Britain’s former leader Tony Blair has told Euronews that the European Union must show leadership over Brexit—and if it tackled fundamental problems with the European project then the UK could stay in the bloc.
The ex-Labour prime minister and increasingly vocal critic of the UK’s plans to leave the EU appeared to go beyond the established view in Brussels that Brexit is primarily Britain’s problem.
“I also give a very strong message to European leaders. They’ve also got to show leadership in this situation. I mean the truth is that the anxieties that gave rise to Brexit in the UK could be replicated in any European country, it’s just that we happened to have a referendum that was in or out of Europe,” he said.
'Britain could stay, Europe could reform'
In a major interview that also covered President Donald Trump and the Middle East, Blair said the UK’s exit would damage the EU economically and politically—and challenged Europe’s leaders to take the initiative to make reforms that could keep Britain in the club.
“If Brexit goes ahead, then Europe is going to be diminished as an entity—you’re losing a large economy, you’re losing a player of political weight, Europe’s going to be weaker—but also Brexit should be the opportunity for Europe to deal with some of the fundamental issues that our own citizens all over Europe have with the European project. We should look at these issues and deal with them, and if we did that, we could find a way through, in my view, where Britain could stay, Europe could reform,” he went on.
Blair did not identify the issues specifically. His critics accuse him of being partly responsible for failing to deal with factors that led to Brexit, such as EU rules on free movement. Under his premiership, the UK opened the door to workers from new EU member states earlier than it had to after they joined in 2004.
Blair sticks to Brexit guns
The former UK leader stuck to his guns in arguing for Brexit to be reversed. He predicted that 2018 would see a shift in public opinion in the UK as the consequences of leaving the union became clear, both for the economy—“Britain is not going to be able to have our cake and eat it”—and for the Irish border.
Being out of the single market, yet keeping the same arrangements without respecting its obligations, was “never going to happen”, Blair said. “The dilemma that is going to become clear during the course of 2018 is that either we stay in the single market, in which case we might as well stay in the European Union—because at least then we have a say in these rules that affect us—or alternatively we are out of the single market, in which case we are in a third party agreement like Canada, like Japan, and that is going to be really tough for us economically. Now I think as that dilemma becomes clear, that is when you are going to see opinion shifting.”
Similarly, Tony Blair asserted that the agreement at the EU Council in December on Northern Ireland did not resolve the issue but simply postponed tackling it—arguing that in this case, too, when the problem was “laid bare”, opinion would change.
“If Britain comes out of the European Union there is going to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because it is the border with the European Union. Likewise, if we allow freedom of movement between north and south—which I support by the way—then how is Britain taking back control of its border?” he asked. “We have exactly the same dilemma that we have across the whole of the negotiation.”
Labour’s fundamental ‘mistake’
In his interview with Euronews, the former prime minister also criticised his own party—now the main opposition—over its acceptance of Brexit. A Blair-led Labour Party, he says, would have handled it differently. “My view is we would deal the Conservatives a huge political blow if we made Brexit a 100 percent Conservative project—which is what it is,” he said, adding that Labour’s message should be to “take it off the table, let’s stay in Europe”.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour says it wants to push for a deal preserving as many of the benefits of the EU’s single market and customs union as possible, as well as protecting workers’ rights and the environment.
Tony Blair dismissed as a “fantasy” the government’s ideas about replacing trade deals the UK has within the EU, with others around the world. And his prediction that Brexit would see a great diminution of British economic and diplomatic clout brought a sporting analogy.
“It’s like a Premiership football team deciding they’re going to play in the league below. I mean, you will relegate yourself as a country because you’re not part then of that strong block, you therefore lose that major alliance that is a big part of your power.”
Brexit guns turn on Blair
The former prime minister’s opposition to the UK leaving the EU have consistently brought an angry response from Brexit supporters, and his latest intervention was no exception. The co-leader of the pro-Brexit “Leave Means Leave” campaign, Richard Tice, accused Blair and his “elite gang” of being “still determined to stop Brexit”. The former Conservative finance minister Norman Lamont said he was trying to "sabotage the result of the referendum”.
The UK voted to quit the EU in the June 2016 referendum and triggered the formal process last March. It is due to leave the bloc at the end of March 2019.
For Blair, by then it will be too late to change course—but there is still time to reverse the decision.
“My biggest anxiety today is that there is a kind of fatalism in Britain—but also in Brussels, frankly, as well—which says, you know, it's just going to have to happen. No, it doesn't have to happen."
"We have the right to rethink in Britain—and Europe should think very carefully about the real consequences about Brexit on European power, and influence, and weight going forward. The truth is, it's very bad for Britain, Brexit, but it's also very bad for Europe.”