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03 March 2019

Tony Blair: Europe can only give us more time if we have a clear Brexit plan

A new referendum will become essential when the true implications of leaving are made clear, writes the former UK Prime Minister in The Guardian.

President Macron is right. Any extension of the article 50 process should be for a reason. It should be to eliminate the blind Brexit Theresa May proposes. But first her deal must be defeated.

The Brexiters will fall into line with her deal because they believe they can win the subsequent battle and impose a hard Brexit. The soft Brexit supporters and those who want a fresh referendum should unite to insist Britain knows the direction of its future relationship with Europe before we leave. We have learned a lot during this Brexit debacle. It has been a masterclass in political risk. We are now in a state of confusion, in which even those whose day job is to study the details find it hard to explain.

The May deal is bad for one central reason. In the name of resolving the issue so we can move on, it does no such thing. The political declaration is deliberately vague. It is unclear if the framework for the future is hard Brexit, ie a Canada-style conventional free-trade agreement, or soft Brexit, ie a Norway-style arrangement that keeps us in the European trading system of the single market and/or the customs union. [...]

Today, the cabinet is split. One half want soft, the other hard. May’s strategy is to maintain ambiguity and essentially say to both sides: keep your powder dry and fight it out after we leave. When she says that an extension of the article 50 process doesn’t of itself resolve the central question, she is right. But neither does her deal. Instead, we are going to pay billions upfront, exit, lose our negotiating leverage and the fight will go on.

We are told that this is the only deal on offer, when this is nonsense. Europe would be perfectly happy to amend the future declaration to point in the direction of hard or soft Brexit, should parliament decide it. Then, having decided the guiding principle, the detail would indeed be much easier.

This was, after all, what we were promised continually by the PM until she realised she couldn’t do it without destroying what was left of the unity of the Conservative party. The obvious thing is to vote down her deal, vote down no deal, extend the time limit and reach an “in principle” conclusion on hard or soft; if neither passes, go back to the people. Alternatively, accept her deal but with the Kyle-Wilson amendment for a confirmatory referendum before we implement it. The parameters of hard or soft are well known and a decision on the options could be done even within the timeframe of a short extension. This course is being refused because the PM knows that she would be forced to take a position – the cabinet will split and the Brexiters will wreak further havoc should parliament vote for soft Brexit. [...]

For those of us who want to put the matter back to the people, the route to such a decision is through the process of forcing a conclusion to the hard v soft question. Once obliged to choose, MPs will realise either choice is unattractive and the people will understand neither is better than what we have inside Europe now. MPs should think long before agreeing to exit blind. If I were an MP, I would not want to own this putrid potage of poor political leadership and self-destructive consequence.

Any extension requires Europe’s agreement. It should agree, but with a condition. The extension should be for a purpose: clarity as to the future framework. That way, the next stage of negotiation will not be a repeat of the last. This is in Europe’s interests. And for sure it is essential to ours.

Full op-ed on The Guardian

© The Guardian

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