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Geopolitics & Security

Tony Blair: We Don't Have to Leave the EU to Control Immigration

Commentary9th September 2017

There is a wide open space in British politics, a politics, for now, in thrall to Brexit.

That space can be filled only by a strategy, which recognises that there is no diversion possible from Brexit without addressing the grievances which gave rise to it.

Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it.

There are hard-line Eurosceptic ideologues. But they're a minority of the Leave support.

The ballast for the Brexit vote was from communities and people feeling, justifiably, marginalised and unheard.

10 years ago, Britain’s economy was strong, satisfaction levels with the NHS were at record highs, educational attainment was improving, crime was falling and inequality was narrowing.

But the financial crisis and years of austerity have taken their toll. The poorest have suffered; middle incomes have stagnated; and the cultural gap between metropolitan and rural, North and South, older and younger, has yawned over our political discourse, dividing the nation.

Brexit was the instrument to force the political class to abandon its lassitude and wake up to the depth of the anger.

However, Brexit is not the answer to it.


Brexit was the instrument to force the political class to abandon its lassitude and wake up to the depth of the anger.


Most senior politicians know this but feel trapped. If they follow the people down a path they believe is mistaken, they're not leading. If they drag them from that path against their will, they're not listening.

So far ‘the will of the people’ expressed in the referendum has trumped the impulse for leadership.

But there is a way to listen and to lead.

There can be no change to Brexit unless we confront the underlying causes of it. This will involve uncomfortable choices for those opposed to Brexit.

But what is at stake is the future of our country. And that imposes a supreme political obligation.

If you genuinely believe Brexit is the right course, then do it.

But if you don't, then at least try a different way, dealing with the anxieties behind Brexit with solutions which work; and steer the country away from the immense damage a Hard Brexit – and frankly there is no other on offer - will do.

Can this strategy succeed? It’s unclear. The attack on it will be bitter and the charge of fostering disillusion will be fierce.

But if those of us warning about the consequence of Brexit turn out to be right, and it makes us poorer and weaker, the disillusion at a later point will be much more intense and the choices then much more ugly.

This is the space between Brexit At Any Cost and simple reversal of the referendum decision.

It reaches out to ‘Leave’ voters to show their concerns are better met without the damage Brexit will do.  

Principal amongst these concerns is immigration.

This issue bedevils the politics of virtually every European country. It can destroy or elevate Governments. It agonises the left and tempts the right. It has produced new parties, new alliances of political affiliation and bitterly divides communities and generations.

It cannot be ignored. It has to be de-constructed, analysed, broken down into component parts, re-ordered and reconstructed as viable policy.

The worries about immigration are relatively easy to describe: there can be pressure on services within communities from an influx of refugees and migrants; downward pressure on wages in certain sectors; there are questions of cultural integration, especially when immigrants are from more conservative Muslim backgrounds; and there is anxiety that we don't properly control who comes here and who has a right to stay.

Geopolitics & Security

8th September 2017


There is no discussion about Brexit which can set aside discussion of immigration.


Most people are not actually anti-immigrant.

They understand that we need some categories of migrant worker particularly the highly skilled; and they're not indifferent to the plight of genuine refugees.

But they believe we should have the right to control our own borders and that the system is fundamentally unsystematic.

So there is no discussion about Brexit which can set aside discussion of immigration.

The subject of this Institute paper is immigration from the European Union.

One preliminary point: my Government in 2004 did not invoke the transitional arrangements when East Europe joined the EU which would have delayed the freedom to work – though not freedom of movement – until 2011.

I could respond by pointing out that back then the economy was strong, the workers needed and actually the biggest annual numbers came post 2011.

But the real point is the times were different; the sentiment was different; and intelligent politics takes account of such change.

The paper is a comprehensive analysis of who comes, why and with what consequence.

It suggests ways in which we could limit or control freedom of movement without abandoning the basic principle.

It should be seen in contrast to the recent Home Office paper which if implemented would do significant economic damage to our country, deterring both the high skilled and low skilled workers we need.

It then goes on to place European immigration within the wider context of immigration as a whole and sets the scene for the next paper which will examine what a controlled immigration policy should look like.

The idea is to garner support for an immigration policy which reasserts control, allows us to reduce immigration sensibly and fairly, stops immigration undercutting wages and services; whilst making a virtue of immigration which is necessary and productive, and avoiding picking an arbitrary number and making it a Government policy.

The irony of the present situation is by focusing on European immigration, we are targeting the one group of migrants who clearly contribute more than they take.

There are particular issues over European immigration.

They may not be the only immigration concern or even the main one; but they can't be ignored. The paper shows, however, how they can be largely assuaged by measures within our own law or by negotiation with Europe.

The paper demonstrates clearly that most of those who come to Britain from other European countries, either have skilled jobs to go to; or are working in industries, where there is a shortage of British workers; or are studying; or are legitimate dependents.

Of those who come looking for work, we can estimate most find jobs in sectors like hospitality in the South of England.

The reality is that, after Brexit, we will need to encourage most of these categories to keep coming; otherwise we will do ourselves serious economic damage.

For this therefore to be a principal factor in the biggest decision Britain will take since World War 2 is irrational.

As the paper shows, we can curtail the things that people feel are damaging about European immigration, both by domestic policy change and by agreeing change within Europe to the freedom of movement principle, including supporting the campaign of President Macron on the Posted Workers Directive.

This is precisely the territory Labour Party should camp upon.

The Party’s recent shift to supporting a transition within the Single Market and Customs Union is greatly to be welcomed.

But it needs to be a step to a bigger one: keep freedom of movement but reform it; support the Single Market as a matter of principle together with its social protections; control overall immigration in ways which meet public anxiety but are true to our values; and then explain why Brexit is a distraction from the Tory failures, not a solution to them.

There is a progressive case for the Single Market and Enlargement.

Essentially for three decades or more, Britain, under successive Governments, has argued two big causes. The first was that Europe should concentrate on the economic gains Europe could bring to its citizens by creating a unique European Single Market where goods and services could be traded freely across borders. This required not only the absence of trade barriers but a single system of regulation so as to avoid the complicated bureaucracy associated with different standards and specification; and one adjudicating body namely the European Court.

Progressives in Europe also wanted a social dimension to Europe with protection for workers and so created the Social Charter, bitterly opposed by the Tories at the time.

The second cause was to ensure that following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern European countries previously occupied by the Soviet Union, could be brought within the European family of nations, with their freedom and democracy guaranteed.

So Germany unified and the process of enlargement to the East was begun, with British leadership at the fore.

There was a price for this. As Europe enlarged, to help those former Soviet satellites develop, Western Europe paid through structural funds to support that development. Hence much of the so-called Brexit divorce bill.

So yes Britain pays net into Europe around £8bn a year as does France, Germany paying more; but bear in mind Britain’s annual trade with Poland alone has risen from just under £4bn in 2004 to over £13bn today.

Therefore imagine the feeling in Europe today when Britain wants to leave Europe on the basis of opposition to the rules of the Single Market; and because of the bill for enlargement.

This is the extraordinary position in which we have placed ourselves as a country.

If we go ahead with Brexit, we will have taken the unprecedented decision for a major country to relegate ourselves, like a top six Premiership side deciding to play exclusively in the Championship.

Other than President Trump, I can't think of a single leader of any of our major allies or partners who thinks this decision is anything other than self harming.

Labour should have confidence in making the case against this.

The Tory dilemma is different.

Many in Government know all this. But they feel they're irrevocably bound by the referendum and hemmed in by Party division. So, they want to negotiate an exit from the Single Market with then a re-negotiation which restores its benefits. Or, as some Ministers have apparently said behind closed doors, we want to ‘leave without leaving’.

I understand this as a matter of politics.

But I fear they're trying to negotiate the unnegotiable; and placate the un-placateable.

The Brexit coalition comprised two groups which came together in support of leaving, but which really profoundly disagree with each other.

The intellectual force behind Brexit are the right wing ultra Thatcherites, who believe that out of Europe, Britain can be a free market, freewheeling hub, positioning itself in stark relief to bureaucratic old continental Europe.

They pretend concern over immigration. Really they support a stronger form of globalisation.

But the largest vote was the other group, those who are socially conservative, who fear globalisation, of which immigration is the manifestation.

The danger for the Tories is that if we do the Hard Brexit the Ultra Thatcherites want, the combination of failing public services and a weakened economy could deliver a Corbyn Government.

The danger for Labour is that the Tories decide to go all out on immigration – Hard Brexit so no freedom of movement; big curbs on non EU migration; paint Labour as the ‘Open Borders’ Party; and then turn their fire on Labour’s economic programme which Hard Brexit renders much less credible.

The danger for the country is that it is left with a political choice millions will feel they cannot support and a policy debate completely irrelevant to the real challenges the country faces.

Many MPs across the political spectrum know this.

Brexit is not a decision like any other. It is life changing. Every person involved in the business of politics has a duty at this moment to follow what they believe is right, not what they believe is career enhancing.

At this moment which will define Britain’s future, all our MPs should behave as if they are the leader of our nation, with the responsibility to put country above Party.


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