Tonight it falls to Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to save the European Union for Britain. He won’t be in Brussels or Kiev, he’ll be in a radio studio in London, facing off against the leader of a fringe political party with no MPs and better known for the madcap members it has had to expel than its policy. Yet, despite the anticlimactic setting, when Clegg debates British membership of the EU with Nigel Farage tonight he could go a long way to shaping public perception of the EU prior to next years’ election.
The radio debate, as well as the televised debate a week later, marks the first time two major political figures have agreed to talk openly about the EU for some time. In many ways Clegg and Farage are the only two of the four most prominent party leaders that can talk openly about Europe. David Cameron must, in every comment he makes on the EU, give the euroskeptics in his own party enough to feed on while not alienating the European community he is trying to be a player in. Meanwhile Ed Miliband appears to be on a quest to please everyone (probably why Labour’s poll lead has been slowly narrowing in recent weeks) so while one might expect his party to be pro-Europe he has sounded remarkably unconvinced. On the other hand Farage, a leader of a party whose entire platform is based upon opposing EU membership, and Clegg, leader of a party which has long been pro-EU and who needs to appear more than Cameron’s fall guy, are free to go at each other with gusto.
No one should expect either debate to be all about Europe. Modern politics is too twisted to expect the opportunity for some point scoring to take place. Equally the idea that these two debates are going to be the only factor that shapes public opinion on Europe in the lead up to 2015 is also wrong. The way that the weekly sabre rattling at Prime Minister’s Questions is largely ignored outside of Westminster shows that just paring politicians against each other is not enough to get the people’s blood pumping. However the draw of a one on one debate without prepared questions should be great. The fact that Clegg and Farage are limited to a single issue will also help frame the debate. Compared to PMQs, where questioning can flip schizophrenically between topics, these two debates should allow listeners and viewers to properly digest the topic at hand.
So what does Clegg need to do to do in order to come out on top? Not as much as you might think. UKIP’s critique of the EU is largely based on prejudice rather than hard facts. If Lib Dem HQ isn’t awash with fact sheets on the economic benefits of EU membership and exact statistics on immigration then a gaping opportunity to show up UKIP has been missed. There is a convincing political and social argument for EU membership and greater integration with the continent, but what will really sway people is hard numbers concerning what exactly Britain gets from the EU.
And when the inevitable backbiting begins? Yes Clegg did used to work at the EU but he’s never taken the EU’s money while simultaneously criticising it. Farage can be made to look like a hypocrite without breaking a sweat, mainly because he is one. Recent allegations about him having employed his wife and ‘mistress’ through the EU can hardly help that appearance. On paper the Lib Dems should be confident of a win, with the double bonus of a publicity boost for their leader and a very public fact checking of some of the opposition on EU membership. However, not everything is as simple as it appears on paper. No one should expect the next two Wednesday nights to go off without a bang.