Clegg, Blair and Major work to persuade EU to stop Brexit
Diplomatic editor Prominent remain supporters including former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major have been working with Nick Clegg and Lord Mandelson on a parallel diplomatic mission to persuade European leaders to stop Brexit.
Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, began his diplomatic mission independently, but has taken on the role of informal shop steward to the grandees.
In recent weeks, Clegg has met Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Bundestag president, Peter Altmeier, the German economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, the former German foreign minister, and senior officials in the foreign policy team of French president Emmanuel Macron.
Last week Blair met senior politicians in Germany and Austria, as well as Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini. The People’s Vote campaign, working alongside Clegg, has also appointed Tom Cole, a former EU commission official, to stay in regular contact with EU embassies in London.
Reports from the shuttle diplomacy are fed into the weekly meeting on Wednesday morning of remain-backing MPs, which is chaired by Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP and lead co-ordinator on the coming parliamentary Brexit endgame. One source said: “We are not trying to subvert the government negotiations, but we are trying to make sure European leaders are plugged into British politics and are not just getting information from the UK government.” The greatest difficulty of the alternative diplomatic mission is that it is self-appointed and represents no party.
Speaking from Italy, Clegg told the Guardian: “The aim of the visits is to persuade EU leaders that British politics has made the option of remaining inside the EU viable.”
Arguing that the British discussion about a further referendum is often held in isolation from European politics, he said: “My primary purpose has been to get European politicians just prepared for the possibility that Britain is not capable of delivering a workable Brexit and they may need to be ready for that. It is a question of pressing them to keep open the extension of the Article 50 process beyond the March deadline to give UK negotiators more time, including to prepare legislation on a People’s Vote.”
Clegg is well connected to undertake this shuttle diplomacy, having known the chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, for close to 25 years. Some key members of Barnier’s negotiating team worked alongside Clegg when he worked at the commission. Clegg added: “For a year after the referendum I was received with a mixture of curiosity and pity, on the basis it was not remotely likely anything was going to stop Brexit. The atmosphere has changed.”
Clegg is also trying to gather support for a new offer from Europe in the event of a further referendum. “We cannot just turn the clock back to just before the 2016 referendum. There would have to be some changes of freedom of movement; we cannot just put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Blair, who met Barnier on 18 July, said a large part of his meetings last week were to discuss a new common approach to immigration in the UK and EU. “You cannot deal with this
Brexit issue unless you deal with the questions of immigration and the anxieties that gave rise to it,” he said. “Since 2016, and the referendum, immigration is Europe’s problem. Today it is upending the politics of every single country in Europe; every single one. There are lots of things we as the UK can do without displacing the basic principle of free movement.”
The remain diplomats are also probing the commission’s plans for the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, seen as critical to whether wavering Tory MPs eventually support Theresa May’s deal. The declaration, due to be endorsed by majority vote by heads of state, will sit alongside the legally binding withdrawal agreement covering issues such as money.
It is assumed that the less detail in the declaration, and the more the difficult decisions are deferred, the easier it will be for the Brexit-supporting MPs to wave the deal through on the basis that the UK will be over the legal finishing line. Once outside the European Union, more maximalist negotiating positions can be readopted, with or without May as leader.