Tony Blair: The Brexit Dilemma

Tony Blair: The Brexit Dilemma

Posted on: 23rd February 2018
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Brexit generates so much noise and fog that often it is hard to discern moments of definition.

But over the past weeks one thing is becoming daily clearer. If the Prime Minister continues her present path, there is a real possibility of impasse in Parliament and so the final say on any Brexit deal will have to be with the people.

Brexit means more than one version of Brexit.

There are two different versions within Government.

There are four different versions at least within Parliament.

All have wildly differing consequences.

Which did the British people vote for?

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For close relations with Europe even if it limits our ability to have freedom over our regulation?

For a clean break with Europe even if it causes economic damage?

For staying at least within a Customs Union to protect Northern Ireland?

For being outside the EU but still members of the Single Market so we retain full access to where we do 50% of our trade?

Even if they are somehow reconciled within Government, how can we be sure that this reconciliation is what the people voted for?

The differences between these positions are probably irreconcilable. Then the Government will have to choose one of these versions. But how do we know this version is what the people wanted?

Even if they are somehow reconciled within Government, how can we be sure that this reconciliation is what the people voted for?

That is what now makes the case for a final say on the terms of the Brexit the Government finally propose, obvious common sense.   

There is no way round the central negotiating Dilemma – close to Europe and therefore following its rules or free from those rules but with barriers to the European market on which we depend; and no consensus within Government let alone Parliament as to how it should be resolved. 

And if the Government tries to kick the issue down the road until after March 2019, we will be in a perilous muddle, a sort of Leave without Leaving in which we will have left the decision-making room but are lingering about outside with our noses pressed against the glass. 

We surely can't be taken to have voted for that either. 

They all try to pull the sword out of the stone, huffing and puffing away, and all fail.

Each speech in this bizarre parade of Government Ministers designed to show unity only further exposes the division.

They all try to pull the sword out of the stone, huffing and puffing away, and all fail.

The Chequers meeting had barely ended before each side was briefing victory and the PM unity.

They're basically still in ‘cake and eat it’ mode and it won't work.

This is because there is no escape from the binary nature of the choice over future trading arrangements. 

The reality is that if Britain wants a close trading relationship with Europe after Brexit, it will have to abide by European regulation because that is the basis of present day European commerce in the Single Market. You can call this regulatory alignment, equivalence or mutual recognition and these are, strictly, technically, very different from each other. 

But in the end, they will amount to the same thing: we will be keeping in line with European rules and standards.

If we do that, then of course we will not really have ‘taken back control’ in the way Brexit promised. The ECJ – directly or indirectly – will continue to play a role. All that will have happened is that we will have put ourselves outside the room of rule-making.

There is no political way around this Dilemma.

The continued failure of the Government to resolve the Northern Ireland question is an expression of it.

And now that it is clear there is no way round it, there are politicians prepared to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement on the altar of Brexit and declare that the peace agreed in Northern Ireland is not, really, worth having anyway.

This is irresponsibility that is frankly sickening.

The referendum was a mandate for leaving Europe if Leaving were that simple.

But here’s the rub. It turns out it isn't.

It has instead proved to be complex. Highly complex. Dominating every waking political moment. With – and this is universally agreed – undoubted seismic importance.

And, above all, with many diverse versions of Brexit.

The debate around that future should also be part of the Brexit debate.

If Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg can't agree with Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Justine Greening on what type of Brexit, and so they're in a fight to the finish or a fudge, how can we say the British people have mandated either the finish or the fudge? 

We need to see what Brexit really does mean following the negotiation. Debate it in Parliament. And then, if no agreement can be reached there, put it back to the people so that they can say whether the Brexit proposed is what they want or not.

If this results in a fresh referendum, it will of course not be a re-run of June 2016. It will be a new choice which allows us to judge between what we have now as members of the EU and what we will have outside it on the terms negotiated and proposed. The choice will be informed by the fresh information we have learnt since June 2016, which is considerable as our paper shows; and by our knowledge of what our Government has been able to secure in the negotiation.

If after that choice is exercised, the British people still want to go, then we will go. Then, the olive branch Boris Johnson offered last week will be accepted. Then we will have to forge a new future to regain our economic and political poise and move forward.

The debate around that future should also be part of the Brexit debate.

As our paper shows, there is no serious doubt that Brexit, in the short and medium term at least, is damaging to growth, jobs and investment. And without real change in the way Britain works, it would be damaging long term. This is the international consensus including among those with no political interest one way or another.  

If Britain leaves the European Union, especially if it does so with a clean break, its choices will be stark.

We must understand the deep motivations of those who have led us to Brexit.

Brexit has never really been about ‘taking back control’ for those who have created this project, nurtured it, used the full weight of their media power, and built the winning alliance for the referendum.

Our paper shows the threadbare nature of these claims. When Brexit supporters say we need to take back control of our laws, we have gone back through every Queen’s Speech and Budget since 2010. These are the two big law-making set pieces of the year. Except for reductions of VAT on sanitary towels, never once did the PM or Chancellor proclaim some burning desire to pass a law necessary for the country’s future which Europe prevented us from passing. Not once.

Essentially, we can pass whatever laws we like on the NHS, education, crime, welfare, immigration apart from European immigration, have tuition fees or abolish them, and make what Budget we want on tax and spending – up, down, tight, loose, minimal, maximal.

We can vote in a Thatcherite Government; or a Corbyn Government.

Parliament can vote for war or peace.

We can have a House of Lords or abolish it; have a monarchy or get rid of it; elect our Parliament how we want to elect it; have a written constitution or decide to keep our unwritten one.

It is true we pay money into Europe. Germany, France and the other wealthier countries do too. We pay it for the enlargement of Europe following the fall of the Soviet Union, and it is well worth it for the protection of our security. But the total bill is around 1% of Government spending. 

As for European immigration, as the paper shows, it is now virtually accepted that we need most of the categories of migrant: the high skilled and their dependants; the low skilled seasonal workers; the students; the NHS workers. And in any event as Eastern Europe becomes richer, the numbers from there are falling.

The real agenda behind those driving Brexit is changing Britain – not just Britain’s relationship with Europe but Britain’s relationship to itself.

To change Britain, they believe they must break Britain out of the political culture which Europe represents.

The European tradition is social democratic and Christian democratic; it believes in high levels of welfare protection and social spending; it celebrates solidarity and human rights.

Now Britain has always been a somewhat Anglo-Saxon adulteration of all that.

And Europe itself has strains within it which – as we can see from the politics of Europe today – are much more sympathetic to the British view than some in Europe want to admit.

All previous Prime Ministers can testify that we were often pulling Europe back from venturing too far from the nation state.

Nonetheless, though challenging partners, we were nonetheless partners. As the world has changed we in Britain became wary of a house with one load- bearing pillar allied only to the United States.

Our own political culture was not absolutely in the European tradition but neither was it completely outside of it. We were at the outer segment of the circle; but still in the circle.

The NHS is the supreme manifestation of this.

The USA will never have a national health care system. But we wouldn't like to be without ours.

If the evidence we present in this paper of all the economic forecasts is only half right, Brexit will reduce the scope for Government spending dramatically.

If Britain leaves the European Union, especially if it does so with a clean break, its choices will be stark.

This is in fact obvious. We will be changing radically the terms of trade with the countries on our doorstep with whose economies we are intimately entwined. It will take us on any basis several years to replace these relationships; or so to change our competitive position viz Europe that we become again an attractive investment destination.

In the end, we will be driven to market ourselves as ‘Not Europe’. This is indeed precisely what the Europeans fear and what those urging Brexit with a clean break, want.

They see Britain’s future as a dynamic, low tax, light regulation, offshore trading hub, where we attract investment and wealth by avowedly being the opposite of Europe’s culture.  

David Davis may protest it’s not about that. But the economists advocating Brexit say it’s precisely about that. 

There is no other serious economic rationale for Brexit. 

The true Brexiteers think leaving Europe is the shock to the system that forces us to change the country radically.

They will play to the nationalist sentiment around issues like immigration. But it is very similar to the Trump phenomenon. It is a new political coalition of free market business people and nationalists, united in their dislike of Government, political correctness and cultural integration.

The coalition includes some who would vote left on certain elements of public spending.

But the result is a sharp shift to the right.

What is at stake, therefore, is more than Europe. It is the polity of Britain. It cannot be right to take this course without the country having a proper and full debate about whether this is the future we want.

With Brexit, even a left of centre Government would have huge and difficult decisions to make about Britain’s future economic and political identity.

If anyone should be anti Brexit, it is someone who wants to pursue policies of higher taxes including a new tax on financial transactions and rises in corporation tax, big increases in spending and a programme of nationalisation.

Even without Brexit, this plan would be challenging.  

It is good that the Labour Party position is ‘evolving’. But it must align it fully with its policy programme.

To carry on pretending that there is Brexit and then, separate from Brexit, there is the NHS, education, crime etc. is ridiculous.

If the evidence we present in this paper of all the economic forecasts is only half right, Brexit will reduce the scope for Government spending dramatically.

The paper shows we are already losing vital European staff from the NHS.

We are already suffering lower growth.

The last thing Britain could sensibly do is to leave Europe and then pursue a sort of leftist version of the European social democracy it had just abandoned.

So, these are vast questions of consequence.

Brexit continues to divide for a reason. Its true meaning is unresolved.

The olive branch remains attached to the tree for now. That tree is Britain’s destiny and, given the magnitude of the decision, no one has the right to cut it until that decision is clear.

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