28 Nov 2012

Blair on Europe and press regulation

Tony Blair in his speech on Europe this morning at Chatham House sounded like a man who might well have undertaken his own “balance of competences” review on European powers if he were still in No 10. But he attacked the idea, expected to be unveiled in a David Cameron speech soon, of a repatriation of powers to be followed by a referendum.

The “competences review” is an official-led operation not a politician-led one (the official is the FCO’s Angus Lapsley now masterminding this cross-department effort from the Cabinet Office). It was spurred by the Coalition trying to channel its European energies into something the two parties could agree on. So this is a neutral look at the powers Europe currently has over all sorts of departmental work and whether those powers might be reduced in some areas. It will probably inform some political work in time but it’s a much drier project right now. One FCO source says the European Commission has itself acknowledged “it can’t do everything”. Some of the competences review conclusions could apply to other member states including the Eurozone members.

By contrast, the repatriation of powers project is hugely political and it is a solo programme – British demands for powers returned to Britain with the threat of blocking the new treaty Germany wants to cement the new eurozone economic arrangements if Britain does get them or even the threat of leaving the EU.

Tony Blair’s point was that that posture gets you nowhere with EU partners and the hostile tone and the sense of a trajectory out of Europe are counter-productive. He refused a number of invitations to criticise David Cameron for backing the approach but he did say that people who want to stay in the EU (of which the PM says he is one) need to stand up and make the argument for that.

Outside in St James’s Square,  some demonstrators were ironically chanting “Tony Blair for President of Europe” – they said they were protesting at Mr Blair’s links with Kazakhstan but a passer-by could be forgiven for missing that. Mr Blair was wearing fashionable Chelsea boots while reading from a text printed in extra large text size – perhaps two revealing signs of a mid-life crisis pulling him in different directions.

On that frivolous note, I should say he refused to comment on media regulation. For the record, here’s what he said about it in his famous “feral beasts” speech in 2007, just as he was leaving office:

“As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way (ie state regulation grounded Ofcom versus the Press Compaints Commission self-regulation model).

How this is done is an open question and, of course, the distinction between balance required of broadcasters but not of papers remains valid. But at some point the system is going to change and the importance of accuracy will not diminish, whilst the freedom to comment remains.”

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