Nick Clegg challenges Nigel Farage to EU debate
Deputy PM Nick Clegg has challenged UKIP leader Nigel Farage to a "public, open debate" on EU membership.
"I, of course, disagree with Nigel Farage and UKIP, but at least they have got a clear position, which is they want to yank the UK out of the EU," he told his weekly LBC radio programme.
As the "leader of the party of 'in'," he explained, he was the right person to debate the issue with Mr Farage.
UKIP said it would respond directly on Friday to Mr Clegg's "kind invitation".
His comments came as Lib Dem president Tim Farron reportedly warned that the party is facing the "fight of our lives" not to lose its 12 MEPs in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.
Mr Clegg criticised his Conservative coalition partners' stance on the EU, describing them as "split, and flirting with exit but not really saying so openly".
But he also took a swipe at Labour, who he said "don't really have the courage of their convictions on this".
He continued: "Over three million jobs in this country, directly or indirectly, depend on us being in the EU, so that is a big choice.
"I will challenge Nigel Farage to a public, open debate about whether we should be in or out of the EU, because that is now the choice facing this country and he is the leader of the party of 'out'; I am the leader of the party of 'in'.
"I think it's time we now have a proper, public debate so that the public can listen to the two sides of the argument and judge from themselves."
The Lib Dem leader also argued that being in the EU meant that "we keep ourselves safer because we can go after cross-border crime and terrorism" and that "we can look after the environment in a way which we can't on our own".
He concluded: "I hope he will take up my challenge."
A UKIP spokesman said: "Mr Farage would like to thank Mr Clegg for his kind invitation to a debate on the great issue of Britain's membership of the European Union.
"Perhaps he could also let us know whether he has invited David Cameron and Ed Miliband too in order that the British people can see all their main political leaders argue their positions.
"If this challenge means that Mr Clegg is going to restore his backing for an in/out referendum, which he gave before the last election but then withdrew afterwards, then it could be a significant moment in British politics."
Mr Farage is due to take part in his own LBC programme, Phone Farage, on Friday morning, when the UKIP spokesman said he would give a "full response to this development".
A spokesman for Mr Clegg subsequently indicated that the Lib Dems would rather not include the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties.
"Let's keep things simple and have the debate," he said. "In versus out; Lib Dems versus UKIP; Nick Clegg versus Nigel Farage."