Parliamentary game show yields no clear winner but plenty to laugh at

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol.7, No.44, 29.11.01, p11
Publication Date 29/11/2001
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Date: 29/11/01

By Gareth Harding

IT WAS hardly Kennedy vs Nixon, but last night's presidential debate in the European Parliament was probably the closest Brussels has ever come to a head-to-head political contest.

There was a buzz as the candidates entered the room, heckles from MEPs as they rose to speak and even the occasional "Hear Hear" from crusty Conservative members more accustomed to the House of Commons. All in all, it was a damn sight livelier than the "Senate style" auditions for European Commissioners in 1999, which were about as exciting as North Korean politburo elections.

The set helped. With its slogans and squiggles scrawled across a purple backdrop it looked like the launch of a new software programme. Unfortunately, this being the European Parliament and not Microsoft central, a technical glitch with David Martin's headset delayed the start of the debate for 20 minutes. "My loop must have got bundled," said the Scottish Socialist to the delight of the three audience members who knew what he was talking about.

Once the loop was unbundled and the slow handclaps from MEPs had stopped it was time for Socialist MEP Michiel van Hulten to give a little pep talk on the work of the Campaign for Parliament Reform, which organised the event alongside European Voice. Van Hulten might look like the Milky Bar Kid but he sounds as though he has already been the head honcho of the EU assembly in a previous life. "We need to have one seat for Parliament," he said to wild applause, "and that seat should be in Brussels," he added to stony silence. On a cold, wet night in November, he might have been wiser suggesting Seville or Sardinia.

Behind him, the five candidates - Liberal leader Pat Cox, Socialist VP David Martin, Green Gerard Onesta, far-left hopeful Francis Wurtz and Danish Eurosceptic Jens-Peter Bonde - swivelled on their stools like contestants in the smash hit British TV programme Blind Date.

The game-show host, European Voice editor Dennis Abbott, even introduced the five middle-aged men in the suggestive style of the much-copied series. We found out that it was Cox's birthday, that Onesta plays lead guitar in a rock band and that Bonde is known to his friends as "Mr Transparency".

Luckily, Denmark's most famous "nay sayer" was not nakedly transparent. In fact, all the candidates had definitely dressed to impress. Wurtz had got rid of his Krusty the Clown haircut, Martin and Cox had their hair neatly parted like schoolboys and Onesta tucked away his chest hairs and wore a tie ("I'm practicing for when I'm President," he said to howls of laughter).

Martin was number one on the speakers' list - giving the veteran MEP a chance to get his clich├ęs in first. "I promise to be president for all of Parliament," he said and you could see the other contestants scribbling out similar slogans from their speeches.

Cox, who is usually one of the Parliament's finest orators, gave a low-key speech littered with his usual catch phrases about reconnecting and reaching out. But it was during the debate with journalists that the sound-bite specialist came into his own.

Swedish reporter Emily Von Sydow was quick to spot the similarities between leading men Cox and Martin. "You're both nice looking, English speaking academics in your late 40s. How do you think the European voters will be able to tell the difference, because I can't?" she asked provocatively.

This is usually the point in Blind Date when one of the contenders whips out a smart-alec answer and Cox did not disappoint. "Surely I'm better looking," the former TV presenter pleaded. Von Sydow looked unconvinced - by both Cox's boast and the amount of clear blue water between him and his Socialist rival. The Liberal leader replied with the nearest thing to a knockout punch the night's sparring would produce. "David Martin is an excellent vice-president and I hope he remains that," he said to audience oohs and aahs.

At the close of Parliament's first-ever presidential debate, though, everyone had kissed and made up. Summing up his thoughts after an hour and a half of thirst-quenching jaw-jaw, Cox quipped: "I feel half Irish and half Scottish - I'm dying for a drink but I want to avoid paying for it."

In the end, none of the candidates had to pay for his drinks. The bill was picked up by consultancy Burson Marsteller, who conveniently left copies of their latest survey lying around for MEPs to read. Its title? "A Guide to Effective Lobbying of the European Parliament".

Feature on the televised debate between the candidates for the presidency of the European Parliament.

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