Saturday 21 April 2018

Tony Blair: EU leaders would accommodate Britain on tightening up free movement

Former British Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Photo: Reuters
Former British Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Photo: Reuters

Arj Singh, Press Association Political Correspondent

EUROPEAN Union leaders would be willing to tighten up the free movement of the bloc's citizens to accommodate Britain and so the option of reversing Brexit must be kept on the table, Tony Blair has said.

The former British prime minister claimed the Tories lost their majority in the election because large numbers of people voted to deny Theresa May the mandate for a so-called "hard" Brexit.

Mr Blair suggested the "will of the people" may be changing as the difficulties of Brexit negotiations become apparent and called for a "proper debate" over the different options, including remaining in a reformed EU.

The only reason it is not on the table is because the Tories fear old internal wounds would be reopened if Brexit does not happen, he said.

The former Labour leader also criticised his party's vision of a "jobs first" Brexit outside the single market, calling it a "contradiction in terms", and said he was "dubious" about the idea that it helped win over Remain and Leave voters in the General Election.

Pro-EU voters will eventually begin to understand Labour holds the "same damaging position" as the Tories, to leaving the single market to end free movement, and the party should instead champion a "radically distinct" position on Europe.

"Rational consideration of the options would sensibly include the option of negotiating for Britain to stay within a Europe itself prepared to reform and meet us half way," he wrote in an article for his Institute for Global Change.

"The Macron victory changes the political dynamics of Europe.

"The members of the eurozone will integrate economic decision-making.

"Inevitably, therefore, Europe will comprise an inner and outer circle. Reform is now on Europe's agenda. The European leaders, certainly from my discussions, are willing to consider changes to accommodate Britain, including around freedom of movement.

"Yet this option is excluded."

Mr Blair's article was published alongside polling which suggested 70% of Britons would support free movement if it was reformed to mean EU citizens would not have an automatic right to move to a country without a job offer, and if there were stricter controls on welfare.

German and French voters would favour similar controls, the polling suggested.

"We are all learning, as we proceed, the damage Brexit will do," Mr Blair said.

"Europe knows it will be poorer and less powerful without us.

"We know our currency is down around 12%; already jobs are going; there is not £350 million a week more for the NHS; and we actually need most of the migrants who come to work in the UK.

"On any basis, leaving is complex and will take years.

"Brexit is the biggest political decision since the Second World War.

"Given what is at stake, and what, daily, we are discovering about the costs of Brexit, how can it be right deliberately to take off the table the option of compromise between Britain and Europe so that Britain stays within a reformed Europe?"

Mr Blair's intervention was dismissed by the senior Labour backbencher Frank Field - one of the few Labour MPs to back Leave in the referendum.

"If I was in the EU wanting to change public opinion in this country about our exit from the EU, I would not be using Tony Blair," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"We are now set on the course of leaving. I wouldn't actually be believing those people who are set on destroying our attempts to leave who now appear as wolves in sheep's clothing."

Mr Blair refused to be drawn on his contacts within the EU, but insisted his claims were not just made on "a whim".

He told the Today programme: "Europe itself is now looking at its own reform programme. They will have an inner circle in the EU that will be part of the eurozone and an outer circle. They will make reforms that I think will make it much more comfortable for Britain to fit itself in that outer circle.

"This is a completely changed situation in Europe. I'm not going to disclose conversations I've had within Europe, but I'm not saying this literally on the basis of a whim."

Pro-Brexit group Leave Means Leave said Mr Blair's comments "demonstrate how out of touch he is with British voters".

The group's co-chair Richard Tice said: "The former Prime Minister believes that freedom of movement is the only issue with the EU when in reality the British people also voted to leave in order to take back control of our laws and money and no longer be dictated to by the European Court of Justice.

"Sadly Westminster 'Remainers' are still in denial, whilst more and more business people see the advantages and opportunities of leaving the EU."

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