of the EPP in 2009.

Candidate: Jean-Claude Juncker, 59, is the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and also acted as chairman of the eurozone group of finance ministers between 2005-2013. This both works for and against him: he is credited with helping drag the bloc back from the brink of collapse – including with some late-night diplomatic sessions – but his association with austerity alienates many voters.

Socialists & Democrats

Current seats: 195

Forecast seats: 209

Member parties: MEPs from Britain’s Labour Party sit with this group, as do members of French President François Hollande’s Socialist Party and most other centre-left parties in the EU.

Candidate: Martin Schulz, 58, is a German politician with the centre-left Social Democrats, and since 2012 has been President of the European Parliament. He has won praise for taking a position once regarded as powerless and making people sit up and listen to the assembly, but his rabble-rousing and frequent pronouncements in favour of deeper integration make him unpopular with politicians in Britain and Labour have asked him not to campaign in the UK.

The other parties

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

Current seats: 85

Forecast seats: 63

European Green Party

Current seats: 58

Forecast seats: 38

European United Left – Nordic Green Left

Current seats: 35

Forecast seats: 52

European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR)

Current seats: 56

Forecast seats: 43

Europe of Freedom & Democracy

Current seats: 33

Forecast seats: 39

Non-alligned MEPs

Current seats: 30

Forecast seats: 95