EU debate silly, Ken Clarke says
The debate about membership of the European Union (EU) has been "silly" and retaining links with Brussels is "essential" for the UK's status in the world, former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke has said.
The veteran Tory pro-European said a greater effort was needed to counter the arguments being made in favour of a British exit from the EU.
Mr Clarke said there was a "real risk" of the country leaving the EU but warned that the UK would risk "isolation" outside the union.
David Cameron has vowed to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU before an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is returned to Downing Street after next year's election.
On BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Clarke said: "I think we have had a rather silly debate about Europe over the last six months.
"In fact, I think the political debate in the country in the last six months has been fairly disastrous.
"We have got to get back to serious issues for an election ... and discuss properly the economy but also Europe.
"In the modern world we have a lot of problems to face. Membership of the European Union is essential if we are to have a proper voice in world affairs and actually have some influence on things that really matter to British citizens.
"We do need to work with Germans, French, Poles and others to decide how to handle (Russian president Vladimir) Putin, how to make a European contribution to the Middle East crisis which is so dangerous to us all, and also our economy is very dependent on having access to the biggest single market in the world, in a globalised economy where we need a rebalanced economy.
"We will diminish this country if we have a silly debate about Europe which is, with great respect, largely what we are having as far as the general public debate about Europe is concerned at the moment, and run the risk of pulling ourselves off into isolation of I don't know what kind.
"I d on't know what influence people think Britain will have and influence matters because a government has got to influence great affairs in the modern world in order to be able to look after the interests of its citizens."
Asked if a British exit was a possibility, he said: "There is a real risk. Obviously we have got a strange air of protest around in the country. It's time to have a serious debate.
"Pro-Europeans have got to organise themselves properly in order to get across the advantages of Europe and we have got to refute some of the sillier things that are being attributed to our presence in the European Union."
Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Mandelson, who along with Mr Clarke and Liberal Democrat Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander is a co-president of the pro-EU British Influence, indicated that the group would be stepping up its activity.
He told the Andrew Marr Show "you'll be hearing more about that in the weeks to come" and claimed that the polls were moving in favour of EU membership.
But a survey published in The Sunday Times indicated Britons wanted to vote to leave the EU, by a margin of 51% to 49%, while even in pro-EU nations such as France and Germany a sizeable minority wants to sever ties with Brussels.
More than a quarter of voters in France, Germany and Italy would opt to leave, while more than a third of Greeks and 42% of people in Holland would walk away. The poll of 13 countries was commissioned across Europe by WIN/Gallup International.
Lord Mandelson, a former European commissioner, said: "One thing that has struck me about the opinion polls - just put aside this week's snapshot - what's struck me about the opinion polls is as the debate on Europe has grown actually more people have moved to the pro-European position."