Clegg, Blair and Ma­jor work to per­suade EU to stop Brexit

The Guardian - - NATIONAL | POLITICS -

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.

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