"Europe is not about peace anymore, it´s about power."

Twenty years after he came to power Tony Blair talks about the old New Labour, the new Old Labour, about Brexit and why he still hopse Britain can avoid it.

Tony Blair does not serve “Full English Breakfast”, he invites, very continental, to croissants. Blair is pro-European, a rare species among British politicians. The 64 years old former Prime minister is an exception also in other dimensions: He was the youngest head of government since the 19th century, he fundamentally changed the Labour party, cleaned off old leftist dogmas. At the beginning of his reign the charismatic, boyish man was not only admired in Britain, the continent embraced his “Third Way”, too. He tirelessly pushed for EU-enlargement, during his years in power the division between communist Eastern Europe and capitalist Western Europe came to an end.


His hair might be grey today, but the 64 year old Blair has not lost his youthful smile and energetic appearance. Tory-PM Theresa may has called for snap elections on June 8th and Blair wants to help prevent an even larger majority for the conservative Brexit-government. His recent PR-initiative has fueled speculation that he is about to found a new Left-of-centre-party. His Labour party has been taken hostage by the Old Left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has little chance of beating Ms May on election day. Blair does not want to discuss Corbyn during the election campaign, but afterwards? The former prime minister wants to focus his energies in his “Institute for Global change” for the next progressive generation. He met Profil together with a group of European correspondents in his offices in Mayfair, across the square from the US embassy.

Profil: : What is left of New Labour today?

Blair: I certainly look older, if you look at all the photographs from twenty years ago. I think there are many things about the country that changed when we came into power and they remain changed. The peace agreement in Northern Ireland for example. But the dominant question for me is Brexit because it is a huge step for Britain. I have said this many times, that it is a serious mistake for us as a country to separate ourselves from Europe at this moment. As someone who believed that Britain should play a strong role in Europe, this is obviously a matter of great sadness.

Profil: : You represented “Cool Britannia”, but today it feels like it was a camouflage, is Britain the Brexit-country we are seeing now?

Blair: I don’t think that Britain has lost this creative or innovative spirit, it is just that in the course of the referendum those people that believe for a lot of different reasons by the way that Britain should come out of the European Union, they triumphed in that referendum. The younger generation voted for Britain to stay in Europe, those over 65 voted to leave. But it is also important to realize that, you know, the vote was not 65 to 35, it was 48 to 52. Well, countries very rarely have one strain or element of thinking within them.

Profil: Prime minister Theresa May does not only negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU, she wants a hard cut. Could she still reconsider?

Blair: I think getting out of the Single market is by definition hard Brexit. The thing I literally can’t see the answer to is: Once you say you are out of the Single market, how do you get a free trade agreement that is as good as the Single market? Single market is a unique commercial creation, it’s mean when you sell goods or services from London to Berlin is the same than from London to Newcastle. Free trade is completely different. This is about literally the future of Hundred Thousands of jobs, it is about our living standards. If we leave the Single market it is is like stepping down from the Premier League to League 1.

profil: Are you surprised that the PM is not preparing the population better for the consequences of Brexit, for example that immigration can’t be brought down substantially?

Blair: I find it hard on a day-to-day basis to understand, what the government’s position really is. By the way, if you really want to bring immigration down, you can. If you leave the European Union, you can stop all the European people coming here. But we will damage our economy. So I don’t think they are going to do that. I think they will end up arguing that the fact that you make them go through a process and therefore in theory argue that you have control back over our borders is the price, but to me this is weird. So we actually want most of these people, but we will make them go through a process and we are going to leave the Single market for that. Significant numbers of the European immigrants are people who are coming here with a job to go to. There is no evidence we don’t want or need these people. We do want and need these people. So they are going to come with their dependants. Then you got students who come here. We want them in our universities. So they are going to come. And then you got the seasonal workers. It is not that British people are not allowed to apply for these jobs. But they are not doing them. Right, so, we need the berry pickers. When you actually break it down, the only category of European migrants where we would say we are not sure we want them are people who come to the UK looking for work but without a job. I believe the majority of those people end up in London. The fact that we stop some Polish guy working in a bar in London, is not going to give some young unemployed person in the Northeast of England a job.

profil : You fought passionately for EU enlargement. You could have asked for transition agreements with the Eastern European countries like Germany and Austria did. Do you see things differently today? Maybe the country would not have voted for Brexit, if not so many workers from Eastern Europe would have come at once?
Blair: The majority of people that came from Europe came after the transitional arrangement period would have elapsed. The transitional arrangements would have taken you to 2011. The principle anxiety that people have about immigration, is not immigration from Europe. I am not saying there are no pressures in certain communities, where you get a large influx of Eastern European immigrants, I understand that, but the biggest anxiety over immigration in Britain is essentially, when people coming from a different culture into our society and they worry about integration, the worry about acceptance of cultural values. That has nothing to do with EU-immigrants and Brexit.

Profil: The EU serves as scapegoat for many things.

Blair: To me the most extraordinary thing about the British position at the moment on Brexit is the two great bipartisan achievements of conservative and Labour governments, namely the Single Market and enlargement are now seen as the authors of our European problem. It is incredible. Enlargement what would be happening today given the resurgence of Russian nationalist sentiment, think what would be happening today in these countries if enlargement would not have brought them into the European Union.

Profil: Why does the economic pact not work anymore as it did before? Why are social democrats loosing all those voters?

Blair: You had the financial crisis in 2008 and you got big changes that come through as a result of globalization. But I don’t think that invalidates the essential attitude that the answer to the problems and the challenges of globalization – whether cultural or economic – the answer is not to shut the world down. If you try and stop globalization or hinder it, you end up either with protectionism, isolationism or as we can see all over Europe today political battles over immigration, where in the end – I am not saying there should not be strong rules around immigration but if you end up dividing countries around this issue, it’s a cul-de-sac.

Profil: What would you make different today than twenty years ago, when you came to power?
Blair: I would do a few things differently, because the world is changing very fast. The chief characteristic of the world is accelerating change and for the Left it has got to be constantly modernizing. That was the whole idea of the changed Labour Party 20 years ago, it doesn’t matter what you call it, that attitude is more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1997, because the world is changing even faster. So anything that looks as a form of conservatism of the Left is never going to work because the progressive forces only win when they understand the future and show how they can make it work for people. This is why what has happened in France to my mind was absolutely inevitable. If the left goes to a sort of old fashioned type of politics it’s going to lose.

Profil: Is it still right to talk about a Right and a Left?

Blair: I think they still do mean something but there is an additional dimension today that I think is as important which is what I call ‘open’ vs ‘closed’. And so bits of the left and the right come together over isolationism and protectionism. Less so over anti-immigration. So the open-minded approach is the one I obviously want and prefer but it does mean that on issues like immigration and security, the Left has got to have tough positions because otherwise people think you are not understanding their anxieties about cultural change. And I think it’s very important that the left understands that cultural anxiety. Which is not the same way as dealing with it as prejudice but if you don’t have rules you get prejudice.

Profil: Did Theresa May call for early elections to get a stronger mandate for the Brexit negotiations?

Blair: I think there are two reasons why this election has been called now. One is frankly because of the state of my own party, and secondly, I think this is the optimal moment for Theresa May to say, give me the strong mandate before people actually know what this negotiation means. The thing happening in these elections is the Tory party collapsing the UKIP support and they try to reach Labour supporters that voted Leave. The difficulty with that is that when you get further down the line, you started to create a dynamic within your own political party towards a harder position.

Profil: Do you ask people to vote for Labour although the part does not have a clear position?
Blair: I am of course voting for Labour, this is my tribe. And let me correct you: The Labour Party does have a position now. I think what has come out this week is actually clear, which is that we should keep all the options on the table, including whether we should remain in the Single market. The party can not say now that we don’t accept the result of the EU-referendum. But people can change their minds That’s why I am saying that the debate is not over yet.

Profil: Are you seriously thinking that Britons could change their minds and call Brexit off?

Blair: I’ll personally will never give up hope, but I would have to warn you that most people would tell you that I am completely wrong on that and that it is a situation which has been decided and all that.

Profil: In such a situation it would be helpful to have a real opposition. But Labour is divided and not present.

Blair: If we have the choice between a hard Brexit party and a hard left party millions of voters will end up without a political home.

Profil: Do you want to form a new centrist party?

Blair: An election campaign is the worst time for such a debate. According to the polls Theresa May will still be prime minister after the elections on June 8th and then people will call for a capable opposition. Only when we will be confronted with the real consequences of Brexit, the debate will start to become serious.

profil: Can Brexit put the unity of the UK in question? Is there a chance of Irish reunification? The EU already said it could accept a unified Ireland in the EU. And do you fear Scottish independence?

Blair: Up to now, the Republic of Ireland and the UK have either been out of the EU together or in the EU together. We’ve never have one in and one out. I don’t know how the border issue will pan out. To be fair, I think Theresa May will do everything in her power to make sure it is not an issue. But it will cause problems. And by the way, it echoes on the single market issue. As I said during the campaign, of course there is a threat to the integrity of the UK. Now, I hope this threat doesn’t materialize even if Brexit goes ahead. I don’t want to break up the UK at all. But of course it poses a strain. At the moment, you can be Scottish, British and European. After Brexit, you can be two of these things but not three of them.

Profil: What advice would you give EU-negotiators on how to deal with your government?

Blair: My advice to Europe would be to understand that this debate has got a long way to go and to try to avoid being in a position of hostility. The conservative government will say this debate is over in the UK, but the reality is it isn’t.

Profil: Do you see Emmanuel Macron in France as heir to your “Third Way”?

Blair: Macron is his own person and not an heir of me or anyone else. His victory would be a very substantial victory for the outward approach of politics. The frustration I have is that if Britain would be in Europe we could form alliances with the new generation of political leaders, we could play a part in that, rather than getting out. But yes, I’m sure Macron will be a force for the change in Europe.

profil: But he’s supposed to be very tough in the negotiations.

Blair: I think Macron would be good for Britain because you would have more stability in Europe and that would give us a better opportunity. And the problem, economically, is the commitment of Marine Le Pen to get out of the Euro… just think of waking up to the world economy after that.

Profil: Do you believe the European Union has a future?

Blair: It is a sad delusion on the part of the anti-European forces to think that Europe is going to disintegrate and give up. It’s not! The rational for Europe is stronger today than it has ever been. Which is not to say that there haven’t been missteps in Europe, there have been significant missteps but the basic rational for Europe is the result of the XXIst century geopolitics. What is happening economically is the size of your population is going in time to determine the size of your economy. It did by the way up to the time of the industrial revolution, that’s why China was the largest economy in the world back in the 16th, 17th centuries. Post-industrial revolution, that went. Now China is going to be an extraordinary powerful country, India is going to be a powerful country, large population countries are going to be big powers. For the Europeans, even for Germany, and France and the UK, we’re going to be medium size countries. The only way we defend our interests and our values is together. This is the rational for Europe, it’s not about peace today, it’s about power.

Profil: You said at the beginning that you look older than twenty years ago. That might be so but your age group is in fact en vogue in British politics. Theresa May is only three years younger and Jeremy Corbyn only three years older than you. Is it entirely impossible for you to think you could jump back o the political stage one more time to save Britain from hard Brext?

Blair: I’m not going back to frontline politics, but the institute I am creating, the “Institute for Global Change”, is going very much to argue for open-minded politics, for a renewed centre ground. We should leave it at that.




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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz