Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg delivered a passionate and rousing defence of the European Union tonight, as he called on Britain’s youngsters to reject the “politics of grievance, of division, of blame, of fear.”
Speaking in an Oxford Union debate on whether the UK should remain in the EU, the ex-Deputy Prime Minister spoke passionately about why Britain should be at the centre of the European project, not outside of it.
Alongside former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso, Mr Clegg admitted the EU wasn’t perfect, but dismissed the notion problems with terrorism and immigration would disappear if the UK voted to leave in the upcoming referendum.
Arguing in favour of Brexit, Ukip leader Nigel Farage likened the UK’s relationship with the EU to that of an unhappy marriage, and said Britain could thrive in the world without the burden of Brussels.
But it was Mr Clegg who won the loudest applause from the 500 students gathered in the famous Oxford Union, some of whom had queued for five and half hours in the November cold to get inside for the debate.
Mr Clegg appeared reinvigorated and refreshed since leading the Lib Dems to their disastrous electoral result in May, and in his closing speech said: “It is your choice, it is your generation’s choice. Do you choose the politics of grievance, of division, of blame, of fear, that we’ve heard this evening, that pretty well equates the European Union with terrorism, conflates the European Union with immigration as if terrorism and immigration suddenly disappear like the morning mist if we suddenly pulled out the European Union? What a ludicrous thing to say and what a dishonest thing to say.
“Or you can choose something so much better. The politics, not of perfection, but of generosity. Not of rigidity, but of compromise, not of ideological blame, but of give and take, of the belief that in this wonderful European continent of ours with Britain in the lead we can create a peaceful, sustainable and strong European Union and a strong United Kingdom at the heart of it.”
Mr Barosso used his speech to spell out the ways the EU benefitted from the UK being a member, and claimed the only country in the world which would be happy to see Brexit would be Russia.
Veteran Tory Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash claimed the EU was becoming increasingly “German orientated” and democracy in Europe was “on the cusp” of falling apart.
He said: “Only 43 per cent of the population turn out in the whole of Europe for the election to the [European] parliament.”
Sir Bill added: “We cannot allow that to continue”
Peace in our time!!! pic.twitter.com/GCFzm6i4EM— Owen Bennett (@owenjbennett) November 23, 2015
Mr Farage drew laughter from the audience when he compared the UK and EU’s relationship to that of a loveless marriage.
He said: “They fell in love and got married in their late teens. 40 years they’ve been together. In the early days it was pretty good, but it’s been getting increasingly rotten over the last 35 years.
“All the people say to her ‘You must stay with him. Oh I know he’s a terrible bully! I know he makes all the rules and the laws in the house! I know he forbids you from making your own friends but surely it’s better that you stay together?’
“There are some perhaps who tended towards her side and vex themselves with the question: ‘Could she cope on her own? Was she really up to it? Could she manage her own shopping basket and run her own life?’”
Mr Farage then quipped that the couple had been to marriage counselling in Brussels 40 times, and each time “the court ruled in favour of the husband”.
However, the Ukip leader's badinage wasn't enough to carry the day, the Union voting 283 in favour of staying in the EU, with 73 against.