"Joe Biden is the right man at the right place at the right time”


This is the original English version of an interview the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave to a group of European correspondents via Zoom in London. It appeared on November 16 2020 in the Austrian news magazine profil. 

profil: Do Joe Biden and Kamala Harris remind you of yourself in 1997 - left of center politicians that can reach over the aisle and can bring the country together?

Tony Blair: I think the Biden Harris team has a huge challenge to bring the country together, because what the election shows is that America is still very, very divided. But there is no one better person to undertake this task than Joe Biden. He is the right man at the right place at the right time, in the sense that he is someone with deep experience of working across the aisle. And my inclination is not just that he is centrist, but that he is a consensus seeker. And someone I have known for many years. A very decent, decent guy. Kamala Harris obviously, herself is a senator. So I think that this ticket is the best ticket to undertake the task, but the task is a very challenging one.

profil: Are you surprised that Donald Trump is still sitting in the White House, now, and is interviewing people for positions in his second term?

Blair: It is really sad, but the Americans have got a good process. They've got the rule of law. You know, whatever claims are made will be investigated. And I think everyone is acting on the basis that we will have a Biden presidency.

profil:  What do you think would be the biggest challenges for Biden – the internal challenges or world politics?

Blair: I think the biggest challenges will be internal. The Senate looks as if it's still going to be in the control of the Republicans. So that's going to be a constraint, which could turn into a block at certain points. I think externally, there's no doubt at all, that they will set America back on a course of multilateralism. They'll want to revive the transatlantic Alliance, they want to create a much more stable and predictable foreign policy. I think all of that is good. But the landslide for the Democrats didn't happen, because there was still a lot of support for the ideas of Donald Trump. You can't ignore that. You know, this was in the end a covid and character election. Had it been a policy election, it would have been much closer. So it is going to be a challenge to bring the country together.

profil: Could Mr. Biden keep some of Mr. Trump's policies, especially in international politics, even though the change of tone is evident? For instance, regarding China?

Blair: Where we are going to see a big change is the re-engagement and renewal and re-igniting of traditional alliances and multilateral relationships. When it comes to the issue of China I think the Biden administration will want to create a strategic framework for China-US relations. And I think they'll want to make that relationship in the way it plays out much more stable and predictable. In the Middle East we will see what happens with Iran, but in terms of the position of Israel and the UAE agreement, I think the Biden administration will be basically supportive of that. I think the big change will be around the multilateral engagement, that that's where you'll notice, and particularly on climate change and global pandemic cooperation.

profil: Will Joe Biden change the Trump policy in the Middle East, what could change under the new administration? Will he move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv?

Blair: He won't do that. On the Middle East I think Joe Biden’s approach will be much more conventional. He might be prepared to be much more critical of Israel in certain regards. I think the big question will be what they do about Iran. And that I think is not clear at the moment.

profil: Biden’s first call to a foreign leader acrossthe big pond was to the British Prime Minister. Do you think this is a sign that Boris Johnson's administration will not be put back in the line for a trade deal, were these speculations only wishful thinking of Pro-Europeans?

Blair: Joe Biden actually takes the special relationship very seriously. But I think what it's an indication of is that Biden takes it as his first task in foreign policy to return a sense of normalcy. So phoning the UK Prime Minister first - that is what American presidents do. And so he's following the convention, if you like. The Americans regard the relationship to the UK as special, but Biden will be wanting to build strong transatlantic relations in general. And that includes with Germany and France and others and that will be important for him. I know this myself conversations over the years, he is a very big supporter of the transatlantic Alliance. He's a big supporter of the European Union. 

profil: Is Boris Johnson weakened because he gambled on Trump and it didn't pay off? He was also weakened because of Brexit. And yet, he is the first to receive the phone call from Biden. So the question is: How much are the tectonic plates of geopolitics really moving?

Blair: The short term impact of Brexit is to make Britain weaker politically and economically. Britain is leaving the largest political union in the world and the largest commercial market in the world on its doorstep. Whereas in my time, both Bill Clinton and George Bush saw me as an interlocutor between the US and Europe, Boris Johnson will now not be seen as an interlocutor with Europe. Joe Biden is not going to see him in that light. Now, that doesn't mean to say the British relationships have not got their own independent importance. Of course it does. But that's why Britain is going to have to work hard at making the issues where it is aligned, and has an important role to play, count. There's one element of what used to be part of Britain strength with America, namely, that bridge between US and Europe is going to be harder to do because Britain is outside of the European Union.

profil: Who will replace Britain in the EU as first contact for Washington?

Blair:I think this administration will forge quite strong relations with the commission actually. And Germany and France will be very important. Someone with Angela Merkel's experience is obviously going to be a very natural person to speak to. I think there's general respect in the US for Macron, too. 

profil: For Boris Johnson less?

Blair: You know Joe Biden did not support Brexit. The UK, I believe, can get a very good relation between this Prime Minister and this president. But you know they will have to work at it.

profil: What do you think we can learn from Joe Biden's victory in terms of fighting populism?

Blair: Biden’s victory shows you that he was the right choice for the Democrats. And I think he does tell you something, which is that in order to defeat populism, you need someone who is clearly a unifier. And don't try and put left wing populism up against the right wing populism. I think that for sure.

But I also think you can't say that populism has gone away. So progressive politics still has got a lot of soul searching to do, in my view. And we're not out of the woods on populism at all. Since Biden’s victory his speeches in these last days were perfect frankly. I mean, he's made exactly the right points, and in the right way. Very clearly reaching out to the people who didn't vote for him.

profil: How seriously do you think that Boris Johnson's government should take President Elect Biden’s and the congressional leaders comments saying that Brexit should not endanger the Good Friday Agreement? And particularly about the Internal market bill? And what do you think the government should do about the bill?

Blair: I never thought the Internal Market Bill should have been produced in the first place. And obviously, I think, the House of Lords defeat of the bill is an opportunity to revise that situation. No, Boris Johnson’s government should take it really seriously. I mean, Joe Biden is a passionate supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland. He will not want anything to disturb that. I know that he believes very, very strongly in that Northern Ireland peace process, he was a big supporter of what we did in government. Now, my assumption is that the UK government gets a deal with the EU and that bill goes away. But if not, it became a real issue, it would be a problem. That is not something that this US president will be indifferent to at all.

One of the things I'm getting at is that in the areas where our relationship is special is a deep institutional relationship, and Britain is an important ally for the US. But what I'm wondering about is if an issue like this with Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, how it has the capacity to damage the relationship or to color it. I mean, if it goes wrong a lot, this is insane. There's no doubt about that.

profil: How big is the chance in your opinion for a Free trade agremment between the UK and the EU?

Blair: 75% I would say. It is really important. I didn't think British businesses were really prepared – not even for the thin deal that we're seeking. If we end up with no deal, it would cause a big economic problem for us.

profil: Barack Obama said that in the case of Brexit, Britain will be pushed to the back of the queue? Is this the case for Biden now, too?

Blair: I don't think it really matters whether you say Britain is in the back of the queue or at the front of the queue. The truth is, with these trade negotiations everyone knows who has ever conducted one, that they're all about the detail of the trade. There are very problematic issues in a US-UK trade deal to work out. Now. Hopefully, we will be able to, but they're not easy. Particularly around agriculture and public procurement, there are big questions like health care. There may be some sense that the Biden administration is less willing to go the extra mile for this trade deal, but I don't think so. I think in the end, that they will want a trade deal too, they'll try their hardest to get one. That has always been this idea where we're going to get a trade deal by the end of this year was always total fantasy. There are all sorts of issues that Biden can show that he wants to be close to the EU. You'll find a much stronger commitment to NATO, you'll find a much stronger engagement with the EU, I don't, I think honestly, he will step back from a UK trade deal in order not to upset the EU. He'll put some good people in charge of the negotiations and let them get on with it. But I think with the best will in the world, even if he was going gangbusters for it, I can't see an easy deal. I know enough about the American system and enough about trade deals to know that some of these questions, for example, around agriculture, just on that alone are going to be really difficult to resolve. Really, really difficult. And, you know, I can't see them being resolved fast. I mean, I may be wrong, but I think it's unlikely. And you're going to find a whole set of American corporate special interests are going to come into play, and they're going to fight very hard. And all of those, remember that trade deal is not just up to the White House. It's also up to Congress. And with Congress on a knife's edge is never going to be easy this thing.

profil: Which lessons can the Labour Party in the UK draw from this American election?

Joe Biden is a natural unifier. There aren't many people who dislike Joe Biden.

profil: A lot of my American friends were pleading with their children to vote for Biden and the children said, no thank you, I cannot vote for this old white man. I mean, we were quite lucky that the choice was so awful that people in the end gave Biden a majority.

Blair: Of course, that's true. Younger people are very keen on some of the new issues may not have been so enthusiastic about Biden. What some young people felt about Joe Biden that he is not radical enough - this is going to be one other big question for this democratic administration: How it is producing the change people want to see? That is going to be a challenge, particularly if the senate remains under Republican control. In the US progressive politics still is a big, big challenge. And the challenge is that the radical people aren't sensible, and the sensible people are not radical.

And so what what you're left with, is politicians that can get elected, but seem to be more managing the status quo, as it were, and politicians who've got a radical agenda, can never get you elected. And that's why I think what is the essential task for progressive politics is to come up with a strong forward economic message - this is what my Institute works on – on the technology revolution. That is the biggest factual change going on in the world. We got to harness that and use it. And then you've got to make sure that you step back in line with where the middle ground is on the cultural questions, where the left is in danger of striking a series of positions that are basically off-putting. So Keir has done really well in putting the Labour Party back on the map. But, you know, as he would be the first to tell you, that all this means is that the doors are now open for a conversation. Corbyn slammed the door in your face. But that's not the same as persuading people yet. There's a lot of work to be done. But Joe Biden is not by nature a polarizing figure. Donald Trump by nature is a polarizing figure. And that is the difference. Biden is also obviously from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, that was an advantage. Because some people worried that the left of the democratic party had too much power. So Joe, in that sense, was the obvious candidate. He wants to return to something more normal. He gives you that. The Labour Party already got that lesson with the defeat in the election last year. So the Labour Party's moved back, moving back to the center with Keir Starmer. And that's the obvious lesson from the American election.

Blair: When you assumed office, how much interest was there in the special relationship?

Blair: I was in a different position because I formed a relationship with Bill Clinton even before I came to power. We were soulmates. You know, it was very easy. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden come from different parts of the political spectrum. You've got the history of Brexit. You've got things that have been said, these are complicating factors. All I'm saying is that if Britain works hard in which it will do a combination of the institutional links and the fact that there are to be serious issues to get your teeth into where there's an alignment. I think, you know, and Boris Johnson will be working hard to make sure that this relationship works.

profil: You really became a close ally to Bush, who was not from the same political camp.

Blair: Obviously with George Bush it was completely different because we weren't political soulmates in the sense that I was with Bill Clinton. But after 9/11 we became allies. And, and you know, that the institutional relationship is very, very strong. But you need to work at it the whole time. And by the way, you need to work on it not when these partnerships are like friendships, they are not forged in the easy times. They're fought for and forged in the hard times.

profil: Will Britain be able to quickly restore its reputation after Brexit?

Blair: Brexit just poses Britain with an enormous challenge. And the real question is, does Britain understand the scale of the challenge itself. And what it requires for Britain to overcome it. Inevitably there will be short term problems that are arising out of Brexit. It will require creativity. Imagination strong leadership, very clear sense of strategic direction. And that's my worry for Britain. I mean, look: For months we have been putting all our negotiating effort into protecting our fishing industry and virtually nothing into protecting our financial service sector. First is about naught point 2% of our GDP. And the second is a huge part of our economy in which we're globally preeminent. So, you know, I'm not saying we shouldn't try and protect the fishing industry of course we should but you know at some point Britain is going to have to get back to the real world Post Brexit and start to forge a different future for ourselves. And one of the things that will be important then is for Britain to forge a strong relationship with Europe, outside of the European Union because we're going to need Europe. I mean, the internal market bill will come and go, in my view, but this biggest strategic question for Britain. It's a huge challenge for us. I think so far as a country we haven't really come to terms with it. In practical terms, nothing has really changed, until the end of this year when the transition ends.

profil: What are the challenges for the EU then in the next years without Britain as a member?

Blair: Europe has two big challenges to deal with: economic and security. Europe's necessity to build strong defense capability is there whatever happens with America. Europe's got to create its own destiny, as it were. But it is also going to be of enormous importance to Europe to have that American multilateral presence there in NATO, in climate, and in pandemic preparedness.   

profil: What do you think went wrong in Britain where we have now 62,000 dead people from COVID, much higher than in many other European countries. Although Britain has a very good NHS public health system?

Blair: Britain was too slow to see the problem and too slow to lock down. We took a judgement, which I personally think was the wrong judgment all over Europe by the way, that unless you can be sure that these rapid tests were 100% accurate you shouldn't use them. And so it's only now that you're getting more sophisticated rapid tests. You know we could have been using them before because most of Covid cases are asymptomatic. So if you're only testing symptomatic people, how can you possibly keep the disease under control?

profil: The new vaccine seems to be coming in fast now.

Blair: This would be my advice to any European government at the moment. The four things that allow you to get back to normal are vaccines, therapeutics, mass testing and data. In my view governments have been too slow to do mass testing. I've been trying to persuade my own government to get the best data system in the world in place for this thing. If I was in government today I'll be doing everything I can to start the vaccination process. Even in December, no reason why you shouldn't. It is getting from here to next spring – we cannot afford another three months of economic carnage.

profil: Austria and also France had terrorist incidents recently. As British Prime Minister you had a lot of experience with terrorism - homegrown and imported terrorism. What would you advise a government, that experiences one of these maroding terrorist attacks, how to fight terrorism?

Blair: So this is where, again, we've got to all work together. Because in my view, you've got two issues. One is the security question, and the other is the ideological question. On the security question obviously you need to cooperate as much as possible to take all the security measures to try and prevent such attacks. But the source, the origin of these attacks, lies not in the violence itself, but the ideas that give rise to it. And that's where you know we have to have a strong alliance against radical Islam. And, you know, this is where I think Emmanuel Macron is right to make the distinction between Islam, the religion and Islamism, which is the politization of the religion and the turning of it into a political ideology of an extreme nature. And you have to, you have to attack those ideas, as well as dealing with the security question. And that's what I've said for a long, long time. And I think there's a greater recognition today in Europe, that you need to do that. And we've got to join forces with those modernizing people, particularly in the Middle East, who say: Our future is religious tolerance.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz