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Blair and Varoufakis – converging perspectives on Brexit?

September 10, 2017

There have been two interesting and at first sight very different perspectives on Brexit in today’s Sunday Times.

First, Tony Blair argues that there are sufficient mechanisms within the terms of Britain’s EU membership to enable us to control immigration without having to leave. More specifically, he quotes the case of Belgium, which invokes the right to require EU citizens to register on arrival, and points out that we can require them to leave if they are still economically inactive after three months.

Here’s Blair’s piece, which is also to be found on his Institute website. The full paper is here.

A few tweaks with the consent of the EU, he says, and bingo – no reason why we shouldn’t stay if the main reason why most people voted leave was to curb immigration. Non-EU immigration is another matter, and is not affected by Brexit. A very relevant question, however, is how many people who voted to leave because of concerns over immigration were actually aware of the difference.

One potentially significant aspect is that just over a week ago, Blair met Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president. Is it possible that they discussed the former PM’s paper, and can we expect some unofficial murmurs of approval from Juncker? If so, it would be hard for politicians in the UK not to take it seriously.

Then there’s Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, and a battle-scarred veteran of negotiations with the EU. He believes that Barnier, Verhofstadt and the other EU negotiators have no intention of conceding an inch to Britain’s demands. In fact, he says, they are not negotiating at all. The EU’s game plan is to grind us down, partly by destabilising us with disparaging comments on our negotiators, and by strategic leaks, such as Juncker’s unflattering comments after his dinner with Theresa May back in April.

These tactics, says Varoufakis, mirror those deployed against Greece during its debt crisis. He believes that our best option would be to bypass the negotiators and go straight for the Norway option: leave the EU, but remain in the customs union and single market, and continue to contribute to the EU budget. He believes that it would be politically difficult for the EU to turn us down. His article is here.

It’s an interesting perspective, but the Norway option would require Britain to unwind its current position on freedom of movement. The 60-odd Brexit diehards in parliament would react in horror. It’s not incompatible with Blair’s proposals on immigration, though. As far as I can tell, they could apply to the Norway option as easily as they might if we remained full members.

Varoufakis makes the point that such an arrangement would give Britain the time to work out its relationship with the EU in the long term without the tyranny of the ticking clock. It could work, but at the cost of a number of political careers.

One additional thought occurs. From Margaret Thatcher onwards, generations of eurocrats have been infuriated by our demands for opt-outs, exceptions and rebates, and our lack of buy-in to the principle of “ever-closer union”. Some, though not all, have been weeping crocodile tears since we decided to leave. They can’t wait to be rid of us.

If, as Varoufakis argues, the EU negotiators are determined to stonewall us, then what bargaining chips to we really have?

One big one, it seems to me. We can threaten not to leave at all. The prospect of years to come putting up with us awkward Brits would surely concentrate a few minds.

From → Politics, UK

  1. John Butler permalink

    Let’s hope Blair can stitch an agreement up and have the humility, as he’s still (quite unreasonably) toxic, to hand it over to Starmer to sell to Labour. Certainly Blair has the ability for the former and he’s well respected in the EU. Does he have the ability to work secretly and keep a low profile? Maybe, because I’m sure he genuinely feels Brexit would ruin us. Labour could then run with it and force an election/referendum. Not sure I entirely trust Varoufakis on this, and the Norway option, even if accepted by the EU would be a disaster for us, even Norway says so – little to gain, much lost and plenty of pain. I’m sure some in the EU are fed up with us, but by no means all and Macron apparently is open to a deal on immigration, and I believe Merkel is too. A little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, if only candlelight; let’s hope it’s nursed until it glows and becomes unsnuffable!

  2. Thanks for your input John. I’m with you on Blair. As you say, let’s hope the light gets brighter! S

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