Top EU election candidates struggle to find differences

PARIS (Reuters) – The top two rival candidates to lead the European Commission struggled yesterday to find real policy differences in the first live television debate ahead of European Parliament elections next month.

Centre-right Jean-Claude Juncker and Social Democrat Martin Schulz – whose native languages are Luxembourgish and German – argued politely in French over the appropriate balance between budget austerity and investment to promote economic growth in a 50-minute debate on France 24 television.

But they agreed far more often than they disagreed in a pro-European consensus that may be exploited by anti-EU populists of the far right and hard left, who blame policies made in Brussels for the continent’s economic crisis and mass unemployment.

Juncker, 59, the veteran former Luxembourg prime minister and chairman of euro group finance ministers, stressed the need to maintain tight control of public finances and said he could see no grounds to give France more time to reduce its deficit.

“France has already had two extensions to its period of adjustment. A priori there is no obvious reason why it should get a third one,” he said, while noting that the European authorities would study France’s budget plans before deciding.

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