In an election debate on the BBC, eurosceptic leader Nigel Farage beat the liberal and pro-European Nick Clegg, with applause lines that Britain should “free itself” from the EU.

The debate, which took place on Wednesday evening (2 April), pitched Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg against Nigel Farage, party leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

At the core of the discussion: should the UK be in or out of the EU? Clegg, deputy prime minister of the British government, is leading a pro-Europe campaign for the upcoming elections on 22 May, while Farage represents the most anti-European party in the country's political landscape.

“If you put a referendum [on Britain’s membership of the EU] today, a majority clearly would say no,” Farage kicked off the debate. “The best people to govern Britain, are the British.”

“If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is,” Clegg answered. “We can’t have all the benefits of the EU [when we are] outside of it. In an uncertain world, there is strength in numbers. That is why we should remain in the EU.”

The United Kingdom has seen a peak in criticism of its EU membership over the past years. Voices like Farage have argued that the EU costs them money (the country contributes more to the EU budget than it gets out of it in funding) and is democratically illegitimate.

The Conservatives, in coalition government with Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, has promised a referendum over the UK’s membership to be held in 2017, if their membership isn’t renegotiated on British terms.

UK business pro-EU membership

The UK’s official figures show that exports of the country to other member states account for half of all British exports, corresponding to a total of €185 billion.

British financial and business representatives have repeatedly warned politicians on the economic consequences of leaving the EU. Recently, a report commissioned by the country’s car industry estimated that 92% of automotive companies thinks that staying in the EU is best for their business – a figure gladly referred to by Clegg in the debate.

“How do you stand up for reform if you simply want to walk away?” the Liberal Democrat challenged Farage on his demand to exit the EU. “Time and time again, British MEPs have the opportunity to defend British interest.”

“Working together with others is not a bad thing. It strengthens us – not weakens us,” Clegg added. “You have to get people to invest in your country [...] and make sure there are jobs.”

But British voters’ prime concerns, like immigration of workers from Eastern European countries or the perceived lack of control over the EU institutions’ law making, yielded more applause for the populist Farage, who hammered home the issue of powers shifting to Brussels.

“What really matters at the end of the day, isn’t what I think, but what the British public thinks,” Farage said. “They should be given a fair referendum. But the political class doesn’t want to because they think you might give the wrong answer.”

Clegg counter-attacked that anti-European campaigning is based on “fantasies” and “scaremongering”, saying “we should make the best of our EU membership; not always seek to destroy it.”

Polls point to Farage as winner

In a poll conducted yesterday evening by The Guardian, up to 69% of respondents selected Nigel Farage as the winner. A survey by pollster YouGov showed that 68% selected the UKIP leader as the winner.

The BBC face-off was the second time these two British politicians faced each other in a televised debate. On 26 March, Clegg and Farage discussed the topic of EU membership in a debate organised by the London-based radio station LBC.

The debate marks the start of weeks of fierce campaigning over the future of Britain in the EU. Latest polls have UKIP, which is campaigning to get the UK out of the European Union, second at 20 seats, while the Labour party is topping the polls with 27 seats. The governing Conservative party could come in only third with 18 seats; their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, are at 2 seats.

The question is whether latest news related to Farage's alleged tax evasion might impact his campaign. According to The Guardian, Farage is using a private company to reduce his tax bill on his media appearances. The UKIP leader diverts money from appearances in the media and on the lecture circuit into a firm called Thorn In The Side Ltd.

Presidential debates kick-start campaign

Televised debates are commonplace in many European member states, but were first organised in the UK only in 2010. The Conservatives and the Labour party – the two largest parties in the country – have shown caution in commiting to debates in the run-up to European elections.

Next May’s vote also introduce ‘presidential debates’ on a European level. All lead candidates of pan-European political parties, who serve as candidates to become the next EU Commission president, will face each other in three debates, so far.

The two most likely contenders for the lead position in the European Union, German socialist Martin Schulz and Luxembourg conservative Jean-Claude Juncker, will also go head to head in at least three televised debates in the coming weeks.

Pan-European polling data, released on Wednesday by the organisation PollWatch, showed the Party of European Socialist (PES) and the centre-right European People’s Party in a tie at 212 seats for the next EU Parliament. The party that wins most seats is likely to put forward their candidate for the EU Commission presidency.