Blair: Integrity in Action
I went to hear Tony Blair’s speech on Europe this morning, and came back with this poster, which I got from the good-natured anti-EU campaigners who were outside with their spoof preparatory committee. I have put it up above the Daily Mail desk in our shared office in the House of Commons Press Gallery.
It was a good speech. As a Blairite Eurosceptic, I was impressed by the way that – unlike David Cameron – he made an argument rather than listed slogans. I have previously been doubtful of the argument for EU membership on grounds of influence, but he makes it better than anyone. (Although I was unsure about this Basil Fawlty moment: “Then the rationale was peace. Today it is power. Then it was about a continent ravaged by war in which Germany had been the aggressor and Britain the victor.”)
Some of this argument was self-important (“Any US President I know – and I’ve known a few – would regard Britain leaving as folly”), but still persuasive:
Separate us out from the decision-making structure of Europe and we will immediately relegate ourselves in the league of nations. I believe our other alliances would not blossom but decline.
And he made the argument that I regard as decisive:
I am very dubious that other European countries would allow Britain to operate like some offshore centre at the edge of Europe, free from Europe’s responsibilities but participating fully in its opportunities. Any one of those countries within Europe could say no – or non – and no would therefore be the likely answer. We want to think long and hard before we put ourselves in that position.
Much the same applies to the “refuge” of renegotiating the terms of our membership:
Don’t be in any doubt as to the temper and frame of mind that our present partners will bring to that negotiation. Many of them are fighting an existential battle to survive right now. There will be varying degrees of politeness. But they will not thank us and will not accommodate us. So don’t go down this path unless we are prepared to follow it all the way.
And he pointed out the danger of making a decision by default:
Sometimes decisions are taken at a moment in time, expressly and obviously. But political decisions can also be taken by effluxion, by a process that begins with an attitude, turns into a series of tactical steps driven by the attitude and then results in a decision that is strategic in effect but almost imperceptible in any one moment of time. That is the risk now.
In questions after the speech, he was as deft as ever. He refused to give David Cameron advice on how to handle his party. Although he did say:
All my life I fought ideology on the left. The right have got it really bad on this Europe thing. It’s a virus. It makes you want to take positions just for the sake of asserting them.
He was equally tactful when invited to give advice to Ed Miliband, although it was notable that he could not bring himself to use his successor’s name:
I think the Labour Party is going to stay basically a pro-European party. I listened to the leader of the Labour Party’s speech to the CBI and thought it was a very good speech. If we keep on that line we’ll be all right.
He was also asked about what I see as the most persuasive anti-EU arguments. One is Michael Gove’s, that the UK would be unable to obtain the meaningful reform of the EU that he wants without the credible threat of withdrawal. Blair’s view is that you obtain reform by winning allies, which you cannot do if you are “edging towards the exit”.
The other is that the UK is excluded from the eurozone and will probably always be, so we are in the second, “single market”, tier in any case, so there would not be much difference between formal membership or non-membership of the EU.
On that, he was convincing that Norway does not offer a useful example, because of its vast sovereign wealth fund, but less convincing on Switzerland. “No one says we could or should become like the Swiss.” I am not sure why not.
But his style of argument was effective: he could imagine the UK being out of the EU. “We could create an economy that could operate effectively in the global market.” But we shouldn’t want to.
And his argument on the euro was that we do not know what is going to happen to it. “What’s the point of closing off options? Don’t take a decision now on the basis of what the world looks like now.” And he referred back to the history of the EU: “When Europe was founded the world looked as if ‘We don’t need to be part of this thing.’”
That, though, is an argument that cuts both ways. Either we should conclude that Britain should never be “left behind” again; or we should conclude that Winston Churchill was right the first time, and we should never have had anything to do with it.Tagged in: europe, euroscepticism, tony blair
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter