7 April 2015

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has made his first intervention of the general election campaign in a speech attacking the Conservatives for promising a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. Blair agued that if because of the “the perilous fragility of public support for the sensible choice” the referendum might deliver the wrong message (i.e for out), the messenger should be shot.

For Blair it is clear the UK’s EU membership is existential to the UK’s place in the world and its functioning as a modern economy. From that he comes to the conclusion that holding a referendum on its membership is tantamount to the “the near death experience for the UK of the Scottish referendum.” He is wrong on both counts.

Firstly, although it would present tough choices, the UK could survive outside the EU. As Open Europe’s recent research shows, the realistic range of economic outcomes of ‘Brexit’ are quite small, likely to be within the range of 1% of GDP either way. [Blair has even once admitted the UK could survive outside himself]. Secondly, avoiding a referendum is not the best way keep the UK in the EU, just as cancelling the Scottish referendum would not have guaranteed the end of Scottish nationalism.

What Blair should have done in his speech is set out the causes for the UK’s unsettled relationship with the EU and a Labour government’s EU reform agenda to address them. That would have been a more substantial, interesting and uncomfortable speech as many of the issues that drive UK alienation from the EU can be traced back to decisions he made during his period of office. Here are some:

  • The Lisbon Treaty: Much of the cynicism in the UK over the whole EU project derives from Tony Blair’s promise to hold an EU referendum on the EU Constitution, only (a French, Dutch and Irish ‘No’ later) to see it renamed the Lisbon Treaty and pushed through without one. The Lisbon Treaty took powers from national parliaments and gave them to the EU institutions, furthering alienation with the EU in the process.
  • The Euro: Tony Blair was once in favour of the Euro, (and a referendum on the Euro). The eurocrisis has not only vindicated those who took the opposite stance but has led to the British electorate being rightly sceptical of those who make similar bold claims. Blair is gracious enough to admit the issue: “not being part of the single currency is not, at least in the short and medium term, going to imperil the supremacy of the City of London… but leaving Europe altogether, is quite another thing.”
  • EU migration: Although all parties were (rightly) in favour of EU enlargement, it is undeniable that the large scale migration that followed (and the failure to predict or plan for it) has driven opposition to EU membership. It is worth remembering that it was Tony Blair’s government that decided not to take up the option of extending transitional controls, which could have mitigated the problem.
  • The EU Budget: Tony Blair and Douglas Alexander in 2005 negotiated away a portion of the UK’s EU budget rebate, in a back loaded deal, that has led to steadily increasing budget contributions.

So if Blair is partly responsible for the UK public’s current antipathy to the UK, what is his solution? Rather than setting out how to reform the EU budget, devolving powers back to national parliaments, putting in place safeguards for Euro ‘outs’ and reforming EU free movement rules, Blair thinks the solution is to avoid holding a referendum at all. This is not a principled opposition to referendums – after all Blair supported them on everything from the Euro, the EU Constitution, the Mayor of London, the North East Assembly and Scottish and Welsh devolution.

If there is logic it is more a political logic – “the oddest thing of all about having this referendum? The Prime Minister doesn’t really believe we should leave Europe.” Only hold a referendum if you know the answer you want. Blair even admits a referendum could be justified “if our terms aren’t met” but only if the Government of the day had already made up its mind. But, principled or not, denying a referendum will not make the UK’s EU angst go away.

Kicking the can down the road

The British public’s concerns with the EU will not evaporate like the morning mist faced with the rising sun of a Labour government. A Labour Government, potentially opposed by an ‘Outist’ Conservative leader, and without a substantial EU reform programme of its own, will not decrease the chances of #Brexit once the referendum does come – as inevitably it will. Will Ed Miliband be able to deploy enough statistics about the jobs and influence at stake to ensure the issue dies down for good? Will the Eurozone crisis subdue?

Blair’s economic case against Brexit

If  it is Labour’s plan to relentlessly hammer home a case for staying in the EU they will need to try harder. Blair’s economic reasoning for staying in the EU is as familiar as it is critiqued. We are told (wrongly) that “Over half our trade is with Europe” and that “There are millions of UK jobs dependent on that access” which must assume that all trade would dry up if the UK left. The economic choices and uncertainty that would follow a UK exit are real, but the UK could prosper outside if it made the right choices – particularly if the counterfactual is an EU, continually mired in the Eurozone crisis turning in on itself.

So why make the speech?

Which all begs the question, why did Blair make the speech? It is hard to imagine that the Labour Party believe that Tony Blair arguing against giving people a say is a vote winner. What is more likely is that the motive is less European than domestic politics. Tony Blair unsurprisingly wishes to support Ed Miliband’s election campaign and one point of agreement between the two is the need to hold off a referendum on the EU.