16/05/2014 16:09 BST | Updated 17/05/2014 09:59 BST

EU Elections 2014: The Most Important Presidential Debate You Didn't Even Know Was Taking Place

JOHN THYS via Getty Images
(LtoR) Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the left-wing Greek party Syriza, German European MP Franziska Keller aka Ska Keller, co-candidate for the European Commission presidency, top candidate of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the 2014 European elections Martin Schulz are pictured before a debate on May 15,2014 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The most important presidential debate you didn’t even know was taking place has happened, and we bet you can’t name a single candidate.

As voices of doom continue to lament that our laws come from faceless unelected bureaucrats in Europe, now may be the time to ask them if they watched the EU debate on TV.

What EU debate you ask?

On Thursday night, five rivals for the EU's top job took to the stage in front of a packed and boisterous audience in Brussels to argue over key issues facing the UK, including the economic crisis and immigration in a live TV debate.

The party candidates were trying to impress millions of European voters in the 28-nation bloc, vying for the job of president of the European Commission, and acknowledging that the European elections face a lack of engagement.

“In my opinion, if citizens follow the debate, they have a much clearer opinion about what the European Union does than they had one hour and a half ago,” said Jaume Duch, spokesperson for the European Parliament.

The problem is, it seems, is that the key debate went by almost completely unnoticed in the UK.

In fact, despite the debate being a crucial part of the political campaigning ahead of the 22-25 May European elections, it barely registered on the news agenda here in the UK – with hardly a single news story appearing in the morning papers.

Even more worrying for the pro-Europe camp is that 60% of voters surveyed across Europe by Ipsos-Mori last week still have no idea who is partaking in the race to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso, and if they do, they don't particularly care.

The debate was broadcast live on the BBC Parliament channel and on the web on Democracy Live. It was shown all over Europe - on 49 TV channels - and in 24 languages to a vast audience of 340 million potential voters.

But did anyone watch it in the UK? Though critical in the running of our country, it is unlikely the debate drew millions of viewers (the BBC have been contacted for clarification.)

The newly-elected President of the European Commission will be given the huge task of being in charge of the EU’s executive arm responsible for the day-to-day running of the bloc. They will set the policy agenda of the Commission, the only body able to propose new EU laws, and represent the EU on the world stage.

Who's in the running? Fighting for the job are; Greens' leader Ska Keller, Jean-Claude Juncker of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) bloc; Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats (S&D); Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberals (ALDE) and Alexis Tsipras of the European Left.

Reporting at the event, the BBC described how Verhofstadt "crackled with energy," Keller, "was fluent and persuasive," and Tsipras, "ruffled some feathers." Frontrunners Juncker and Schulz, meanwhile, typically spoke with great passion about European solidarity. The watching cognoscenti cheered and engaged as the leaders spoke but, closer to home, the question remains on how to revive those disenchanted with the European project.

The debate did attract some interest online. A search for the hashtag #Telleurope, which viewers had been asked to use, produced more than 70,000 hits on Twitter. On Facebook, #Telleurope was trending in both Germany and Italy, the Wall Street Journal reported.

But, again Britain was largely absent from the debate. The most fans of Facebook's Eurovision Debate page (not the song contest) are from Italy, then Spain and Belgium, while most Facebook chatter during the debate came from people aged 25-44, with a predominantly male audience. Facebook data also show that three topics received the highest spikes in conversation: banking, lobbying and referendum - concerning Scotland and Catalonia.

So, what happens next?

After next week, the party which gets the most seats in the elections wins the prize of selecting the EU's chief executive. Although the public cannot directly elect one of the five candidates, the result of the vote must be taken into account when appointing the new Commission president, likely to be decided at an EU summit at the end of June.

But the election has already faced accusations of being irrelevant because all five candidates are "cut from the same cloth."

Juncker or his main rival, Schulz, are both passionately pro-EU at a time when calls for greater integration are being treated sceptically by the disillusioned British public and, more widely, a Europe struck by unemployment and austerity.

As the BBC's Gavin Hewitt commented after watching the debate: "There was no big clash of ideas or personalities. Nearly all the candidates believe that the answer to almost any problem lies with more Europe."

The independent think tank Open Europe has argued that voter apathy is because "the European Parliament has failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy."

Data from the European Commission’s own Eurobarometer public opinion surveys shows that, across the EU, there is no correlation between voter turnout and awareness of the European Parliament or interest in EU affairs.

“They are all associated with the Brussels elite that has led Europe into this situation where we are desperately looking around for ways to get people engaged,” Open Europe's research director Stephen Booth said.