The question on whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union kicked off in Peterborough this evening with the first public debate in the country on the forthcoming referendum.
The first of a series of nine ‘Democracy Roadshow’ debates across the East of England began at the Key Theatre with Patrick O’Flynn (UKIP East of England MEP) and Suzanne Evans (UKIP deputy chairman) speaking against Julian Huppert (former Lib Dem MP for Cambridge) and Laura Sandys (former Conservative MP for Thanet South).
The fast paced debate, chaired by Peterborough Telegraph editor Mark Edwards, lasted little more than an hour and a quarter but covered everything from jobs, immigration, sovereignty, democracy, trade, climate change, immunity for members of Europol (the European Union’s law enforcement agency) and Russians buying up properties in the south of Spain.
One speaker from both the in and out groups had eight minutes to address the audience which filled out a large part of the theatre.
Members of the audience, many of whom were UKIP supporters, were then able to ask questions which speakers from both sides had a maximum of a minute to answer, which kept the debate fast-paced.
Laura began proceedings by saying the UK can stand on its own two feet, but that she wanted to push for a “reformed, revitalised Europe.”
She said that if the UK was not part of it then it would be “diminished” and would lead to a “lost generation.”
Stating that it costs each person £131 per year for the UK to be a member of the EU, she also claimed that people’s statutory holidays could be reduced if the UK left the organisation.
In response, Patrick eased fears that leaving the UK would hit the country’s trade deals. He said that the UK sells £62 billion more to the EU than the other way round.
In addition, he told the audience that leaving the “undemocratic” EU would save enough money to revive the NHS and would allow for the introduction of a points based immigration system “that the British public craves.”
A lot of the debate centred on economic arguments. Suzanne said businesses were being tied down by Brussels red tape and that for every £1 the UK spends in the EU it only gets 46p back.
The debate on democracy also featured regularly. Patrick said people are not loyal to the idea of a greater Europe, apart from a few people in Westminster, and that “the only time I hear Brits chanting for Europe is at the Ryder Cup.”
Suzanne said the idea of a EU parliament was a “complete sham” due to its make-up and unaccountability of EU commissioners.
Julian said there has been progress in making the EU a more democratic place. He also referenced the imperfections of the British political system in comparison, in particular the House of Lord’s where peers can be nominated for life.
Laura pointed out that the UK had helped cut the EU budget through its influence there.
As expected, immigration came up with Patrick saying that the UK’s population was “out of control” and that the country “cannot find room for everyone”, although he was proud of its tradition of helping refugees.
In reply, Julian said there are roughly as many Brits living in Europe as there are Europeans living here. He added: “Our NHS depends on people coming to work here. We do rely on migrants to keep the public services going.”
Asked whether the panel thought the EU had made the continent a more dangerous place, Suzanne said Europe had become a “hotbed of demonstrations and rioting.”
She added that: “The idea that the EU speaks for peace and harmony is as ludicrous as they come.”
Laura countered by saying that the EU is a “crucial counter-balance” to Russia.
In four minute closing speeches, Suzanne said she believed in a great Britain and claimed remaining in the EU would mean joining an EU army.
She highlighted that other large economies and other countries in Europe had done well outside of the EU.
She said: “You can’t fix it, the only way is out.”
Julian said he wanted to remain in EU also to keep Britain great, adding that many of the most productive countries in the world were part of the union.
He closed by adding that only one in 30 businesses wanted to leave the EU and that the benefits of being in the organisation were more than 10 times that of what was put in.
Before the debate, 11 per cent of the audience recorded in a ballot that they wanted to stay in the EU, 67 per cent wanted to leave and 22 per cent were undecided.
Afterwards, 11 per cent still wanted to stay in but 88 per cent now wanted to leave, with one person remaining undecided.
Speaking after the debate, which was organised by UKIP, Julian said: “It was good to make the case and give the chance for people to think differently.”
Patrick said: “I was very excited being here this evening, I thought it was brilliant. I could tell quite early on there was a eurosceptic audience.
“I think everyone seems to have enjoyed it and I would particularly like to thank the other team for the debate.”
Audience member Karen Rodgers, a fluent speaker in French, German and Spanish, said she was undecided by what she had heard.
She said she wanted to know more about the EU’s response to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - a trade deal between the EU and the US - and, importantly, “to what extent will civil liberties be protected in both scenarios.”
Karen said the event was run brilliantly, adding: “I’m delighted they are doing more of these. I’m hoping a lot of young people will go.”
Dominic Jackman, a UKIP supporter, said: “I was positively surprised on how fair the debate was in general. Both sides put the arguments forward pretty well.
“I thought we presented our arguments better but fair play to the yes side for coming and doing as well as they did.”
After chairing the debate Mark added: “This is a major issue for Peterborough and the whole country and we are pleased to support informed public debate.”