I was eagerly awaiting this debate because it was meant to be focused on foreign policy. Unfortunately Sky News made a bit of a muck of it, the moderator was awful and the debate got off topic very easily. Bizarrely the moderator allowed the conversation to stay for long periods of time on silly questions (like “what are you personally doing in your daily life to help the earth?”) or questions that had already been covered in the previous debate (like immigration), while he cut questions on actual foreign policy topics (like the EU) short.
Still, I did get a solid 15 minutes of good EU discussion right at the start of the debate, so I was pleased. By far the most encouraging words came from Nick Clegg, the most pro-EU of the three candidates. Rather than lay off the usual meaningless populist nonsense that David Cameron comes up with or the usual “EU? What’s an EU?” of Gordon Brown, Clegg walked people through why the EU is important and why the UK cannot achieve its goals alone. His example of the EU pedophile law that the Conservatives opposed was brilliant (a friend of mine quipped, “The EU helps catch pedophiles? The Daily Mail is going to be so confused”). He also explained how he had worked in Brussels representing the UK to the EU under Margaret Thatcher and also represented the EU in its negotiations with China. He actually knows the EU, he has connections there and he would work to make the UK more influential in Europe instead of sitting on the sidelines as it does now.
It was no surprise that News Corp-owned Sky News phrased the question as 'How would you “tackle” the EU problem?' naturally starting on the assumption that the EU is a bad thing that the UK needs to wrestle with. Luckily each leader responded to the question with an affirmative answer, starting with an assertion that it is important for the UK to be in the EU. But Clegg’s response was the most honest and direct by far. He said,
There are a whole load of things, whether we like it or not, whatever your views on Europe and the european Union, which we simply can't do on our own. We can't deal with international crime that touches and affects every single community in this country on our own. We can't deal with climate change on our own. The weather doesn't stop at the cliffs of Dover. We can't regulate these wretched banks that got us into so much in the first place which now sprawl across countries. I don't think the European Union is perfect. I want it reformed, that's why I want to lead in the European Union. But we're stronger together and we're weaker apart.David Cameron’s arguments, on the other hand, were quite disingenuous and reflected the degree to which he and the Tories just completely do not understand what the EU is for. His comments were all about “us” (the wholesome and righteous British people) versus “them” (those dirty foreigners who want to steal our money). Let’s look at some of his comments:
I worked in my previous life before going into politics for a while as a negotiator on behalf of all of us, on behalf of Britain and the European Union, negotiating trade deals with the Chinese government, the Russian government and others. What I noticed there was that the Chinese and the Russians, they only listened to what we were saying because I was representing the largest single market in the world of 475 million consumers. Now, of course there are daft rules, of course it does daft things, but it seems to me that we punch above our weight when we stand together in Europe in a world, frankly, where you've got a lot of superpowers bumping up against each other and where, to coin a phrase, size does matter.
You send us to parliament to make decisions, make laws, discuss the issues, yes. You don't send us there to give away powers that belong to you.‘You’? I think what David Cameron correctly means here is ‘us’. And not the ‘us’ as in ‘we the British people’, but ‘us’ as in ‘MPs in Westminster.’ This would be like making the argument that when the state of Kentucky moves powers from the state level to the national level in the US it is “giving away powers that belong” to the people of Kentucky. It is simply transferring those powers to a body representing a larger group of people which still includes Kentuckians - because they will be more effectively administered at a national level. Brussels is still representing the British people, but it is representing them along with all the people of Europe as well. You can make the argument that many issues are better dealt with at the national level, but these phoney-baloney arguments that make Brussels out to be a dictatorship located on some other planet are just silly.
Cameron then told the audience that the other two have a philosophy of “Just give in to everything that comes out of Brussels and don't stand up for your country.” He said a good EU policy is “a question of wanting to get things in Europe for your country and standing up for your country.” He followed that by defending his nationalism, saying, “President Sarkozy of France, he stands up for France in Europe. Angela Merkel in Germany, she stands up for Germany in Europe. I would do exactly the same for Europe.”That, frankly, is just nonsense. Neither Angela Merkel nor Nicolas Sarkozy would ever publicly make a statement like that, that their prime objective in Europe is to “stand up for" Germany or France. That is something that Germans in particular understand very well, that the EU is not a race to see who’s going to finish first, it’s a co-operative effort where each nation seeks to make themselves stronger by making the union stronger. Political leaders in the European Council are supposed to be doing what is best for Europe as a whole, not just what’s best for their own country. If your country is being treated unfairly without reason, then yes of course a national leader should say so. But to regard the EU as some kind of bloodsport where every nation is fighting each other for their own narrow interests, as David Cameron seems to see it, is not the right attitude. And it is not an attitude shared by his German or French counterparts.
I was left puzzled by Gordon Brown’s repeated attempts to get his “Clegg is anti-American” line into the debate though. Where did that even come from? I kept thinking I had missed something at the beginning of the debate. But no, apparently this was just a line that Gordon Brown had rehearsed and felt that he had to get it in there somehow, although he seems to have missed out on the concept that you also need to explain what it is that you mean. Clegg was asked to respond to the charge twice (the first time he ignored it), and his reaction looked as puzzled as I was. So he said simply,
I have a simple attitude towards our relationship with America. It is an immensely important, special relationship, but it shouldn't be a one-way street. We shouldn't always automatically do what our American friends tell us to do. We've got to make sure we act on the world stage in our interests, not simply at the beck and call of anybody else.But apparently Gordon Brown thinks it’s “anti-American” to suggest that the UK should not be the lapdog of the United States. Brown failed to elaborate further on what his point was. The picture he's trying to paint of a world in which full engagement with the EU is somehow "anti-American" seems out of touch when the Obama administration has repeatedly and strongly voiced concern over the Tories' anti-European moves. Eurosceptic Tories are living in the past if they think the so-called "special relationship" is an equal partnership which still has relevence after the end of the Cold War, but senior politicians in Washington know better. Rather than trying to paint Cameron as a lap dog of the US, Brown would have been better off pointing out (as Nick Clegg did), that the entire construction of a choice between Europe and America is fundamentally flawed because America is not particularly interested in Britain these days. The Obama administration has made it clear that it prefers the UK to be a strong partner within Europe rather than having them desperately cling to an old relationship with the US that is no longer of interest to the world's lone superpower as it looks ahead to an Asia-dominated future.
But by far the most bizarre moment in the debate for me was when someone asked about whether the sex abuse-conceiling pope should be allowed to visit Britain. All three leaders said yes, but then went into a long speeches criticising the Catholic Church for its various offences. It was extraordinary to watch as an American, because you would NEVER have politicians criticising the church in a national debate in the US. Nick Clegg even casually dropped in that he's an atheist during the discussion, and nobody batted an eye. Such a difference from America. Here's the video, I'm sure any Americans watching this will agree with me that you would never see an exchange like this in a US debate.
I thought Clegg came out as the clear winner of the debate, but he had a high hurdle to climb. There was no way he could match the “fresh face” success of his appearance in the first debate. But the other two went after him aggressively and they were unable to land a knock-out punch, so I suspect Clegg's poll numbers will continue to climb. All in all this is turning out to be a very exciting race. And even if the outcome is underwhelming, at least the fact that the EU was talked about in the most honest way I’ve ever seen it discussed in the UK was a good start for the country.