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EU candidates trade barbs over eurosceptic threat, Europe's role

28 April 2014, 20:47 CET
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(MAASTRICHT) - Four of the top candidates to head the European Commission traded barbs Monday over how best to counter growing eurosceptic sentiment and make the European Union relevant to ordinary people.

"We need to take seriously the fears of the people," former Belgian premier and Liberal hope Guy Verhofstadt said, referring to far-right parties playing the anti-immigration card in end-May European Parliament elections.

"All these problems need a European solution," Verhofstadt said during a debate organised by the Euronews channel in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

Socialist Martin Schulz, current head of the parliament, said it was not too late to tackle the problem, stressing "we need to have dialogue with citizens... we have to show we (have solutions)."

Ska Keller of the Greens, in remarks targeting her centre-right opponent Jean-Claude Juncker, warned against such parties taking up far-right slogans and issues in an effort to outflank the extremists.

That "only strengthens them.... It is really dangerous to be afraid of confronting the far right," Keller said to rare applause.

Juncker, former Luxembourg premier and backed by the European People's Party, the single biggest group in the current parliament, said "you have to make a difference between those criticising... and those against" European values.

"I will not debate with them," he said, adding that they were not "part of the European family."

Verhofstadt quickly pointed out that there were some strong eurosceptic elements in the EPP, singling out former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi as an example.

"It is time you make your choice," he charged.

"That is exactly what I am doing.... I don't accept it.... I made it absolutely clear," Juncker said.

Juncker earlier Monday issued a strong statement saying he was "sickened" by remarks Berlusconi made Saturday in which the Italian ex-premier said Germans deny the existence of Nazi concentration camps. Juncker called on his erstwhile political ally to withdraw his comments.

- Legal economic migration -

Juncker, Verhofstadt and Schulz found common ground in calling for legal economic migration so as to manage the problem better.

"If I am (named) president this would be one of my first priorities," Schulz said.

As for getting people to vote, to show it counted, Schulz said the election had to demonstrate the value of the democratic process.

Up to now the head of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has emerged from a process of political horse-trading.

This time, the now 28 member states are supposed to take into account the outcome of the vote for the European Parliament.

Schulz and Verhofstadt in particular stressed how important it was that EU leaders follow that course so as to reinforce the Commission's democratic standing.

On foreign policy, Juncker said the EU "cannot accept the way Russia is behaving" in Ukraine. "We have to stand up and fight for European values in our neighbourhood."

"Putin shall not stop if he sees weakness," Verhofstadt said, while Schulz stressed that EU efforts should concentrate on helping Ukraine keep together and resolve its many problems.

Monday's televised debate is the first of several ahead of the May 22-25 elections when some 400 million EU citizens will have the opportunity to vote.

The EPP and Socialists are running neck and next, according to recent surveys, with the Liberals a distant third.

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