It has been a dramatic week in British politics, with the British Prime Minister delaying a vote on her EU withdrawal deal, facing down a leadership challenge, and pleading with European leaders to give more assurances on the so-called “Irish backstop”. British politics remains blocked. Hence why there are growing calls for a second referendum on exiting the European Union. One of the people calling for a second referendum is none other than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who joined Euronews’ Darren McCaffrey. Below is a full transcript of the interview.
Darren McCaffrey: First of all Mr. Blair, you are a keen advocate, I think it’s fair to say, of the European Union, but if you look at Europe today, we’ve got an Italian budget crisis, we have got a growing problem in terms of peoples’ concerns with migration, and you’ve got authoritarianism on the rise in eastern Europe. Many people would say Britain is leaving the European Union just as the European ship is about to crash.
Tony Blair: You know ever since I’ve been in politics, there have been periodic crises in Europe and these crises have always been used by euro-sceptics to say the European project is going to disintegrate. It never has. It’s carried on and it will carry on. Because the reasons for Europe in the end are very strong, very powerful, in a world that increasingly over the next few years is going to be dominated by giants – America, China, possibly India. Europe, and all the countries in Europe need to stay together, need to stay strong in order to protect their values and interests. And that big picture rationale for Europe. That will, in the end, overwhelm all these periodic crises – severe though they are.
Darren McCaffrey: But when you look at some of the issues that Europe’s talking about, for example, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel – a European Army. Do you support a European Army?
Tony Blair: No, but they don’t mean a European army in the sense that you merge all the soldiers together. What they mean is European defense cooperation. Now I began that process back in the year 2000 with the president of France at the time. I think European defense cooperation is very sensible. But this is why — by the way, if you pull Britain out of Europe, there’s going to be no effective European defense without British participation. So this is another reason why one of my messages to European leaders is: understand Brexit is bad for Britain, principally bad for Britain, but it’s bad for Europe too. It weakens Europe at a time when it needs to be strong.
Darren McCaffrey: So you’ve been going around campaigning for this second referendum; I mean I think it’s fair to say [you’ve been] lobbying other European leaders of its merits. I mean who have you spoken to and how has that message gone down?
Tony Blair: Well I don’t disclose the people I speak to because that should remain private between me and the leaders I talk to. But I think it’s very obvious. What leaders were saying to me when I started having this conversation a year ago, they would say to me ‘yeah but it’s never going to happen, another referendum’. I think the mood has changed in the last couple of months. And now people are saying ‘well could it really happen?’ I need to get the European leaders to the next stage which is to realise that the probability is it’s going to happen. And they’ve got to prepare for it. Because one important component in any such refought referendum will be whether Europe is prepared to meet what are not just British concerns around issues to do with immigration, but European-wide concerns. And I think you can put together the right type of deal, if you like, which wouldn’t just be about Britain, it would be about Europe and accepting for example, freedom of movement of people in Europe has got to operate in a way that is fair and just, doesn’t undercut wages, and doesn’t cause problems for individual countries.
Darren McCaffrey: But isn’t that the problem, that people here equate, in Britain, the free movement of people to something completely different from the continent. They’re more concerned about external migration into Europe. And second of all, on this fundamental freedom of the people’s ability to move around Europe, you’re talking about reform of that. That is going to take years and years. Europe does nothing quickly. How are you going to reassure British people ahead of a referendum, if there was one, that Europe’s willing to reform on that?
Tony Blair: Well first of all, I think it’s true that the principal anxiety around immigration, by the way in Britain, never mind Europe, is immigration from outside Europe, in particular frankly, immigration from majority Muslim countries where people worry that there are cultural and even security issues that come with that immigration. But freedom of movement is also an issue. It’s an issue in the rest of Europe as well. It’s why, for example, some countries in Europe say ‘if you come, migrate from another country in Europe and you haven’t found a job within a couple of months and the means to support yourself, you’re put back out again’.
That’s why the French president introduced and campaigned for the Posted Workers Directive in Europe, which prevents you from using migrant labour from another part of Europe to undercut local wages. So it’s not true that this is not a problem for the whole of Europe. I think you could put together a package there. And the package could be very quickly implemented because there’s lots of things you could do even within the freedom of movement principle.
Darren McCaffrey: But we all know that Europe takes an awfully long time to agree on anything. To get essentially 27 member states on board ahead of a referendum, to agree with something that even tinkers with the freedom of movement principle would be nearly impossible.
Tony Blair: I don’t agree with that. I mean, the Posted Workers Directive went through pretty quick in the end. So I think if people want to do it, they can do it. Look, I have a long experience with European Council so I know how Europe works. If you’re asking for some big treaty change that’s going to require referendums in all the different countries and so on, then that’s another matter.
Darren McCaffrey: Would that be enough for the British public? They have made it clear – and Theresa May has based her deal on this, that it is about – Jeremy Corbyn told me last week, that freedom of movement of people, as it is, can no longer continue.
Tony Blair: Yes but here what’s really important is to isolate the British problems with freedom of movement. Because one thing that’s happened, by the way, since the referendum, is that we now have a clear idea in Britain of who these European migrants are. And once you start going through the different categories, you realise for example, we need the highly skilled people. That’s accepted. We need the low skilled seasonal workers. That’s now accepted by most people. We need the workers in the National Health Service. We need the students. You’re actually talking about a small number of people. And by the way, the irony since the referendum in June 2016, is that European migration has gone down, migration from outside of Europe, immigration from outside has gone up. So this is less complicated than people think. And it’s more easy to deal with than people think.
Darren McCaffrey: Just domestically in Britain, as I say, we are in a situation where politics is blocked here. Do you think it’s got to a moment where there may be a need for a, I don’t know, a national unity government a bit like we saw during the war.
Tony Blair: It’s pretty difficult to see how you’d put a national unity government together with the leadership you’ve got with both political parties right now. I think there’s a need – I honestly don’t think it’s as complicated as people think. And you know I speak as someone who was a member of parliament for 25 years and Prime Minister for 10. It’s very simple. You’ve got to find a way in Parliament, which is easy enough for parliament to do if government’s not prepared to do it, where you iteratively vote through the options. You could have the Theresa May deal. You could have a Norway-type option. You could have a Canada-style free trade agreement. You’ve got to vote on those three options. If you can’t agree on any of those options, you’ve got to decide whether to go for a referendum. If you don’t go for a referendum by the way, you can come back and do one of those three options. It’s really not complicated. The thing I think is really bizarre and misguided on the part of Europe as well as people in UK, is spending all this time worrying about ‘no-deal’. There’s not going to be ‘no-deal’ unless there’s a combination of accidents within government and parliament that I can’t foresee. So I’m not saying it’s impossible. But why would Parliament do that? There’s a massive majority in Parliament against no deal. They’re definitely going to prefer a referendum to no-deal. So I don’t think – no-deal isn’t the worry. The worry is that we end up with a kind of botched Brexit, which is frankly this deal that’s on the table at the moment.