UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed the European Union has “blood on its hands” over Ukraine as an opinion poll had him as a clear winner over Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in the first in/out televised debate on the future of UK’s membership of the EU.
According to a Yougov poll of 1003 people immediately after the debate 57 per cent said Mr Farage won while 36 per cent put Mr Clegg as the winner.
The have clashed over who is telling the truth about EU immigration and on their views on whether Britain should stay in the European Union.
Mr Clegg, who wants Britain to stay in the EU, said the UKIP leader’s claims about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might come to the UK were “simply not true”.
While Mr Farage claimed EU immigration was costing Britons’ jobs and driving down wages.
In a fierce debate staged by LBC radio station, Mr Clegg warned three million jobs were at risk while a visibly sweating Mr Farage said that 485 million Europeans had free access to the UK.
And Mr Farage went as far as to blame the Ukraine crisis on the “clumsy” negotiations by the EU to pull the country away from Russian influence.
But Mr Clegg repeatedly accused Mr Farage of “ignoring the facts” and at one time produced a Ukip leaflet which claimed 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians would come to the UK.
“There aren’t even 29 million people in Romania and Bulgaria,” the Lib Dem leader said.
The Deputy Prime Minister added that leaving the EU would turn “Great Britain into little Britain”.
But Mr Farage, who came close to losing his temper, used similar language the SNP have used for Scottish independence from the UK, saying the politicians from “the tired old status quo” thought that “Britain is too small to stand up for itself”.
He argued that if people were asked to vote in a referendum now to join the EU they would not agree to it.
Mr Clegg warned multi-national companies would pull jobs and investment out of the UK if it left the EU, citing companies like Siemens, Nissan and Ford which have commented publicly on the importance of Britain’s position in Europe.
“That would be devastating for the UK economy,” said Mr Clegg. “I believe what they say, that they would not invest in this country if we were not part of what is the world’s largest economy. Why would we pull ourselves out of the world’s largest economy when 50% of our exports go to Europe.”
He warned: “Of course companies move operations from one country to another, but they will exit the UK, leaving thousands and thousands of families distressed in their wake because they will not have a breadwinner in those families, able to pay their bills, because the investment has gone, the jobs are gone.”.
But Mr Farage said: “I remember, Nick, you and all your gang - all the big corporates - all telling us 12 years ago that if we didn’t join the euro, all inward investment would cease, the City of London would disappear.
“All I can say is thank God we didn’t listen to you, otherwise we would have been in one hell of a mess.”
Mr Clegg said that Ukip should say how many British jobs they were willing to “sacrifice” by quitting the EU, citing research suggesting that three million jobs are linked to Europe.
“I accept that three million jobs wouldn’t disappear overnight,” said the Lib Dem leader. “Is it two million, is it one million, is it 500,000? My view is we should not be sacrificing a single job just to fulfil this dogmatic view that we should turn out backs on the rest of the world and on Europe.”
Mr Farage retorted: “When you say three million jobs are at risk, you show that - like virtually everybody in Westminster - you’ve never run your own company, you’ve never had a proper job in the real world, you are part of this political bubble that picked up a piece of research produced 10 years ago by a guy who himself now says all he said was the jobs are linked to trade in Europe, they are not at risk.”
The Ukip leader said the UK was now “the eurozone’s biggest export market in the world” and would hold “the whip hand” in obtaining good terms in any trade negotiations following exit.
As the debate turned to immigration, one of the most emotive areas of the EU debate, Mr Clegg claimed the NHS would “collapse” without foreign workers.
He said the Government had “significantly tightened up the rules” about immigration, and people “can’t simply receive benefits, no questions asked” on their first day in the country..
The Ukip leader said: “Why don’t we trust the British people to make their minds up on what I think is the most important constitutional question we have faced in this country for 300 years: are we to be a self-governing nation or not?”
He told the audience in London: “I would like this referendum to take place before the next general election.”
After the debate, Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Ashworth said: “This is a lightweight battle between two men who will never be prime minister. It is only happening because Nick Clegg needs Nigel Farage, and Nigel Farage needs Nick Clegg - but the country doesn’t need either of them.”