Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has urged EU leaders to commit to reforms, notably on migration, to help convince Britons not to go ahead with leaving the bloc in 2019.
Blair made the call when he met with a think-tank audience close to the European Parliament on Thursday in Brussels.
He said he believed the British Government would struggle to win a parliamentary vote to complete Brexit and urged EU leaders to help a campaign to block departure by offering to address British voters’ concerns.
Brexit would hurt not just Britain but Europe, he argued, and so European leaders should act in the coming weeks and months to try to stop the EU’s second biggest economy from leaving.
“If at the point Britain is seized of real choice… whether on mature reflection the final deal the British Government offers is better than what we have, if, at this moment, Europe was to offer a parallel path to Brexit of Britain staying in a reforming Europe, that would throw open the debate,” Blair told the European Policy Centre.
At odds with current left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his popularity hobbled by anger at his role in the 2003 Iraq invasion, Blair said “a comprehensive plan on immigration control, which preserves Europe’s values would be right for Europe and timely for the evolving British debate on Brexit’’.
Anxiety about hundreds of thousands of people arriving to work in Britain from poorer EU states is widely seen as a factor in the narrow victory of the Brexit campaign in the 2016 vote.
EU leaders have frequently voiced a willingness to let Britain stay if it changes its mind, but have insisted that the principle of free movement of labour across the bloc cannot change.
Many are also wary of reviving an offer made before the Brexit referendum to help Britain curb EU immigration.
Blair said Britain could do more on its own if it remained in the EU to make it harder for people to come in but said there was also a broad sentiment elsewhere in Europe that governments should be able to control EU migration somewhat.
He said immigration was generally good for the economy but had to be managed to avoid provoking a popular backlash.
As prime minister, Blair was responsible for opening British doors to eastern European immigration as soon as Poland and other ex-communist states joined the EU in 2004 when Germany, France and other big economies exercised rights to hold off on granting them free entry for several more years.
Calling for a second referendum to consider the final deal on offer from Brussels, Blair rejected suggestions that his was a “Don Quixote exercise” and said he believed British debate was opening up as voters grappled with what he called a dilemma between losing trade or losing control of economic rules.
He said: “European leaders share the responsibility to lead us out of the Brexit cul-de-sac.
“In Europe there is often a sorrowful shaking of heads and a shrugging of the shoulders, when what we need is strong engaged leadership to avoid a rupture which will do lasting damage to us both.”