Blair promotes British role in EU


The terms of Britain’s endless discussion over the EU are generally set by the anti-EU camp, which cooks up false accounts of the cost of membership and makes vague, indignant assertions over the loss of national sovereignty. Though their policies would be disastrous for the UK, the antis at least have a coherent vision that attracts some people. That’s something many mainstream British politicians appear to lack. Prime Minister David Cameron, afraid that his Conservative Party is losing support to UKIP, tries to appease Europhobes, in Brussels and a few days later campaigning in England  acknowledging their prejudices, rather than challenging them:

We need a Europe that respects nation states, a Europe that gets the message from last week’s election that the EU has become too big, too bossy, too interfering.

So it’s good to see an old pro making a return (for whatever reason) and speaking far more persuasively than the current leaders of Britain’s main parties. In a few opening sentences of a speech before the CBI, the UK’s biggest industry group, former Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out what’s wrong the current talk:

We in Britain must make the debate more than about the repatriation of certain competences and rules. It has to be a debate elevated to a Europe wide level, with Britain playing a leading role in the reform of Europe, not just a negotiation of Britain’s terms of membership. It has to be about what is good for Europe as well as what is good for Britain.

He then recast the debate in his own terms, by providing vision and specifics – and he thus gave a lesson in effective argument. Accepting the terms of the debate as defined by UKIP and others, and then trying to cope with the resulting noisy grumbling – that’s politics as management. But Blair was always a leader. He takes on board prevailing opinion, and then offers a new way of thinking – one that leads to a solution rather than continuing a zero-sum squabble, such as the one over “more” or “less” Europe. And he backs up the vision with concrete suggestions. In this case, his vision is all the more persuasive for being quite modest. The origins of the EU lay in Western Europe’s need for peace and to resist the Soviet Union. Now, the EU’s role is in the benefits of size – a large single market and a framework for wielding influence.That means the role of the EU needs to change. However:

Governments struggling with getting out of recession, still fragile and under intense political pressure, have no desire at this moment for such a root and branch debate.

Instead, Blair picked on very specific jobs that only work on a pan-European level (see my op-ed for Friends of Europe): the single market for services, trade, energy policy (whose “impact would be transformative”). In other words, stop kvetching about who decides what, and come up with ways to make things better for Europeans.

In each area, Europe should focus not on the process for making decisions; but on the decisions themselves. What is it that we want Europe to do to make people better off, more secure, more confident about their future?

Finally, he took flight a little and gave the coup de grâce to the Little Englanders: Britain is open, outward-looking and adventurous, he said – meaning that failure to participate constructively in the EU would go against the British spirit.

We, the British, engage with the world. We don’t retreat from it.

Map: Quizimodo