In October 2016 the former UK premier Tony Blair wrote an opinion article in The New European newspaper. He appealed to the UK not to rush into Brexit without seriously taking into account the consequences of such a decision. Tony Blair compared Brexit with a house move. For the former prime minister, it is only conceivable to move house safely once you know what your new home will look like.
Last week, Tony Blair addressed the Open Britain group, a pro-European cross-party organisation. In his speech, he made it clear that it was not too late for the UK to change its mind about leaving the EU. He stressed that the result of the referendum vote reflected the “imperfect knowledge” of the voters, and basically revolved around domestic immigration issues.
Given the fact that Tony Blair was the UK leader during the enlargement of the EU with Eastern European countries and the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, I ask myself if, despite his strong reservations over Brexit, Tony Blair is not partially to blame for the Brexit vote in the first place.
(This post is based on the opinion article published in The New European and Tony Blair’s Brexit speech to the Open Britain event)
It’s not the first time that I heard Tony Blair comparing Brexit with a house move. It stands to reason that before you actually move, it’s better to check that where you’re moving to actually exists and is a better place. OK, I understand that if you have to move because of your work, you may be leaving a house that is actually quite good looking and functional. But, even then, you have to find another house that is equally good looking and functional.
Moving to The Netherlands was, like Brexit, a jump into the unknown
Changing your life by emigrating to another country is also a challenge, and must be prepared in advanced. I should know, having emigrated twice. The first time, from the UK to France, wasn’t much of a gamble as I speak French without a trace of an accent and having had a French upbringing, France was not an unknown country for me. My second move, to the Netherlands in 1999, was more of a gamble. I had grown frustrated with the work conditions in France and am not surprised that the current unemployment rate there is high. I had a 5 year part-time teaching post in Lyon and on one occasion attended a microbiology meeting in London. I remember that the meeting took place on a Thursday, and I decided to spend the week-end visiting Amsterdam on my way back to France. It was a life changing visit, literally. Although I was helped by Dutch colleagues who advised me where to begin my practice, I felt it to be one hell of a jump into the unknown. I started learning Dutch with a book, found a suitable house to set up shop, and within 18 months of visiting Amsterdam, I was living my new life near Rotterdam. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. Maybe it wasn’t such a big jump after all. I wasn’t going into outer space was I? I was still practising dentistry like I always have been. No, when I think back to the first few months here, the biggest gamble for me was the language barrier and being accepted by the locals. Imagine that your dentist could not speak a word of your language. Going to the dentist is bad enough, but going to one who cannot speak the lingo? Well, in all came good on the night, and I must give credit where credit is due. Unlike the French or the Germans, the Dutch will do their uppermost best to speak YOUR language. And what’s more, they’re pretty good at it too.
“Raise your words, not your voice. It’s rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” Rumi
But what about Brexit? What sort of gamble will leaving the EU turn out to be for millions of people, including those who voted to leave? In his article, apart from comparing Brexit to moving houses, Tony Blair addresses several important points. First, he defends the 48% who voted remain and the 2 MP’s who support them to speak up and not to be bullied into keeping quiet. That’s the true nature of democracy. Whilst a second referendum wont happen and is even ill-advised, it is the duty of all remainers (and the 2 MP’s) to at least constructively criticise what the present government is doing, and try and prevent a “hard” Brexit. From now on it’s “damage limitation time” because, judging by the government’s tone, the lack of political opposition, and the lack of intelligence and tact from the leave supporters on facebook and twitter, you’re not going to be able to do much else. A good start, for example, would be to tell the UK governement to stop spending £350million a week in order to prevent big companies, like Nissan, from moving to the Continent. Well, I’m being cynical, but you know what I mean.
Conjecture and reality
Another noteworthy point that Tony Blair raises is the size of the task facing Theresa May and her cavalier Brexiteers. The EU is a dinosaur if ever I saw one, and its going to take more that a few remarks on which language should be used for negotiations to scare this sort of beast. We’ve seen what the Walloon parliament nearly did to the EU/Canada trade negotiations. Hands up those who don’t know where Wallonia is? Multiply that 27 times and add on the European Parliament as a bonus, and you may start to think that 24 months is a little bit on the short side to untangle 43 years of partnership. WTO here we come…
“Dad, I fink I got it wrong again.”
We love our politicians, don’t we? That’s why we keep on voting for them time after time, in spite of the fact that they keep on getting things horribly wrong. They remind me of that gormless denim-clad bovver boy Gaylord, in the BBC’s Dick Emery Show that was so popular back in the 70’s. Only, our beloved politicians ain’t no bovver boys, but slick looking elites. It’s only once Brexit negotiations begin that we’ll get an idea of where the UK is heading and at what speed. Tony Blair admits that, only then, he and the rest of us will be a lot wiser than we are today. He also seems to admit that he and others, including the EU, “got it wrong” and “took too much for granted”.
I’m only an anonymous European citizen who has never really bothered to look at where the EU power is going to or coming from. I’m too “in love” with the European ideal for that. Thanks to the article by Tony Blair, I’ve finally discovered the root cause of the UK’s alienation from the EU. It all boils down to the feeling the Brexit voters have of “loss of sovereignty” and “uncontrolled immigration”. So far, nothing new you might think, but what I realised by digging a little bit deeper into the history of the EU, is that this double feeling at the root cause of the Brexit vote could have been avoided long ago.
Migration from Eastern European countries – Mistake number 1
Although Tony Blair was in favour of EU enlargement with Eastern European countries, he did not take up the option of extending transitional controls. This option was adopted by other countries including Germany, France and Italy. The UK, Ireland and Sweden were the only countries to immediately open their borders to the influx of Eastern European migrants. This being said, as Tony Blair pointed out in last week’s Brexit speech, it is debatable whether EU migrants from the former Eastern Block countries have any significant negative impact on the UK economy. The Leave camp, and Nigel Farage in particular, took full advantage of existing public concerns over immigration. This was exemplified by the vivid Leave campaign poster, showing thousands of Middle-Eastern refugees, and not EU migrants. Would the same message have come across with a billboard showing thousands of French or Italian people, I wonder? The problem, let’s be honest, lies with EU migrants from former Eastern Block countries and non-EU migrants from Syria and its neighbours. It lies with no-one else.
The Lisbon Treaty – Mistake number 2
Tony Blair promised a referendum on the EU constitution, a treaty signed in late 2004. France and The Netherlands did hold a referendum and both countries rejected the treaty in 2005. The French and Dutch referendum votes effectively put an end to this treaty. However, in 2009, the treaty was updated, renamed Lisbon Treaty, and pushed through without a referendum at all. The then British prime minister, Gordon Brown, didn’t even bother attending the summit. Not a very clever thing to do as the treaty defers power from national parliaments to the EU. The very least Tony Blair and others could have done, is to let us vote about it.
It is quite clear that EU policy makers have wanted to keep their decisions out of the public domain, and have succeeded in doing so. In this respect, I tend to agree with the view that the EU is not the most democratic institution on earth. A good example of this is the biggest enlargement the EU has ever undergone, which took effect from May 1st 2004. When was the first time that you or I ever heard about it? I’m pretty sure that most of us were presented with this European expansion as a fait accompli on…May 1st 2004.
Responsible but not guilty?
Is Tony Blair, along with others, responsible or guilty for the Brexit vote? Responsibility brings with it a feeling of powerlessness and compassion. Bearing responsibility entails a feeling that one could have done better in a particular situation. If we judge Tony Blair to be guilty, on the other hand, we imply that he acted dishonestly whilst in power, and that he himself knew that he should and could have acted differently.
I ask myself if, in the world of politics, we should distinguish responsibility and guilt. We elect politicians whom we trust to be responsible enough to promote and protect our well-being. If, as Tony Blair seems to imply, they are at times powerless, they should not be allowed to endorse decisions that shape the society we live in. Furthermore, what does Tony Blair mean by “we took too much for granted”? Did he seriously believe that the majority of UK citizens would not mind significant parliamentary powers being transferred to the EU without being consulted? Take the example of The Netherlands, considered to be one of the more “open-minded” countries in the EU. In the 2005 referendum on the EU constitution, two-thirds of the voters voted against the treaty. More recently, the Dutch voters also rejected the trade agreement between the EU and the Ukraine. These votes underline the fact that the EU cannot go too far in its project of expansion and integration.
It was foolish and dangerous for both the UK and the EU to have ignored the concerns of European citizens for so long. Having cancelled a referendum that he promised, and then participating in the ratification of a European constitution without the consent of the electorate, Tony Blair was dodging the question that should have been posed to the British people. Even in the 2015 election campaign, he was opposed to organising a referendum on Europe, instead of seeking to find answers to the people’s concerns and doubts. Maybe he, and others, were so scared of the answer they would get, that they refused to pose the question.