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Tony Blair: Exit from Europe would be a disaster for Britain

Transcript of BBC Radio 4's Martha Kearney interviewing former Prime Minister Tony Blair on World at One - 23rd January 2013

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MARTHA KEARNEY

Well there has been a lot of discussion about this abroad today, including at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  One of those attending is the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has warned in the past about Britain ‘sleepwalking’ towards exit from the European Union.  Now, we’ll come on also to talk about the conflict in Mali but first of all: David Cameron’s speech today.  It has been nearly 40 years since the British people have been given a say on Europe; isn’t it time for a referendum?

TONY BLAIR

Well I think it’s a huge worry in circumstances where you put on the agenda the prospect of Britain leaving.  I mean, why would we do that?  We don’t yet know exactly what we’re proposing, or what we can get negotiated; we don’t yet know what the rest of Europe is going to propose.  This referendum will happen in four or five years’ time, if the Conservatives were re-elected.  

Why not wait and see what we actually get out of this, play our part in shaping the new Europe?  But why be in the situation where now you’re putting on the table the prospect, in four or five years’ time, of Britain leaving, so that we can no longer answer the question when we’re negotiating, ‘Well is Britain going to stay a member of the European Union or not?’  We can’t answer that question anymore.

MARTHA KEARNEY

But it does sound like you’re supporting the principle of a referendum, but further down the line?

TONY BLAIR

No, I’m simply saying – I mean, I don’t believe in doing this unless it’s necessary to do it, and what I’m saying is if – if you believe, as I believe, that for Britain to separate itself out in the 21st century from the largest political union, the biggest business market in the world, on our doorstep; if you believe that is a pretty mad thing for a country to do, then of course you can argue your case for reform and change in Europe, but don’t argue it and then say, ‘But if we don’t get our way, we’re going to leave the European Union altogether.’ That is – that turns the thing from being an argument about Europe and how it reforms – where, by the way, David Cameron said some perfectly sensible things, completely in line with what previous British Prime Ministers, including myself, have said.  But – 

MARTHA KEARNEY

Well exactly – you said it again and again, but you weren’t able to achieve the reforms that you wanted because you didn’t have the threat of leaving the European Union.

TONY BLAIR

No, that’s not the reason, by the way, for any shortcomings in our reforms.  But in fact we did achieve significant reforms including, by the way, in the budget, where for the first time, when I was Prime Minister, Britain ended up paying the same amount into the budget as France and Italy and similar sized countries, where we used to pay double what they paid.  So –

MARTHA KEARNEY

But just returning to the – 

TONY BLAIR

– all the way through the eighties and the nineties, we managed to get certain changes in Europe, but we didn’t get them by saying to the rest of Europe, you know, ‘If you don’t like what we’re doing, by the way, we’re going to exit,’ and to do that at this moment, Martha, is also – it’s a worry, to any of us who have been through the European mill.  

Because right now, these other European countries are in a very, very difficult state themselves, and I’m – you know, I hear what you say about, ‘This is a great negotiating tactic,’ but – you know, it reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff says at one point during it – holds a gun to his own head and says, ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out;’ you know, you want to watch that one of the 26 don’t just say, ‘Well okay, go ahead.’

MARTHA KEARNEY

But isn’t it Labour in danger of being in a similar position of ‘blowing its own brains out’ politically if it goes into the next election without offering a referendum?  And it does seem that Ed Miliband has ruled out having that referendum today; when he was asked about it at Prime Minister’s questions, he said, ‘My position is no, we don’t want an in/out referendum.’

TONY BLAIR

Well – and that’s because – look, if you want to have a situation – this is why he’s absolutely right, in a sense, to say, ‘At this moment in time, what is the point of putting on the agenda the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union – 

MARTHA KEARNEY

Ah, but he didn’t say at this moment in time, did he?  He said, ‘We don’t want an in/out referendum.’  So he – 

TONY BLAIR

Yeah, and – and I think he’s absolutely right to say that.  Because why would you want to say that, ‘Here is the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union,’ when surely the sensible thing is to band together with allies in order to argue the case for change?  And when I was listening to Theresa May just as I was waiting to come on this interview, I thought she – you know, made coherent sense on why we need – Europe needs to reform, and Britain will work with allies, up until the point you put to the question that, actually if you don’t get what you want, will you be then advocating, ‘No?’  In which case, you didn’t get an answer. 

And that’s the problem: so you’re creating a situation of huge uncertainty, and my point is, why would you do that?  There’s no necessity to do it; we don’t yet know exactly what we’re going to ask Europe to do, we don’t know what we can get out of it, we don’t know what the rest of Europe is going to do.  And that’s why I say the risk of this is that the 10% of the speech that is really about the Conservative party and UKIP, and so on, which is the climax of the speech – namely, putting the out question on the referendum – that’s the thing that worries people.  Because it’s that that gives you the prospect of Britain actually exiting the European Union which is, of course – would be a disaster for the country.

MARTHA KEARNEY

Well I wanted to turn now to another pressing matter of the moment, and that’s the terrorism threat in North West Africa.  You’ve written today in The Sun, supporting French intervention in Mali.  Do you see David Cameron carrying on your own philosophy that you laid out?  People talked about it being a humanitarian intervention.

TONY BLAIR

Well I think it’s up to him to state his own policy and so on.  But – look, my point about Mali is very simple: I do applaud what the French president and French government has done, I think it’s absolutely necessary, and I don’t think we should be in any doubt at all that inaction is also a policy.  If we let Mali be taken over by this extremist and terrorist group, there is no way the problems of Mali will then stop at the borders of Mali, so – 

MARTHA KEARNEY

But given the interventions that we’ve seen in Iraq and in Afghanistan, there’s far less public appetite for that kind of intervention.

TONY BLAIR

Yeah I totally understand that, and this isn’t, I’m afraid, like Sierra Leone or Kosovo.  But that is merely to describe the nature of the problem that you have, which is when you intervene, when you’ve got this Islamist – based on a perversion of Islam – ideology, that is going to provoke terrorism, highly motivated groups of people that are prepared to kill the innocent in whatever number to get their way, I’m afraid you’re then in for a long, hard struggle.  But the alternative – 

MARTHA KEARNEY

And does that involve British military involvement?

TONY BLAIR

Well that’s a decision for the Government. I mean, I doubt it’s going to involve British troops on the ground or anything of that nature, but the point is this: you’ve always got to ask the question, what would have happened if we’d left the Taliban in Afghanistan? What would you be doing in Iraq now, during the Arab Spring?  Look what’s happened with Assad, who’s about a tenth as bad as Saddam. What would you be trying to now in Iraq, if you still had Saddam and his two sons running Iraq?  

The point is: intervention is a problem, the non-intervention is also a problem, and you’ve got to weigh the consequences of both. And what I would say – look, I don’t think probably, Mali is – is – there is no absolute direct analogy, actually, with Mali; it’s a different type of country in some ways from either Iraq or Afghanistan, or indeed Sierra Leone. But if we – if the French weren’t taking this action now, and these people were taking over the whole of the country – and it’s a big country, by the way, about the size of Spain and France put together – we would have a big problem.

MARTHA KEARNEY

Tony Blair, thanks for joining us.

TONY BLAIR

Thank you.

(END OF TRANSCRIPT)