Blair says EU should remain open to UK rethink on Brexit
Blair says British government will struggle to win parliamentary approval for withdrawal deal
Former British prime minister Tony Blair: He said last month’s deal between Theresa May and the EU on Northern Ireland had exposed the central dilemma of Brexit
Tony Blair has warned against “a certain fatalism” in Europe over Brexit which ignores the damage Britain’s departure will do to the European Union itself. He said Europeans should understand that the argument in Britain is not yet over, and that the EU should remain open to a rethink in the UK over Brexit.
“It’s not too late until it’s happened. I think Europe is also making a mistake if a decision of this magnitude is taken on the basis that people get tired of contesting it, and a Brexit fatigue is a real risk. The leaders of Europe should not be indifferent to the consequences this has for Europe.”
The former British prime minister was speaking ahead of the publication on Thursday of Brexit – What We Now Know, a report by his Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (institute.global).
He said Britain faced four options: to remain in the EU; to remain economically integrated but politically apart like Norway; to be economically and politically apart but to negotiate a bespoke deal that would shadow EU regulation; or to negotiate a basic free trade deal and define itself as “not Europe”.
He said last month’s deal between Theresa May and the EU on Northern Ireland had not resolved the issue but has exposed the central dilemma of Brexit.
“The point about the Northern Ireland situation is you may find some fudge through it, but what it exposes is the problem you’re going to find in every sector that you come to. So, if you take the financial service sector, the government says we’ll have regulatory alignment. But if you have regulatory alignment that means you’re going to align with Europe’s rules. If you align with Europe’s rules, how have you taken back control of your laws?
“And who will adjudicate those rules? The European Court of Justice. This is why I say this negotiation has got a long way to go because it hasn’t resolved the central problem for the UK.”
Describing 2018 as the crucial year for Brexit, Mr Blair predicted that the British government would struggle to win parliamentary approval for a withdrawal agreement. He said Ms May would be forced to choose between the final two options, to shadow EU regulation or to break free from them.
“They are very, very different. One tries to keep us quite close to Europe, the other effectively markets Britain as not Europe. Now that is truthfully what the Brexiteers want. They want Britain not just out of Europe but proclaiming to the world, we’re not part of these Europeans, we’re completely different. Whereas the Theresa May option which she’s trying to go for, which I personally think is not negotiable, is basically to leave without leaving.”
Mr Blair said that even if the EU softened its opposition to British “cherrypicking” across sectors, each move towards regulatory alignment would diminish the extent to which Britain was “taking back control”. He predicted that the prime minister would seek to postpone the most difficult decisions until after Britain has left the EU in March 2019.
“The risk is that, as the government appreciates that – because the NI negotiations educated them as to this central dilemma – they just basically will try to avoid the decision until after we have left.
“That is where Parliament will be absolutely vital to say to them: no, we are not allowing you, we are not going to make any irreversible decisions until we see what we are getting instead.”
Right to rethink
He said anti-Brexit voices were beginning to coalesce around the idea of “the right to rethink” Brexit, including the option of remaining in the EU if the available alternative was unwelcome. Urging Labour to take a clearer position in opposition to the Conservatives on Brexit, he said the battle would begin in parliament this year.
“Nothing can happen in parliament without the Labour Party. That is why it is so important that the Labour Party takes a strong position.
“At the moment public opinion remains very divided. But in the end this debate has to happen within the parliamentary forum. And that is particularly true in circumstances where the actual negotiations have not yet come to some of the crunch points. It will come to them in the course of this year. And at that point we will be able to see what the resolution is to what I call the dilemma.”