The State of the Union Debate: Have Citizens´ Key Concerns Been Addressed?

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On May the 9th, the second of a series of three Europe-wide televised debates between the candidates for European Commission President was held in Florence. We have chosen to focus on this debate, for it was scheduled to coincide with highly symbolic Europe Day, celebrated annually on May the 9th, in honour of Robert Schuman´s historic speech on European integration in 1950. It was also organised by the European University Institute.

State of the Union photo

In the State of the Union debate, four of the six candidates running took part: José Bové, candidate for the European Green Party (his co-candidate Ska Keller, was not able to attend), Jean-Claude Junker, European People´s Party, Martin Schulz, Party of European Socialists, and Guy Verhofstadt, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Alexis Tsipras, Party of the European Left, was also not able to attend. The debate was moderated by Tony Barber, Europe Editor of the Financial Times, Monica Maggioni, RAI News 24 and Joseph Weiler, President of the European University Institute.

This series of televised debates is meant to inject a greater dose of democratisation and transparency into the 2014 European elections. However, the questions focused heavily on institutional themes and issues of foreign policy, to the relative neglect of the concrete discussion of social and economic problems of direct concern to citizens, especially during an era of widespread austerity measures. In particular, the first part of the debate was almost exclusively occupied by questions on whether national governments would in fact nominate the candidates for European Commission President, regardless of the results of the election, something which all the candidates vigorously condemned. Only one question was posed on economic growth, during which several of the candidates did not address the critical issue of job creation. Immigration was touched upon, very briefly, only at the very end of the debate, and the answers revealed that migration continues to be defined and framed as a problem and burden for the EUI. Despite its relevance to both deepening democracy and stimulating the economy, not one question was posed on gender equality, contradicting both the spirit and founding ideals of the EU. Indeed, a number of issues of direct concern to EU citizens, notably the practical obstacles to intra-European mobility, were unfortunately not discussed during this important debate.

Economy: what about job creation?

In a Europe already weakened by an ongoing social and economic crisis, affecting the daily lives of millions of citizens and threatening the professional prospects of future generations, it is not surprising that employment and job creation are priority matters at the core of political agendas. The latest Eurostat estimations worryingly reveal that 25. 699 million men and women are currently unemployed in the 28 Member States of the EU; with a total unemployment rate of 10, 5 %, the highest being registered in Greece (26, 7%) and Spain (25, 3 %)[1].

While this topic was indeed discussed by the candidates on the occasion of the State of the Union Conference, the question remains as to whether (and to what extent) the general statements and proposals made by the candidates concretely addressed the key problems of EU citizens and sufficiently responded to the concerns of those who are currently unemployed. After an important part of the debate dedicated to institutional and procedural aspects of the electoral process (which while important does not address most citizens’ priorities), when the candidates were asked to outline their main priorities and suggest measures to stimulate economic growth and create jobs, most of their answers either lacked a microeconomic-perspective, or did not even make any concrete commitment regarding unemployment or job creation.

First of all, both Bové and Verhofstadt mainly focused on the aspect of economic growth, vaguely speaking of energy policy and calling for an autonomous budget for Europe in order to shape a comprehensive economic and social policy (for the former) or arguing for innovation, European integration and banking union for the latter. It appears that the global questions posed by the moderators essentially led candidates to focus their answers on the aspect of economic growth, to the detriment of the issue of job creation, which urgently need concrete solutions and investment, especially at a time in which Member States are engaged in various austerity measures promoted by the EU itself. Junker referred repeatedly to the concept of ‘fiscal consolidation’, without explaining how this would benefit rather than harm job creation. On the contrary, Schulz (European Socialists), after having openly denounced the high amount of European money used for speculative purposes and the considerable losses due to tax fraud, emphasised the importance of investing this money in favour of small and medium enterprises, particularly in Member States facing the highest youth unemployment rates. In Europe, currently 5, 340 million young people – under 25 – are identified as unemployed at the EU-level, with a general rate of 22, 8% , the highest  rates observed in Greece (56, 8 %), Spain (53, 9%) and Croatia (49 %). These statistics clearly illustrate the urgency of developing deep structural changes. A proposal was made by Schulz to facilitate access to credit for small and medium enterprises employing young people, making them beneficiaries of preferential credit rates. While such solutions have the merit of providing concrete proposals in terms of youth unemployment and tackling practical difficulties encountered by enterprises, it remains to be seen however whether this alone would be sufficient (financial support of research and development and professional training was not mentioned), and to what extent this will reach enough young people.

Migration: Moving forward?

The question on immigration was relegated to the very end of the debate. Although the candidates are to be commended for acknowledging that Europe is a continent of migration, and that migration is indeed necessary given the increasing aging of the EU´s population, the way in which the debate was framed reveals that migrants continue to be perceived as negative, a burden to be managed and shared, and associated with illegality and criminality. Bové, although declaring that it makes no sense for Europe “to build walls”, did not specify what he meant when he affirmed that “we need a political and social answer to migrants”. Given that many migrants are working, often in exploitative conditions, in European agriculture (Bové himself being a cheese farmer), his response was quite vague. The majority of candidates drew a firm line between legal migration, which appears to be linked to highly-skilled migration and which is to be encouraged at the policy level, and illegal migration, which was often conflated with refugees and asylum seekers. Junker reinforced popular images and fears of an immigrant ´invasion´ of Europe, when he twice referred to “waves of refugees and asylum seekers” and stressed the need to prevent “Africans taking a boat” in the first place through enhanced development aid to African countries. The message was clear: while legal migration will be tolerated (although the exact modalities of this legal migration were not discussed), the tacit aim should be to prevent all other migrants, including refugees, from reaching the EU. In reality, to take the example of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the EU is shouldering a relatively small share of the refugee flow. While Turkey currently hosts approximately 750, 000 Syrian refugees, EU Member States have accepted 42, 000 Syrian asylum claims, a further 30, 000 are pending, and the EU has offered to permanently resettle just 12, 300 Syrian refugees who have not managed to reach Europe´s shores to apply for asylum.[2] Verhofstadt echoed Junker´s approach by repeatedly making reference to the “problem” and “burden” of illegal migration, which implies that all refugees and migrants that arrive irregularly will be a drain on Member States´ finances and infrastructure- that they are somehow incapable of contributing positively to the growth of the EU. In fact, many immigrants who were once irregular, have since regularised their legal status and made important contributions to local economies, without displacing native workers or requiring government assistance. In Southern Europe, the domestic care sector is a good example, where migrant women in particular are playing a vital role in caring for children and the elderly of European families, in part compensating for the weak government provision of childcare.

None of the candidates mentioned the European Blue Card Scheme for attracting highly skilled migrants, which has been applied unevenly throughout the EU (three MS have not adhered to the Blue Card Directive), and furthermore competes with pre-existing national programmes for attracting highly skilled migrants, leading to confusion for potential Third Country National applicants. The Blue Card scheme, while a step in the right direction, suffers from a number of limitations (notably on intra-European mobility), that need to be addressed at the EU level in order to make it more effective and more competitive with similar programmes in the US, Canada and other countries.

However, perhaps the greatest weakness of the discussion on migration was the resounding absence of any debate about how to ensure the full inclusion of new European citizens. We continue to speak of the amorphous category of migrants, while ignoring that their children, born and raised on European soil, need to be given political equality (in most European countries, they must wait until the age of 18 to be granted citizenship of the country of their birth), and be given equality of opportunity in practice to contribute to their countries. The problem in Europe is that even legal immigrants and their offspring, and not just ´illegal´ immigrants, are perceived as not quite legitimate and are often stigmatised in public and media discourse. In this sense, Schulz´s comment on the Pope being the child of legal Italian immigrants to Argentina is a welcome message that can contribute towards humanising migrants and their families.

Gender blindness

The recently released EU Report on Progress on Equality between Women and Men shows that while some progress has been made, particularly in the area of education, a number of gender gaps remain in other areas, such as the pay gap (women across Europe are paid 16% less than men for the same hour of work), the labour force participation rate (63% versus 75% for men), the pension gap (which stands at 39%), the gender imbalance in political representation, and the severe gender shortage on company boards. In addition, women spend an average of 26 hours on non-remunerated care and household activities, compared with 9 hours for men. As the 2013 Gender Equality report states, if current trends continue without legislative intervention, it will take almost 30 years to reach the EU´s target of 75% of women in employment, over 70 years to make equal pay a reality, over 20 years to achieve at least 40% representation in national parliaments and over 20 years to achieve greater gender balance on the boards of Europe´s biggest companies. [3]

Clearly then, there is a pressing need for strong, legally binding action and leadership from the European Commission on gender equality across a range of policy areas. Yes, this important policy area was completely ignored during the debate. Not one question was posed on what the candidates would do to promote greater equality during their mandate. Only Verhofstadt touched upon gender equality in passing, when he declared that commissioner portfolios should be distributed without recourse to gender stereotypes, so that the “soft portfolios” are not always assigned to women and “hard portfolios” to men. Projections from an OECD study show that if Italy, which has the EU´s second lowest female labour participation rate (just 51%), increased the rate of women´s participation in the workforce to match that of men´s by 2030, per capita GDP would grow by 1% per year, families would be economically stronger, and the aging of Europe´s population mitigated.[4] Much more need to be done to ensure that more women, particularly women with young children, can effectively participate in the labour market through measures such as flexible working time and affordable childcare arrangements.

In the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and employment, the EU issued a number of country-specific recommendations on gender equality to 13 different Member States.[5] However, while laudable, these remain recommendations and are not legally enforceable. More Directives are needed, such as the Directive on parental leave passed in 2010. However, although legally binding, European Directives are not necessarily implemented in practice. It would have been useful to hear the candidate´s views both on what concrete measures that would pass to improve gender equality, as well as what they would do to enhance enforcement in Member States who have simply transposed Directives without actively ensuring their implementation. Seeing four middle-aged men debate democracy while completely ignoring gender quality, does not send a hopeful message to Europe´s population. Future debates should ensure that questions of gender are not seen as separate from the broader movement to democratise Europe´s institutions.

Intra-EU Mobility and Access to the Labour Market

When addressing the issue of employment, none of the candidates referred to the closely related, and certainly equally crucial issue of labour mobility, stressed by the EU Council as a factor contributing to the strengthening of the infrastructure of labour markets in the EU and an instrument for more effectively cushioning the effects of economic restructuring[6]. Despite this general consensus on the benefits of a strong EU intra-mobility policy and the consecration by the Treaty of Rome of the right to free movement of workers, its exercise by EU citizens remains in practice limited, mainly due to administrative difficulties.  The issue of intra-European mobility was however raised by Verhofstadt (Liberals), at another stage of the debate, when candidates were asked to further develop on their positions regarding the immigration policy to be adopted by the European Union. Within this context, Verhofstadt stressed the very low intra-mobility rate currently observed in the European Union (2, 5%), four times less than the US labour mobility rate (10%), whereas approximately 4 million jobs are still vacant in the EU. He therefore suggested putting in place a comprehensive European mobility scheme aimed at granting an allowance to people willing to work in another country, based on an allowance of the country of origin.  This system is meant to be a major incentive for labour mobility (reducing the financial costs and risks supported by the migrant) and an alternative solution to the traditionally feared “welfare shopping”. However, further explanations would have been welcome, such as the potential applicability of the European mobility scheme to Third Country Nationals and the modalities of its implementation. Additionally, nothing was said about a potential harmonization action to be undertaken at the EU level regarding the amount of those allowances, or about possible alternative sources of funding.

Indeed, despite a current EU legal framework seeking to promote greater labour mobility, important obstacles remain, both for Third Country Nationals[7] and EU citizens. For the latter, while formal restrictions on freedom of movement do not exist, internal mobility remains effectively limited by financial constraints generated by moving, legal and administrative barriers (ongoing lack of recognition of non-formal or informal prior learning[8], non-automatically transferable pension rights, limited access to information regarding job opportunities abroad  and the lack of consistent recognition across the EU of all spouses/partners for the purposes of family reunification), as well as linguistic obstacles.

Finally, one might have expected that another component of the EC’s youth employment package would have received more attention by candidates, namely the mobility of young workers. Conscious of the positive impact of such mobility on the overall EU economy, the strengthening of EU citizenship and the development of job opportunities, the EU has adopted a range of schemes in order to facilitate access to the labour market for young people. [9] Nevertheless, beyond the obstacles listed above shared by all EU citizens regardless of age (e.g. language barriers, (non)portability of social rights, bureaucratic issues), it must be noted that an increasing number of highly qualified graduates hold non paid or very poorly paid internships/apprenticeships in Europe (according to a recent survey conducted by the European Youth Forum of 3, 028 interns, around half of internships are unpaid. Of the remaining paid internships, 45% of interviewed interns declared their compensation was insufficient to cover day- to- day expenses [10]). These internships are in both the private and the public sector, and do not lead to permanent youth employment, even though this is a stated goal of EU leaders. Indeed, such traineeships represent a financial burden not only for young people, but also indirectly for Member States themselves as these internships do not contribute to social security and national tax systems. Considering that these internships tend to be undervalued or sometimes not even considered as relevant professional experience by subsequent employers, a thorough reform of the EU internship system is essential in order to effectively ensure long-term access for young people to the EU labour market and, more fundamentally, to remind EU political leaders that interns are workers and should be treated as such.


While holding a high-profile televised debate among contenders for European Commission President is certainly a step in the right direction towards greater democratisation, the content of such debates must also be framed in a way that is not elitist and responds to citizens´ genuine worries and concerns. The State of the Union debate, thanks in large part to the actual questions posed, as well as those that were missing, failed to elucidate a critical mass of concrete solutions across a range of policy areas. With too much discussion of institutional relations and a general consensus that the 3% public deficit limit should not be touched, citizens were once again left with the impression of elitist, out-of-touch European institutions that are unresponsive to their needs. For a more open and ´grassroots´ debate to be held in the future, citizens should be given greater scope to ask questions directly to the candidates, and the everyday problems of EU citizens and residents should be centre stage.

Kathryn Lum, Research Fellow at the MPC

Géraldine Renaudière, Research Assistant at the MPC

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.


[1] Unemployment statistics (statistics explained), March 2014 (

[2] Amnesty International Briefing, 2013. An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis. Available at: Accessed 16.05.2014.

[3] European Commission, 2014. Report on Progress on equality between women and men in 2013. Available at: Accessed 16.05.2014.

[4] OECD, 2012. Closing the Gender Gap: ACT NOW Italia. Available at: Accessed 16.05.2014.

[5] For example, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and Estonia were recommended to improve childcare availability/affordability.

[6]Council Decision 2005/600/EC of 12 July 2005 on guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States.

[7] For instance, ‘highly qualified’ immigrants, holders of a Blue card according to the Directive 2009/50/EC and therefore theoretically entitled to the right to free movement, face practical difficulties in terms of EU intra-mobility given the minimum required period of 18 months of legal residence in the first Member State as well as other requirements imposed by national authorities before moving to another Member State

[8] Despite the Directive 2013/55/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 amending Directive 2005/36/EC on the recognition of professional qualifications and Regulation (EU) No 1024/2012 on administrative cooperation through the Internal Market Information System (‘the IMI Regulation’), pushing for greater automatic recognition of qualifications and extending the scope of the system to more professions. See on that matter the EUA Briefing Note on Directive 2013/55/EU, containing the amendments to Directive 2005/36/EC on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications, January 2014.

[9] Erasmus for young entrepreneurs and Leonardo Da Vinci programmes apprenticeships, Youth on the Move, Youth Opportunities Initiatives, the European Credit system for Vocational education and training, the EURES platform aimed at helping jobseekers to find job opportunities abroad, are just a few examples.

[10] European Youth Forum publication, ‘Interns revealed. A survey on internship quality in Europe’, 2011