UK party leaders debate EU referendum on TV
British PM, UKIP leader take questions from studio audience as many voters are still undecided with a fortnight to go
It was the first mass audience event of Britain’s EU referendum campaign.
On Tuesday night, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, took questions from a studio audience wanting to know whether their country should remain part of the European Union.
It was shown live on ITV, Britain’s largest commercial network.
A similar program featuring Cameron had been broadcast on a smaller news channel the previous week, but this was first opportunity that the two sides had to pitch their message to a potential audience of millions.
The two leaders did not appear on stage together. Instead, they were allotted half an hour each to answer questions.
For Cameron, who wants British membership of the EU to continue, the central argument was that the U.K. would risk being broken up and losing its influence in the world if voters chose to leave.
Britain already had a “special status” within the EU and that arrangement delivered benefits, he said.
Escape the bullying
But a British exit, Farage insisted, was the only way to escape Europe’s “bullying” behavior and to reclaim control of its affairs from what he termed “unelected bureaucrats” in the EU.
“We need to be in this organization, fighting for British interests and for British jobs,” Cameron said.
“Leaving is quitting. I don't think we're quitters. I think we're fighters. We fight for these organizations and what we think is right."
He added: “I think we do have a special status within the EU already. We're not in the euro, we've got our own currency. We're not in the no borders zone; we've kept our own borders. We're not going to be out of the ‘ever closer union’ proposal so our membership is right for Britain.
“It gives us the trade, it gives us the cooperation, it helps us work with other countries to get what we want.”
Cameron pointed to the wealth of economists, the Bank of England and international organizations like the IMF who have all said there was a risk of recession and job losses in the U.K. economy if Brexit occurs.
But the warnings were dismissed by Farage, who was particularly critical of warnings by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that in the event of Brexit the remainder of the EU would impose a harsh trade deal on the U.K.
"I'm sorry, we're British, we're better than that, we're not going to be bullied by anybody, least of all the unelected -- charming though he may be -- Jean-Claude Juncker. Forget it," Farage said to applause from some in the studio.
He later produced a U.K. passport from his pocket and waved it at the cameras.
"This should be a British passport. It says European Union on it, all right? I think to make this country safer we need to get back British passports so that we can check anybody else coming into this country. I really do."
It is unusual for patriotism to feature in a British election campaign, but Farage was not alone in using British national pride to advance his own argument. Cameron did it too -- by warning his country could be broken up if Brexit occurs.
He said: "I love this country with a passion. I think we're an amazing country. And I say if you love your country, then you don't damage its economy, you don't restrict opportunities for young people, you don't actually isolate your country and reduce its influence in the world.
"And frankly, I do worry about a second Scottish referendum if we vote to leave. And you don't strengthen your country by leading to its break-up."
Leaders in Scotland, traditionally one of the most pro-European parts of the U.K., have previously hinted a fresh independence referendum could be on the cards if Scotland chooses to remain but the rest of the country opts to leave.
The size of Tuesday’s television audience will not be known until later in the week, although the program’s hashtag did trend on social media, suggesting at least one section of voters were engaged in the debate.
But many said the program had not helped them make up their minds.
Nik Stanley wrote on Twitter: "That wasn't much of a debate, particularly from the Out perspective, a debate is two way, this was a lecture by the audience."
"Very disappointed with the ITV EU referendum debate. Audience talked too much and contestants too little. Very little info," another added.
Opinion surveys also indicating that voters are struggling to decide how to vote. As referendum day on June 23 draws closer, neither Remain nor Leave have established a definitive lead.