Tony Blair: Leaving the EU Before We Know Where We Are Going Is a Profound Mistake

Tony Blair: Leaving the EU Before We Know Where We Are Going Is a Profound Mistake

Posted on: 30th January 2019
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

This week is all about remedying the fundamental flaw in Theresa May’s deal: the lack of clarity in the deal’s political declaration about the future economic and trading relationship with Europe.

No clarity; no closure. No closure and rather than Mrs May’s deal allowing us to turn a corner, it will keep us on the same stretch of road after March and for many years to come.

Of course, the public want us to “get on with it”. This is the sentiment the prime minister is playing on. But her deal is a contrivance to avoid a decision on the future relationship and so instead of getting on with it, we will be trapped in the same discord after March.

That is why we need an extension of Article 50. To ensure that before we take the irrevocable decision to leave Europe we know what we will get afterwards; to insist that we don’t leave before we know.

The controversy over the backstop has only ever been an example of the essential Brexit dilemma. It is a problem because of the concession that the Irish issue should be part of the withdrawal agreement, not part of the future relationship.

As a result there had to be clarity on it; and it is the dilemma between an open Irish border and leaving the single market and customs union that has created the backstop. If you want a frictionless border in Ireland the UK must be in the customs union — and actually the single market for goods at least — until some new fangled technological solution removes the need for checks once the border becomes for the first time in history the external border of the EU.

The disagreement over the future relationship will simply be the Irish Dilemma writ large. On this the Cabinet is deeply split.

The strategy of the prime minister has been to take refuge in ambiguity in the political declaration, thus allowing both sides to resume the battle after March.

We would have given up our bargaining power, paid our money upfront and have no clear idea of what we get in return. No sensible negotiator would contemplate such a thing.

Brexiteers now accept their best strategy is to get the other side of March 2019 and then fight for a hard Brexit. The prime minister is encouraging them to think this. Meanwhile the other part of the Cabinet is gearing up to fight for a soft Brexit. Leaving before we know which will prevail is a profound mistake.

We would have given up our bargaining power, paid our money upfront and have no clear idea of what we get in return. No sensible negotiator would contemplate such a thing.

Faced with this obvious objection, the prime minister’s next tactic is to threaten the calamity of no deal to frighten us into a bad one. This is irresponsible as is the constant rhetoric that those who oppose this are betraying the national interest.

No deal would be an unforgivable act of self-harm. Its threat is much less potent with Europe than the prime minister seems to think and the very making of it is already causing severe loss of confidence in the country. This is the moment therefore for an alliance of all those who understand we need to come to a clear decision on the future economic relationship before we leave.

The extension of Article 50 should be precisely to do this. This is not about the decision as to eventual outcome but about the principle of clarity before departure.

I support a new referendum. Others support soft Brexit; others hard Brexit. Others understand that no deal is so damaging we should rule it out now. At this time, we should put aside our differences and simply agree we need an outcome before departure.

During the time for extension there should be a full debate on all the options for the future relationship with parliament able to vote on them until it reaches a majority.

If the public can be involved so much the better. They’re being told, quite wrongly, that their representatives in parliament are playing games, when MPs are doing precisely what they should be — looking at the details and analysing them seriously.

These amendments from Yvette Cooper, Dominic Grieve and others are essential to support. If you believe in a soft Norway-type Brexit, then support them to get a decision in your favour. If you’re a hard Brexiteer then support an extension to secure your form of Brexit and to cure the backstop if you think you can. If you’re a supporter of a new referendum then only through persuading parliament and people that none of the options is attractive will you get your way, and that takes time. If you consider no deal to be wrong then take it off the table.

This week is not about what Brexit you want or no Brexit; it is about the integrity of the whole Brexit process. It is about the need for clarity on the future relationship.

So we should mandate the extension; and reject the threat of no deal. Then we should do what we have signally failed to do in the past 30 months: face up to the real consequences of Brexit, debate the options and decide.

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