EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The leaders of the three main parties in the UK last night clashed over the European Union in a televised debate, in what is probably the first time the EU has featured so prominently in a UK election campaign.
In a debate focussed mainly on foreign affairs, the surging dark horse of the race, Nick Clegg of the EU-friendly Liberal Democrats and who once worked for the European Commission and as an MEP, needed to make a strong defence of the bloc to one of the union's most eurosceptic publics.
In his opening remarks, he told the television audience: " I want us to lead in Europe, not complain from the sidelines."
Straight out of the gate, the first question asked by studio audience member Christopher Nelmes of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat was how they would tackle EU interference.
Responding to the question, the centre-right Mr Cameron said that he sympathised with the voter's question, but underscored that he did not want to take Britain out of the EU: "I want to be in Europe but not run by it."
Mr Cameron for his part, who has re-built suppport for the Tories by rejecting the party's image as the ‘nasty party' needed to deflect accusations of getting in bed with unsavoury characters resulting from his party's exit from the main European centre-right political grouping, the European People's Party, and setting up the anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists group with ultra-conservative Latvian and Polish parties.
Suggestions that this move isolated the Conservatives and would isolate Britain in Europe he dismissed as "nonsense," saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel also had stood up for her country.
Gordon Brown, once known for being more in sympathy with the Labour Party's eurosceptics but who has since the economic crisis seemed to have placed himself quite squarely in the pro-European camp, like Mr Clegg mounted a robust defence of Europe. However, he emphasised the importance of trade and jobs, arguing that 3 million jobs and 750,000 businesses depended on EU membership.
Mr Clegg went on to concede that not all was right with the bloc, noting that Brussels had spent 15 years coming up with a definition of chocolate.
"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 are weaker apart," he said.
‘Of course the 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 where frankly you have got a lot of superpowers bumping up against each other and where, to coin a phrase, size does matter."
He made the argument that increasingly there were issues that "don't stop at the cliffs of Dover," but which must be tackled such as climate change."
The Liberal Democrat also promised to hold a referendum on EU membership at the "next time there is a big transfer of powers."
"But it needs to be on the fundamental issue - do we stay in or do we go out?"
His party wants an out-and-out debate to flush out the hardened eurosceptics from the rest of the British public, which the Liberal Democrats believe may complain about the EU but do not in their heart of hearts want to leave. They feel that such a debate would bring the issues out into the open and are convinced they could win such a vote.
"I would argue we should stay in, not because it's perfect but because I think it's in our interests to do so."
The prime minister went on to emphasise how EU co-ordination had been necessary to tackle the global recession: "I worked with the European leaders through the global financial crisis, I had to persuade them that we had to restructure our banks and they had to restructure their banks. I had to persuade them that they had to work with America in the G20 but when Europe and America works together."
Mr Cameron for his part also pledged that any further transfer of responsibility from the UK to the European Union, but not on whether the UK should leave. He attacked his two opponents' pro-European positions.
"What I would say is what you are hearing from the other two is frankly don't trust the people, don't ask them when you pass powers from Westminster to Brussels, just give in to everything that comes out of Brussels and don't stand up for your country, that to me is the same old politics."
The Liberal Democrat also attacked Mr Cameron over his new colleagues in the ECR: "How on earth does it help anyone in Bristol or anyone else in the country for that matter, David Cameron, to join to together in the European Union with a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes?"
Gordon Brown told the Toy leader: "You have walked away from Sarkozy and gone in with right-wing extremists".
Mr Clegg also landed a significant hit on the conservative candidate where it matters - Mr Cameron's strong support amongst those who favour a tough law-and-order agenda - by revealing that Conservative MEPs had voted against EU legislation that police later used to nab a paedophile ring.
Brussels is keeping a close eye on the UK election race, quietly excited that for the first time in British history, a serious contender for the premiership is a committed supporter of the European Union.
Mr Clegg, speaks French, German, Spanish and Dutch as well as his native English, was educated at the College of Europe in Bruges and worked for five years in the commission and was an MEP for another five.
At the same time, for a short stint during his period in Brussels, according to the Daily Telegraph, he worked as a partner at GPlus, a lobbying outfit that has run afoul of transparency campaigners and whose clients have included the Russian government and the palm oil industry.