U.K. voters who hope their country stays married to the EU got quite a shock in two recent public debates. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg
U.K. voters who hope their country stays married to the EU got quite a shock in two recent public debates. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

The U.K. just held two public debates on whether to stay in the European Union, pitting Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg against the head of a small anti-EU and anti-immigration party that has no elected members of Parliament.

For anyone who thinks a U.K. exit would be bad for Britain and Europe, these could have been episodes in a television horror series.

In both debates, Independence Party leader Nigel Farage made his case with a mix of half-truths, myths, dog-whistling to prejudice and appealing directness. Clegg, despite his reputation as a strong TV debater, was unable to expose the shibboleths or build a strong case of his own. He seemed to read from a list of talking points.

An instant YouGov Plc poll found that Farage won last night's debate by 68 percent to 27 percent, an even wider margin than the first encounter a week earlier.

Clegg was creamed because he was arrogant and less prepared. Whereas Clegg has a day job, Farage is an obsessive single-issue politician who lives and breathes the cause of getting Britain out of the EU. Clegg seemed to think his main task was to discredit Farage personally, and he lacked the data to address the Independence Party leader's arguments.

These debates have two implications: First, expect a storming performance from the Independence Party at the European Elections in May. The fruits of the economic crisis will be measured then in a poll that will amount to a referendum on how much Europeans think their leaders have failed them. Immigration and the democratically challenged EU are natural scapegoats, and the fringe right -- from Independence-style parties to Greek neo-Nazis -- will benefit.

Second, if a referendum on whether to stay in the EU, which Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to voters by 2017, is held, it may very well result in the U.K.'s exit. Clegg is so far the only top U.K. politician who has had the courage to argue a clear case for staying in the EU. After decades of leaving the field to euroskeptics, the continuing impact of the financial crisis, and the fiasco in the euro area, this is a tough case to win.

To turn the tide, the U.K.'s pro-European business and political leaders will have to match Farage's campaigning and take their opponent's arguments seriously enough to rebut them. And Farage, with his professions of admiration for President Vladimir Putin and attacks on the EU for its "aggressive" expansion into Ukraine, is quite capable of discrediting himself as his exposure grows.

Clegg's failures to respond convincingly in the two debates number in the dozens, but let's pick one. He argued that without EU membership, the U.K. would lose the clout of a roughly 500 million-person market to secure the best trade deals with giants such as China and the U.S. It is a potentially strong argument; both times, Farage accused Clegg of disparaging Britain. If Iceland, population 320,000, can cut a trade deal with China, he said, why not the U.K.? Clegg had no response.

This is a nonsense argument that was allowed to prevail. Iceland last year became the first European country with which China has signed a free-trade deal, largely because Iceland has a seat on the Arctic Council, which oversees the development of the region. China has built a huge embassy in Reykjavik because it needs a staging post to muscle in on shipping routes and the extraction of resources as the melting polar cap makes them accessible. China also wants in on Iceland's geothermal energy resources and technology.

So the question for Farage should have been this: Does the U.K. want to make itself a cat's paw for China to secure a free-trade deal? Is this the glorious return to self-rule and sovereign independence he has in mind? That won't win a referendum, but it would be a start.

To contact the writer of this article:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.