Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage during the LBC debate on EU membership. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Hard-headed Clegg trumps Farage in LBC debate

The Deputy PM's pragmatic case for the EU gave him the edge over the tetchy UKIP leader.

Nick Clegg knows that the British will never be romantic Europeans but he believes that they can be pragmatic Europeans. In his first TV debate with Nigel Farage, he eschewed dreamy notions of "ever closer union" in favour of a hard-headed case for the EU: it creates jobs, catches criminals and supports British businesses. Armed with a barrage of statistics, he got the better of the UKIP leader. Clegg was calmer, sharper and more persuaive than a tetchy and sweaty Farage.

The debate did not start well for him. He struggled to defend the Lib Dems' decision not to support a guaranteed in/out EU referendum as Farage charged him with simply not "trusting the people". On immigration, he took the UKIP leader to task for claiming that "29 million" Romanians and Bulgarians could come to the UK, noting that there aren't even that many people in those countries. But Farage punched back strongly, declaring that there were not 29 million because two million had already left and that the free movement of people (a fundamental condition of EU membership) means 485 million have access to Britain. He argued pragmatically that UKIP was in favour of "work permits", which would allow the UK to attract the best from India and New Zealand, not the hoardes of eastern Europe.

But as the contest went on, Clegg's greater experience showed as he wore down a tired Farage. Forget losing three million jobs, he said (accepting the fallibility of that age-old stat), EU withdrawal wasn't worth a single job. At a time of economic insecurity, it was a smart appeal to voters' basic instincts. His strongest moment came when a questioner raised the European arrest warrant. Citing case after case (from Jeremy Forrest to terrorist bombers), he declared that the EU helps us to lock away "murderers, rapists and paedophiles". It was another appeal to the head, rather than the heart, and it worked.

With Clegg always likely to best him on detail, Farage needed to land rhetorical blows - but most of his punches fell flat. He fluffed the inevitable quip that he "didn't agree with Nick" and his populist patter failed to move the audience. As Farage derided the Deputy PM's eurocrat past, Clegg smartly noted that he was the one who was still a European politician, and Farage's lament that he was forced to employ his wife as he works such long hours and has "so little fun" was risible.

But for all this, it is worth remembering that Farage's mere presence tonight was a victory. The leader of a party with no MPs has been elevated to equal status with the Deputy Prime Minister. It will now be far harder to exclude from the leaders' debates in 2015 and to dismiss him as a crankish maverick. For that reason, it is David Cameron who may yet prove to be the biggest loser from tonight.

P.S. The post-debate YouGov poll gave victory to Farage by 57 per cent to 37 per cent. Clegg's strategist Ryan Coetzee is pointing out that this is far higher than the 8 per cent the Lib Dems attract in European election polls. I'm not sure I accept his logic; UKIP could equally point out that 57 per cent is far higher than their usual poll rating. But it is undoubtedly true that the debates could help Clegg to win back Lib Dem defectors and that there is a significant pool of pro-Europeans to appeal to. In a low turnout election, a small swing to the party could make the difference between retaining some of its MEPs and being left with none. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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