Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has said that European Union leaders are willing to change the bloc’s rules for the freedom of movement of workers, opening an opportunity for Britain to avoid a damaging “hard Brexit”.
Speaking yesterday (July 15th) he said that election of French President Emmanuel Macron had put reform of the EU on the table, meaning that Britain and the EU could meet “halfway” to strike a deal that would keep Britain inside the world’s largest trading area.
“The European leaders, certainly from my discussions, are willing to consider changes to accommodate Britain, including around freedom of movement,” the former Labour prime minister said in an article published by his Institute for Global Change.
“The opposition to free movement of people, once you break it down, is much more nuanced. The French and Germans share some of the British worries, notably around immigration, and would compromise on freedom of movement.”
Blair’s comments, however, are at odds with the EU’s negotiating position, which stresses there can be no “cherry picking” from the benefits of membership of the EU’s single market without accepting freedom of movement for EU workers.
In a separate interview, Blair stated he thought it was possible that Britain could stay in the EU because public opinion was moving against Brexit.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary that it doesn’t happen because I think every day is bringing us fresh evidence that it’s doing us damage economically,” Blair said, in a preview of Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
The pro-Brexit Leave Means Leave campaign said Blair’s comments showed how out of touch he is with voters.
Many Western EU leaders are indeed concerned to limit free movement only to workers - as specified in the EU treaty.
Germany, for example, has won a series of EU court cases denying benefits and residence rights to immigrants who were not working.
There is little appetite in the bloc for reopening a negotiation with Britain that it already had before the Brexit referendum - partly because many in the EU see Britain’s problems with EU immigration as partly of its own making.
Under Blair’s government, citizens of Poland and other ex-communist states were allowed to settle immediately in Britain, despite a years-long transition period allowed under EU rules.
When former prime minister David Cameron made cutting EU immigration the focus of a deal he demanded before holding the referendum last year, other European governments argued London could do more within existing EU rules to limit arrivals.
They nonetheless agreed to a special deal for Cameron to give Britain special rights to curb EU immigration, but that deal was rendered moot by the Brexit vote.
Blair, who was once tipped to become president of the European Council, wanted to take Britain into the euro zone and believed that the country should lead the way in the EU rather than withdraw from it. He was the last Labour leader to win a general election and has been a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s current leadership.
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