The UK's former Prime Minister Tony Blair told euronews that EU leaders had the power to stop Brexit by implementing reforms – and that 2018 will expose fundamental truths about how bad an idea leaving the EU is, in his opinion.
He also dismissed claims in a new book that he had said British intelligence may have spied on Donald Trump's presidential election campaign.
Euronews: When you talk about giving people the chance to rethink their decision on Brexit, what do you mean?
Tony Blair: When we voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 we obviously at that stage, you hadn't had the Brexit negotiation and we didn't know what the alternative deal is that the government would present to us. Over the course of 2018 we will see the deal. And my point is very simple: that we should have the right to rethink once we can make a proper comparison between what we have now in the European Union, and this new relationship the government is negotiating. And we'll be able to do that therefore on the basis of comparing like with like – and on the basis of two years’ experience, frankly, of the difficulties of Brexit.
Euronews: Would it not create further problems, to have another referendum, another chance to vote?
Tony Blair: You know in the end if the British people don't rethink, this Brexit thing will go ahead. But what do we know since Brexit? Well, economic growth is down, we have real skill shortages in the health service with people leaving who’re working in the health service from European countries, we've had a 15 percent fall in our currency. There is a lot of fact that has replaced claims, and whereas we were told we were going to get all this extra money for the health service if we left the European Union, what we now know is actually we’ve got less money for the health service and a health service crisis. So, I think it’s really a combination of two things: it’s the facts we know now, and it’s also the deal that we will have will allow us truly to compare what we have with European Union membership and what we will have in this new relationship.
Euronews: You have criticised the Labour Party’s view on Brexit. What do you think of their view? Are they being timid? Are they stepping up to the plate?
Tony Blair: I mean the truth is the overwhelming majority of Labour party members believe we should stay in Europe, and don't believe Brexit is an answer to the problems and the anger that gave rise to the Brexit vote. And, in my view, the best position for the Labour Party to be in would be to say what it really believes to the British people – which is, we should deal with the questions of living standards, rising inequality, problems in the health care system, the education system, immigration. We should deal with those problems, but Brexit's not the answer. And if we carry, if we come into government as the Labour Party and we continue with Brexit, we will have exactly the same problem as the Conservative Party has. We will be dealing with Brexit morning, noon and night, rather than the real issues and challenges of the country. So this is the debate and I think that the purpose of today is really to open up the possibility for people, to explain “you can rethink. You’ve got the right to rethink”.
Euronews: How would a Blair-led Labour party handle the situation differently from the way it’s being handled now?
Tony Blair: My view is that we would deal the Conservatives a huge political blow if we made Brexit a 100 percent a Conservative project, which is what it really is. It's a Tory project, this. In 2015, Britain had a General Election: Europe barely featured. This has become the key issue in British politics. If we were to say to the British people as the Labour Party: “look, this is not the way to deal with your problems, let's take it off the table, we stay in Europe because it's important for all sorts of political and economic reasons that we do so, but now let us concentrate on the real things that concern you and make you anxious and are making your lives difficult”, I think we would get huge traction politically and I think it would be a much more powerful message. Our risk as the Labour Party is if we stick in the position of saying “yes we do leave the European Union and leave the single market”, that we’ll (have) exactly the same dilemmas and problems that the Conservative Party has. And one thing that is really important to understand is that 2018, in my view, will expose in this negotiation the central dilemma of the negotiation, which is that Britain is not going to be able to have our cake and eat it, we're not going to be able to be out of the single market and then replicate the same arrangements of the single market without its obligations. This is never going to happen. So the choice that will become clear, and the dilemma that will become clear during the course of 2018, is that either we stay in the single market – in which case, frankly, we might as well stay in the European Union, because at least then we’ll 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 free-trade 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’s when you’re going to start to see opinion shifting.
Euronews: One of the sticking points has been the Irish border issue. A lot of work has been put in to try to resolve this, are you happy with the commitments on the EU and UK sides at this point? I know it’s a subject dear to your heart.
Tony Blair: The agreement in December at the EU Council was really not a resolution of the Irish issue, but an agreement to postpone it to a later date. And the truth is the Northern Ireland question is a metaphor for the problem of the whole of the negotiation. If Britain comes out of the single market and customs union, there is going to be a hard border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because it is then the border with the European Union. Likewise if we allow freedom of movement across north and south – which I support by the way – then how is Britain taking back control of its border? So what we will find is that when we come to try and resolve the Irish issue, we have exactly the same dilemma that we will have across the whole of the negotiation, which is: once you decide not just to leave Europe's political structures, but its economic structures in the single market and customs union, you are going to have a hard border and a hard Brexit. Once this central problem is laid bare and put before people, that’s when I think you are going to get a real shift in British public opinion. Because you'll either be in a position where if you are a Leaver you’ll say “what’s the point of leaving, because we’re going to have to still align ourselves with Europe?”, and if you’re a Remainer, and you go on the opposite side of the argument, and it’s clear that you are going to have big economic damage because you’re really out of the single market altogether, then I think that people will again, they'll be thinking, well “this is the moment when we have to rethink this whole idea”.
Euronews: How did this happen anyway? How did Brexit happen?
Tony Blair: Look, the truth of the matter, this is where Europe, I also would give a strong message to European leaders: they've also got to show leadership in this situation. I mean the truth is, 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”. But 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 is 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 and stay strong, and this is what we all need in the 21st century, especially when the rise of China is going to make the whole of the geopolitics of the 20th (sic) century different.
Euronews: You’ve already talked about the currency, about political influence waning. Will UK diplomacy be weakened, assuming Brexit goes through? Has this country's standing diminished, or will it diminish?
Tony Blair: There’s no doubt at all that Brexit, in my view, will weaken the UK politically, I mean, it's bound to. You know, at the moment we are part of the biggest political union and the largest commercial market in the world: if we come out of that, we're going to be weaker. You know, and the idea that we're going to replace the trade deals we have within the European Union single market with some trade deal out in the Pacific or over with NAFTA in America, I mean it's a fantasy. So we will have less weight in the world. And that’s another reason why, in my view, it's so important for Britain to stay. Or at least, if it's going to leave, to leave in the full knowledge that you've decided that you're going to weaken yourself. I mean, I've likened it to the country deciding to...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 bloc, you therefore lose a major alliance that is a big part of your power, and even with our alliance with America, frankly Britain is going to be less influential outside of Europe than in it.
Euronews: Do you really think there’s a hope that Brexit could be stopped?
Tony Blair: 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 of Brexit on European power, and influence, and weight going forward. The truth is, it's very bad for Britain, Brexit, but it's also bad for Europe. And what I am saying is, until it happens, we've got a sovereign right to rethink. You know, European leaders have got to show leadership on this issue and understand – of course, you know, that they've got to negotiate in a proper way with Britain and in a reasonable way, because, you know, at the moment they have to work on the basis Brexit is happening – but they should leave open the possibility that if Britain does start really to rethink this, then the European door remains open.
Euronews: Moving on to I subject I’m sure you really enjoy talking about (laughs), Michael Wolff's book. Tell me what you thought when you heard what he’s written.
Tony Blair: I mean, this is an example of the crazy way news and politics works today. I mean this story was never put to me by the way, before it was written in this so-called book. It is a complete fabrication from beginning to end. I've never had such conversation, not in the White House, not out of the White House, with the person in the White House, with anyone else at any time, any place. And to anyone who actually knows about these things, the idea that the British intelligence services would start to interfere and spy on American presidential candidates is utterly absurd. So anyway, there it is, this is the way it happens, you know, this thing is written, you know, I am denying it but it's already halfway around the world, it's just a crazy situation.
Euronews: Tell me if you have met with Jared Kushner and tell us what kind of meetings…
Tony Blair: (interrupts) I’ve always, by the way, my meetings with Jared Kushner are a matter of public record. That's about the Middle East peace process which I retain a real interest in. It's got nothing to do with so-called surveillance of Donald Trump during the election campaign which as I say, is a complete fabrication and utterly ridiculous.
Euronews: And also, forgive me but in the book it said you were angling for a job.
Tony Blair: This is the repetition of something that, at the time – because my meeting with Mr Kushner was public at the time – I said was nonsense and it is. First of all, I've absolutely no desire to have an official role with the U.S., secondly I've never sought one and thirdly I've never been offered one, so...
Euronews: Thank you for putting that to bed. I wanted to ask about Iran, the situation there. Is that going to damage the democratic process?
Tony Blair: No, I think what's happening in Iran is very significant and important, you know it's obviously driven by anxieties over living standards and rising prices, corruption. And probably, you know, the truth is the Iranian regime is a very autocratic regime but it's also a theocratic regime, you know, based on a particular view of religion running the country – and you know, my view is that we should strongly support from Europe people all over the Middle East who want to see religiously tolerant societies and rule-based economies, because this is the future of the Middle East. And you know, it's not for us to interfere in the situation in Iran, but when those people are out on the streets protesting in so far as they're protesting in favour of those principles, my view is we should support them, there and everywhere in the Middle East.
Euronews: Is it possible these protests will somehow curtail Iran's foreign policy? Because people are saying “what about us”?
Tony Blair: You mean?
Euronews: People are concerned about their own, about food on the table, about their lives, about sanctions. Could this perhaps alter Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East?
Tony Blair: I doubt, frankly, that the Iranian authorities will do anything other than try and just suppress these protests. But to anyone who studies the policy of Iran round the Middle East, it is essentially to try and export this theology or ideology and to destabilise the Middle East through the support of various extremist groups. And the fact is if that policy were to change the Middle East would become immediately more stable and have a better chance of progress, but I think it's unlikely frankly that you will see much change in the policy of the Iranian regime, but I think it's also very important that we in the West distinguish all the time between a regime with whom we have profound differences, and an Iranian people who are smart capable people – and frankly if they had a different form of government would be a positive set of players in the Middle East.
Euronews: One last question: hopes and fears for 2018? It’s a big question!
Tony Blair: Well, for me it is a very simple issue, because Brexit is the dominant issue of my country and I think of Europe for 2018 – and my hope is that it doesn't happen and my fear is that it does, so it's pretty simply encapsulated.