A big argument on a big issue. Tony Blair showed Labour the way on Europe

by Callum Anderson

As Labour’s most successful leader and prime minister, it has always struck me as odd (and rather self-defeating) that Tony Blair continues to be relatively unloved by the Labour mainstream.

Respected? Yes. But for a winner of three general elections, Mr Blair fails to stir the levels of positive emotions by the Labour faithful – in stark contrast to the cast majority of many Conservatives’ slavish adoration for Margaret Thatcher – even twenty five years after the end of her premiership.

In what could be a unique characteristic of the Left, too much analysis of Blair’s legacy focuses on the Iraq war and not enough on domestic successes (minimum wage, investment in schools and the NHS anyone?).

Yet, despite all this, as Steve Richards astutely observed, Mr Blair showed, once again, how he “remains the best communicator in British politics”.

As Mr Blair ventured, for the first time, into the 2015 general election campaign on Tuesday morning, we were reminded of the huge scope for a positive and patriotic argument regarding the UK’s position in Europe and, indeed, the world.

Not only did he make short, punchy jabs at Labour’s opponents – correctly asserting that the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU as “too important” to be treated as a “sop” to opponents, as David Cameron has done in response to the rise of UKIP; and UKIP’s nationalistic tendencies as “ugly” – but also made what was in all probability the most coherent case for Britain’s EU membership.

Indeed, with the Conservatives wheeling out clichés such as ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ and ‘securing a strong economy’, Mr Blair shrewdly highlighted that an EU referendum would cause chaos in the British economy. Any referendum would destabilise businesses, endangering inward investment into the UK, as Conservative MP Mark Garnier, JP Morgan and eight in ten small and medium sized businesses have all warned.

Citing the rise of China as the biggest shift of his “children’s lifetime”, Mr Blair stated that whether it was the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the South American Mercosur, continental trading was vitally important and would continue to be so in the twenty-first century.

Thus, the direction and success of the European project will be even more important than ever before, and will determine Britain’s prosperity and security. In short, if Britain is to be prosperous in the twenty first century, it must engage unambiguously with its partners in the EU.

As an EU Member State, the UK exercises far greater influence internationally than it could on its own.  When the EU takes a common position – as it does in world trade or climate change – its size and importance gives it greater impact than any of its 28 members could have on their own.

Indeed, being a member of the EU enables the UK to leverage its influence in many different ways. For example, on an issue like climate change, would China really listen to a little isolated island that had voluntarily departed to the periphery of the EU? It is clear that Britain must remain at the top table when these big decisions are made, something that EU membership provides, and not left alone in the dark.

Because the reality is that the tectonic plates of twenty-first century geopolitics have shifted and will continue to shift in time that lies immediately ahead. Long gone are the days when Britain can approach emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil (to name just a few), in an imperialist guise and assume that they will trade with a single nation of 62 million.

These nations hold no nostalgic memories of Britain’s past. They are interested only in developing their economies so that their own people can enjoy the prosperity we have in the West. A Britain that wishes to disengage with those on its own doorstep and, subsequently, isolate itself will not attract them.

What will, however, make them take notice is an open and committed Britain at the heart of a continuously reforming trading EU, which, with 500 million citizens, remains the world’s largest and richest trading bloc. Britain will need to be savvy in using its influence to maintain its global economic and political presence. This will mean remaining an active member of the EU and pushing for traditional British values such as free trade, the rule of law and liberty. We cannot afford to put this all at risk and isolate ourselves at a time when we need to build and reaffirm these partnerships.

On the subject of security, Mr Blair reaffirmed the reality that the EU has been a forced for good, helping to facilitate and maintain the peace in Berlin and across Central and Eastern Europe, welcoming many of those new states from into the EU family. Indeed, with Russia behaving erratically and unpredictably, the UK’s position in the EU legitimises its permanent member status on the UN Security Council and gives it a voice at the top table when decisions about securing the safety of our citizens are made.

There is no doubt that Mr Blair’s intervention should be welcomed by progressives everywhere. Not because his intervention will move thousands of people to vote Labour (it probably won’t). But because it serves as a poignant reminder of the conviction and tenacity that will be needed, if there is an EU referendum.

In little time, Mr Blair demonstrated that you can be unequivocally pro-EU, yet retain patriotic when making the case for Britain’s retention of its EU membership. That, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the need for collaboration is continues to grow.

Because, ultimately, it will take a great deal of us to passionately express the view, articulated by Mr Blair yesterday, that “leaving Europe would leave Britain damaged in the world…and would more significantly go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation.”

Callum Anderson works at a national charity

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2 Responses to “A big argument on a big issue. Tony Blair showed Labour the way on Europe”

  1. Tafia says:

    The minute politicians believe that any issue is to important for the people to decide is the minute they themselves have become pointless.

    Politicians are there to serve the will of the people at all times over everything – above party and above their own personal beliefs. They are merely servants – not masters and must never ever be allowed to think they are anything different.

    Blair’s not even elected ffs., he’s just an observer – and a largely discredited one at that.

  2. Robert says:

    I agree with Blair on the EU but it is one of the few issues that he could be seen as progressive. Sorry but some of us will never forgive Blair for Iraq. I will never forget the sickening feeling of knowing that my party was responsible for thousands of innocent people being killed and maimed.

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