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The European Parliament was transformed into a glitzy Eurovision-style arena on Wednesday night for the final Spitzenkandidaten debate before next week's EU elections.

Six candidates for the European Commission presidency took to the stage for 90 minutes to discuss migration, unemployment, taxation, trade and populism. Here's the Brussels Briefing's takeaways from the night.

  • Vestager's first outing The Danish competition commissioner, a member of the liberals' “Team Europe”, has run a low-profile campaign, with Wednesday night's debate her most notable contribution to the commission race. But Ms Vestager struggled to shine. Outside her familiar policy areas, like tax and competition, the Dane was overshadowed by her rivals on migration, climate and unemployment. Her highlights included going after Manfred Weber for only praising commissioners from his own centre-right party and quipping that, for her, tax havens are places “where everyone pays tax”.

  • The Timmermans show The Dutch socialist was the most seasoned debater among the Spitzenkandidaten and it showed. Frans Timmermans delivered the most memorable line of the night (“The UK looks like Game of Thrones on steroids”), won applause for tangible proposals like lowering the voting age to 16 and took on Mr Weber for opposing economic reforms promoting social fairness. Having stormed the first debate in Maastricht, the Brussels Briefing ranks the Dutchman as winner once again. 

  • Where are the Eurosceptics? The European Parliament's biggest Eurosceptic group was represented but its candidate spent much of the night praising commission policies on agriculture and tech. Jan Zahradil, a Czech MEP standing for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, said he was broadly in favour of EU integration but only on the big things. His moderate positions meant there was a glaring absence of the more virulent brand of Euroscepticism that will end up making gains in places like Italy, the Netherlands, France and Spain next week.

  • Lively, despite the format It took a while to get going but the debate did end up revealing some notable policy differences between the candidates on the best way to fight climate change and the next commission's approach to international trade deals. There was a healthy amount of sparring, despite the awkward interjections from social media which were well-intentioned but ended up adding nothing to proceedings.

What Europe made of the debate

  • Friends of the Earth's Twitter account provided the most cutting analysis of the night

  • Der Spiegel think it's advantage Vestager

  • EUObserver on why the razzmatazz debate is little more than a sideshow: the likely next commission president wasn't standing on the stage

  • El Mundo on the shortcomings of the format: “it was less an exchange and more a succession of monologues.”

Chart du jour: Germany bounces back

Germany's economy ended its soggy patch by recording quarterly growth of 0.4 per cent at the start of the year, according to latest figures. The imprint was in line with the rest of the eurozone and marks a decent recovery after a torrid second half of 2018. But Berlin's policymakers aren't rejoicing just yet. “Growth in the first quarter of this year is a first sign of light, but it’s no reason to sound the all-clear,” warned Peter Altmaier, economy minister. (FT)

What we're reading

Merkel speaks
In an interview with SZ, the German chancellor reveals tensions in her relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron: “We wrestle with each other, there are differences in mentality between us and differences in understanding roles”. But Ms Merkel insists the Franco-German engine remains on the same “wavelength” when it comes to defence and the eurozone and she rejected the charge that she's always blocking Mr Macron's heady visions:

“I am the Chancellor of a coalition government and much more tied to parliament than the French President, who is not allowed to enter the National Assembly at all…but on the key issues — direction of Europe, the economy, responsibility for the climate and Africa, are we on a very similar wavelength.”

Engines stalled
Donald Trump has handed the EU a reprieve by delaying an impending decision over whether to slap car tariffs on Europe and Japan for as much as six months. The FT has more.

Ever greater disunion
The Guardian reports on a major new poll from YouGov for the European Council of Foreign Relations which shows a majority of EU citizens think the European project is at risk of disintegrating within a generation. Slovak and French citizens are the most pessimistic in thinking the EU is “very likely or fairly likely to fall apart within 20 years”.

Schizophrenic Schnitzel
Jean-Claude Juncker, commission president, hits back at claims from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that Europe is gripped by “regulation mania”, denying that Brussels is micromanaging how to cook schnitzels and chips. Mr Juncker also told Austria’s Der Standard that he doesn't think Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is interested in being his successor.

Dragon slayer
Mr Rutte has attacked the “disastrous” policies of Nexit-supporting populist Thierry Baudet, and challenged his upstart rival to a debate. Mr Baudet took to Twitter offering Mr Rutte signed copies of his books to help him prepare. Volkskrant dubs Mr Rutte the “dragon slayer in search of a new dragon”. 

The end of the party?
It's the EU's biggest network of centre-right influence, bringing together heads of state from across Europe and dominating Brussels’ top jobs for decades. But the European People's party is facing a crisis. Alex Barker reports for the FT's Big Read:

“That big tent philosophy is no longer credible if the contradictions cannot be managed within one movement,” says Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch political theorist and former EU official.

A man's world
Brussels is struggling to muster top female names for its big jobs, and so is Frankfurt. To help, Bloomberg has compiled the names of 10 women who could take up places on the European Central Bank's executive board including France's Sylvie Goulard, Germany's Claudia Buch and the OECD's Laurence Boone. Politico has come up with 14 other women who could run the EU institutions. 

Scrap the veto
Leonard Schuette at the Centre for European Reform makes the case for majority voting in EU foreign policy on sanctions and human rights issues. 

Coming up today
Eurozone finance ministers meet in Brussels on Thursday afternoon to discuss the health of the economy and to discuss how to raise revenues for the bloc's budgetary instrument ahead of a June deadline.

mehreen.khan@ft.com; @mehreenkhn

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