The Maastricht Debate through the eyes of the Young European Ambassadors
June 5, 2024

The Maastricht Debate through the eyes of the Young European Ambassadors


With the elections to the European Parliament just around the corner, the campaigns have stepped up and candidates are especially interested in us – young voters. For this reason, on 29 April, POLITICO and Studio Europa Maastricht co-organised the third Maastricht Debate between eight “Spitzencandidaten”, or lead candidates for the President of the European Commission, to help young and first-time voters make up their minds. 

To understand the debate, we first need to answer two questions: how do the European elections relate to the appointment of the President of the European Commission, and what is a “Spitzenkandidat”? 

According to the Treaty on European Union, the European Council takes into the consideration the results of the European elections, and, acting by qualified majority, proposes the candidate for the President of the Commission. Later, the European Parliament elects the President by majority of all its members. If the required majority is not achieved, then the European Council proposes a new candidate and the European Parliament votes again. 

As we can see, the citizens of the European Union do not directly elect the next chief of the EU executive. That is why, in an effort to increase the democratic legitimacy of such an important office, the European Parliament in 2012 established what we now call the “Spitzenkandidaten” process, a procedure whereby European political parties, ahead of the European elections, appoint lead candidates for the role of Commission President, with the presidency of the Commission then going to the candidate of the political party capable of marshalling sufficient parliamentary support. In 2014, this process worked, since the leading candidate of the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament – Jean-Claude Juncker – was elected for that office. However, in 2019 even though Manfred Weber was the EPP’s “Spitzenkandidat”, it was Ursula von der Leyen who was proposed and elected to the Berlaymont office. Who will be chosen this year? That is the mystery, which will be solved after 9 June. 

At the debate in Maastricht, the participants were, in alphabetical order – Walter Baier (Austria, Party of the European Left (PEL)), Bas Eickhout (the Netherlands, European Green Party (Greens)), Valeriu Ghilețchi (Moldova, European Christian Political Movement (ECPM)), Ursula von der Leyen (Germany, European People’s Party (EPP)), Maylis Roßberg (Danish minority in Germany, European Free Alliance (EFA)), Nicolas Schmit (Luxembourg, Party of European Socialists (PES)), Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Germany, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE)) and Anders Vistisen (Denmark, Identity and Democracy Party (ID)). 

The issues discussed revolved around three themes – climate change, foreign and security policy, and EU democracy. All of these topics are significant for the Young European Ambassadors network, and watching the debate was a fascinating experience, which gave us a valuable insight into the future of the European Union. 

Here are some highlights and reactions.

SUPPORT FOR AND SECURITY OF UKRAINE

The Spitzencandiadaten discussed the EU approach towards the war in Ukraine. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (ALDE, centre, centre-left) firmly stated: “If we don’t do more, absolutely more for Ukraine, Ukraine will lose this war, and this would be a catastrophe for the whole world, not only for Europe.” 

Most notable was the reaction of Ursula von der Leyen (EPP, centre-right) to the proposition regarding the political solution to this armed conflict made by Walter Baier (PEL, far-left), which would entail a meeting of the Ukrainian and Russian governments, NATO and the US, with the aim of deciding on a ceasefire and ending the war. The current President of the European Commission said “I beg your pardon, but I have been seven times in Ukraine (…). If you want to end this war, Putin just has to stop fighting, then the war is over.”

THE CANDIDATE FROM AN EASTERN PARTNER COUNTRY

One of the most surprising moments was when Valeriu Ghilețchi (ECPM, Christian right), of whom I had not heard before the debate, revealed his motherland – “Since we are talking about countries of our origin, let me tell you where I am from. I am from the Republic of Moldova.” Moldova is not a Member State of the European Union and was only recently given candidate status. How can a person outside the Union be put forward as the candidate for one of the most important positions in the EU? The answer in this case is that Valeriu Ghilețchi has dual citizenship – beside the Moldovan, he holds Romanian nationality, and Romania is an EU Member State. Valeriu Ghilețchi is unlikely to become President of the European Commission – his political group currently has just four MEPs. Nevertheless, it was rewarding to see the strengthening relations and integration between the EU and the Eastern partner countries through this process. 

THE INSIGHT FROM THE YOUNG EUROPEAN AMBASSADORS 

For Nis, a YEA from Germany, three things stood out from the Maastricht debate. 

Firstly, although I do not share the political leaning of her party, Ursula von der Leyen (EPP, centre-right) was clearly the adult in the room, defending her agenda based on sound argumentation and demonstrating leadership. We should all keep in mind that she is advancing some of her more progressive ideas against the opposition of her own German party.

Secondly, Nis highlighted the importance of presentation of ideas, and the use of discussing and rhetoric in practice, which he felt was most effectively deployed by Bas Eickhout (current Dutch Member of the European Parliament, Greens, left-wing), who was the audience favourite. 

And the last point to remember is the risk of disinformation arising in the context of the European Elections. One of the candidates – Anders Vistisen (ID, far-right) – stood clearly in opposition to the other seven on stage, systematically spreading disinformation. “After the debate, I found an edited version of the debate on YouTube, only showing his statements,” said Nis. “The video was titled ‘Danish Politician Destroys von der Leyen’. Now, everyone who attended and saw the whole debate is able to say that that is not the case, as the current President of the Commission and the other candidates clearly tore his disinformation apart.” But as Nis adds, this does not matter for all those seeing only the edited version, since they then spread further disinformation and division. 

Sara, YEA from Italy, stressed how impactful and helpful such events are, especially for first-time voters.
“Understanding the importance of every single vote and how it shapes our future both nationally and at the EU level means staying informed. Attending the Maastricht debate was an opportunity for me to get informed and experience firsthand what truly concerns our EU leaders and how much of that aligns with our ideas and biggest concerns. Seeing the debate live and listening to the points raised gave me hope for change. In a world facing many threats and challenges, the European response must be strong and unified. I appreciated that young people’s concerns, such as climate change, were included. However, I would have liked more attention given to migration and the EU’s response to it, which was barely touched upon.”

Remember, that these elections depend on you, and as Roberta Metsola, current President of the European Parliament emphasised – “Do not take Europe for granted. Defend it. Shape it. Be it. Vote.” And as Sara said – be informed, and shape your views freely. 

For Michele, another Italian YEA, the most important part was definitely the one related to foreign policy, especially in the context of enlargement and candidates’ commitment to support Ukraine against Russia. 

And last, but definitely not least, is the perception of Leonie, a YEA from Germany, who stressed the importance of staying open-minded and respectful, as everyone has a right to their opinions. 

“I think what I appreciated most about the debate was that it was actually a REAL debate. I think it was great to get all these different people and opinions together. Normally you tend to listen more to what you agree with (I would say), but here you really got to listen to people you wouldn’t necessarily listen to normally. So all in all, very productive!! Would be great to have more of those debates covering candidates from every political spectrum. Maybe that would also increase the trust of some people towards the EU.” 

There was also an opportunity to ask candidates a few questions. I focused on the enlargement, the war in Ukraine and disinformation.

I asked Valeriu Ghilețchi (Moldova, ECPM, Christian right), as the person coming from an Eastern partner country, what are the benefits of enlargement and how it could affect the EU. 

“I do believe that the EU should be open to countries like Moldova and Ukraine. I know that there are many people who are a bit sceptical about enlargement, but if we want a strong EU, a bigger EU, we need to be open to it. Of course we need to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, but it would be a mistake to close the door for enlargement. Countries like Moldova that experienced a Soviet past, or countries like Ukraine, can enrich the EU, the European family. (…) I think there are several ways we can enrich the EU by becoming a member. Culture would be one thing, as we have cultural richness and spiritual values, but also there is that experience [of the Soviet past], which is also very helpful. A country that went through the totalitarian regime appreciates much higher freedoms, and that they are needed. Sometimes people here take them for granted, but we don’t, so this is another way how a country like Moldova can enrich the EU. And I believe young people of Moldova, they also have their own experience and sharing this experience, this partnership, plays a very important role in building bridges and getting to know each other, and accepting and supporting each other helps in building a strong Europe.” 

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Germany, ALDE, centre, centre-left), the Chair of the Defence Committee of the Bundestag, who was sporting a pin with the EU and Ukrainian flags, was asked about the approach towards EU-Ukraine relations and the war in Ukraine.

“First of all, the whole of Europe needs to send more weapons. We help in the areas of economics and humanitarian help, but we have to do more. (…) And other countries are important, which are far away. For example, it is not blaming the country, but if you are in Spain or Portugal, it is really far away for them, but because of that we need to explain that the situation in Ukraine [is of the same importance for them]. And it is interesting, that countries close to the Russian border, Poland, the Baltic states, Northern states, are much more alert than countries, which are far away, and I think that in Europe we need foreign policy together. People living in Portugal must see the same importance [of the solution to the war in Ukraine] as people in Poland do.” 

Asked about Georgia, and what else needs to be done in order for it to join the EU, she warned of the dangers from the Russian side. 

“That is what Putin wants to do – to affect Georgia, Moldova (…). All these countries are ready to be part of the European Union, and Putin will try everything to stop it, but one thing is really important – the EU must reform and we need a majority principle. We are now 27 countries and maybe in a few years, we would be 30, 31 countries, thus it is necessary that we have the majority system, otherwise the EU would not work.”

We also talked about the issue of cybersecurity and the spread of false information on the internet, and how it affects and can influence public opinion in the future. 

“It has been happening for years now. The influence on the internet of all these trolls, it is a huge problem for free elections. The cyberattacks against our freedom of opinions are a kind of war. You have war or peace, but we are in between, and we need to realise that.” 

Maylis Roßberg (Danish minority in Germany, EFA, left-wing), who was the youngest candidate at the age of 24 years old, gave some advice on how to carefully use social media. 

“I see [misinformation, disinformation], as one of the greatest threats currently, I can only ask every young person on social media to ask questions, to be sceptical about what we see. (..) For example the newest AI videos – I am very aware that it’s really hard to tell if this is true or not, so be sceptical, be critical, question what you see, just do not take everything in. Also make sure not to be in your bubble only, but also try to broaden your vision, so that your [opinion] is not taken over by the algorithms.”

She was also one of the most devoted candidates in favour of climate policies, adding that for her, “the main point on the climate change issue at the moment is to keep the Green Deal alive, because it is under threat. The Green Deal is already ambitious, it’s good for combating climate change and for the European Union as well.” 

So remember to #UseYourVote between 6th and 9th of June, and be the change you want to see! The whole Maastricht Debate is available at POLITICO’s channels, so we highly encourage you to see different visions on the issues important for the network of Young European Ambassadors and more! 




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