It would be better for China if UK stays in EU
Former prime minister Tony Blair also considers it crucial for West to follow the messages sent out by leadership in Beijing and improve its understanding
Tony Blair believes the UK will find it more difficult to achieve a better trading arrangement with China than its existing one after leaving the European Union.
The former UK prime minister was speaking ahead of the visit by his latest successor, Theresa May, to China later this month, where she is expected to lay the groundwork for a future free trade agreement between the two countries.
“Britain will have to negotiate this free trade agreement over a period of years. I can’t see that it is going to be in a better position to negotiate with China on its own than with the whole of the European bloc behind it,” he says.
“Anything we want to do with China, we’re perfectly capable of doing inside of the European Union.”
Blair, looking lean and fit, was speaking in the spacious offices of the recently launched Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, whose aim is to provide policy and strategic advice globally.
He also believes there will be downsides for China of the UK leaving the EU because Britain has always been an ally of the world’s second-largest economy on a number of issues, particularly in relation to trade policy and fighting European protectionism.
The EU has yet to reach a new trade treaty with China, although negotiations have been ongoing for more than a decade to upgrade the existing 1985 treaty, with market access to a number of sectors remaining an issue.
“From China’s perspective, it will have lost a key ally in the European Union fighting protectionism in Europe. It will be better for China if Britain stays within Europe,” he says.
Blair has called for the UK to have a second referendum on the terms of any deal reached with the EU. Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage also said earlier this month that another vote would settle the issue for a generation.
“The country is perfectly entitled to change its mind once it sees what the terms of Brexit really are, and at the moment we don’t know that terms are. We know that we voted to leave the European Union, but we don’t know what the port of destination is. And once you know that, you are able to then take a decision as to whether it’s preferable to what we have.”
When UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox visited Beijing on Jan 3, it was suggested that the UK might seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed new trading alliance, instead. The TPP’s members include Japan, one of the UK’s leading trading partners, and a number of Commonwealth nations
“It’s a somewhat bizarre thing to think you are going to replace the trading relationship with Europe with one with the Pacific. But on the other hand, if Britain leaves the European Union, it is going to be obviously looking for all the trading relationships it can get.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Blair says he was also impressed by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, which heralded Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
“It was a really interesting speech from a number of different angles. It indicated that China has the ambition to go now to the next level of development and authority, and this is of big significance to the world.”
He says it is important to follow in detail the messages sent out by China’s leadership.
“One of the interesting things about the speeches of the Chinese leaders that I have learnt over time, is that they’re actually worth reading. I know this sounds a bit of an odd thing to say, but in Western politics, leaders often give speeches where, frankly, it is just sort of politics.”
“There is a quality of debate in China that takes place at the highest levels of the political structure that doesn’t happen in the same way in the West.”
Blair first visited China in 1988 and was prime minister when Hong Kong was returned to the mainland in 1997.
His sister-in-law Katy, who is Hong Kong Chinese, made clear to him at the time that despite being Anglophile herself, the people of the former colony saw themselves as being Chinese and wanted to be part of China.
“She’s a big part of the Chinese community here in the UK. So yes, I see it (China) from many different angles,” he says.
Blair believes many in the West do not comprehend the scale of China’s achievement since reform and openingup, which has lifted 700 million people out of poverty and whose 40th anniversary is being marked this year.
“It is a really significant event. If you were a Western student, you would study lots of things about the politics of the late 20th century. You would study the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid. You wouldn’t probably study in the same way, the opening up of China, and yet it signaled that China was going on a new path of engagement with the world with the opening up of its economy. The results have been staggering.”
Blair says China’s Belt and Road Initiative could be equally transforming.
“I remember being at a conference in Xinjiang in about 2013 when I first heard of it, and I remember thinking this is going to be really big and really important. It has got huge implications politically, of course, as well as economically.
“This is a huge thing for China and, by the way, for all the countries that are going to be impacted by it.”
He says it is important for the UK and other Western countries to embrace the initiative.
“I would like to see us work out ways in which we can be part of this. We should actually be understanding. This is China exerting the role that it will inevitably exert as it becomes more powerful,” he says.
Blair also welcomes other China moves, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and supports the UK government’s decision to be a founding member, despite the refusal by the United States to participate
“The problem with the Western institutions is that they have become hopelessly bureaucratic. One of the reasons why there are African countries who welcome Chinese investment is that it tends to be much less bureaucratic and much swifter to be realized.”
Blair says the real significance of China’s rise will have most impact on the generation of his 1-year-old grandchild.
“One of the things I’m constantly arguing with people is, you’ve got to understand China. If you don’t take account of the role of China, its size, its impact, its leadership, it’s like having one eye closed. You’re not seeing the world as it is now, and by the time my 1-year-old grandchild is of voting age, it’s going to be even more so,” he says.
Blair, 64, who left office as prime minister in 2007, says he has no plans to return to major office, despite playing a very vocal role in the current Brexit debate.
“I’ve got no plans to return to frontline politics, but I want to be very politically active. I’m very worried about the West and its political position at the moment. I think this populism of the left and right is dangerous. I think if we end up becoming anti-immigrant on the right and anti-business on the left, we will do a lot of damage to ourselves,” he says.
He says his focus is now on his institute, whose work involves governance, particularly in developing countries
“The rise of China is the single biggest geopolitical change of the 21st century. There is virtually no problem in the world that can be resolved without China.” TONY BLAIR former UK prime minister
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has called for the UK to have a second referendum on the terms of any deal reached with the EU.