EU politicians focus on economy in first TV debate

BRUSSELS Mon Apr 28, 2014 3:39pm EDT

Candidates for the presidency of the European Commission (L-R) Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, Martin Schulz of the Party of European Socialists, Ska Keller of the European Green Party and Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People's Party return to the first European Presidential Debate after posing for a picture at the Theater aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Candidates for the presidency of the European Commission (L-R) Guy Verhofstadt of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, Martin Schulz of the Party of European Socialists, Ska Keller of the European Green Party and Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People's Party return to the first European Presidential Debate after posing for a picture at the Theater aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht April 28, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Kooren

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The four main candidates to head the European Commission held a televised debate on Monday, the first of its kind as the European Union seeks to show its relevance to increasingly hostile voters ahead of an EU election.

Although EU citizens do not directly elect the Commission - the body that drafts and enforces EU legislation - the debate by representatives of the four main groups in the European Parliament showed voters the main political stances on offer at elections to the assembly to be held on May 22-25.

None of the four candidates - representatives of the center-left, center-right, centrist and green groups in parliament - are household names outside their own countries and it was unclear how many people tuned in to rolling news channel Euronews to see the 90-minute debate.

But the politicians displayed clear policy differences in a debate focused on the economy of a continent still recovering from a crisis that at one point looked like a threat to the euro currency.

"I am campaigning for a Europe that creates jobs and growth without spending money we don't have," said Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, representing the center-right European People's Party, which is marginally ahead of the center-left Social Democrats in polls.

"I don't have a project of austerity. I am in favor of sound public finances because there is no growth without sound public finances," said Juncker, 59, who chaired the euro zone's finance ministers' meetings during the crisis, a role that opened him up for criticism at the time but has allowed him to tout his crisis-fighting credentials now that the worst is over.

LIFE CHANCES

For the Social Democrats, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, 58, a staunch critic of austerity policies [ID:nL6N0MY0D5], argued that more money should be spent helping young people find jobs - a message that resonated with the audience at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

As a result of deep budget cuts, he said "a whole generation in the European Union pays with their life chances for a crisis that other people, irresponsible people, have caused. I want to change Europe in another direction."

In the center, Guy Verhofstadt, 61, a former prime minister of Belgium represented the Liberals, and Ska Keller, 32, the only woman, was there for the Greens.

The successor to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a center-right politician from Portugal, will be appointed by EU leaders and confirmed by the European Parliament.

Whichever party comes top in the elections will be best placed to have its candidate become European Commission chief - an influential role that is meant to be above politics. Juncker and Schulz are well placed, but neither is sure to get the job.

While the four groups represented in the debate are likely to win around 70 percent of the seats in May's elections, anti-EU and protest parties on the left and the right are expected to make gains among voters disillusioned with the EU or who want to punish their national governments.

(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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