UK Politics

Tony Blair: UK must help Europe to 'reconnect'

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Media captionMr Blair says he is not in the running to lead the European Commission

Tony Blair has urged pro-Europeans to accept the need for change and to help the EU "reconnect" with people.

The former prime minister said the poll surge by anti-EU parties illustrated "deep anxiety and alienation from the institutions and philosophy of Europe".

Speaking in London, he said the UK must focus on shaping Europe's future, not just renegotiating its own membership.

"I actually think David Cameron can perfectly easily argue a big agenda for change in Europe," he said.

Mr Blair's intervention comes after UKIP gained most votes in the UK in last month's European elections, and amid a dispute over who should head the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm.

Prime Minister David Cameron is said to have warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a summit last week that Britain could leave the EU if former Luxembourg leader Jean-Claude Juncker is handed the job.

According to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Mr Cameron suggested his proposed referendum on the UK's future in Europe could be brought forward by a year to 2016 if Mr Juncker was appointed.

'Wake-up call'

Downing Street has declined to comment on the contents of the "private conversation", but Mr Cameron has insisted the new Commission president must "get" the need for the EU to have a different outlook.

However, Mrs Merkel reiterated her support for Mr Juncker on Monday, telling reporters: "In all my talks, I am working to ensure that Jean-Claude Juncker gets the required majority in the European Council and that he becomes the next president of the European Commission."

In a keynote speech to the CBI business organisation, Mr Blair said the success of UKIP, the Front National in France and other anti-EU parties could not be ignored and was a "wake-up" call to both the UK and Europe.

"Our response in Europe, as in Britain, should be to lead, not follow."

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Image caption Jean-Claude Juncker is the frontrunner to lead the European Commission

Referring to David Cameron's renegotiation and referendum pledges, Mr Blair called on pro-Europeans to "make the debate more than about the repatriation of certain competencies and rules".

"Even among those who are in favour of Europe, there is a keen sense that the moment is right for Europe to think carefully about where it goes from here, and how it reconnects with the concerns of its citizens.

"It has to be a debate elevated to a Europe-wide level, with Britain playing a leading role, not just a negotiation of Britain's terms of membership."

He added: "The key to winning the battle for Britain's future within Europe is to win the battle for the future of Europe itself."

'Folly'

Turning his fire on UKIP, he said it was a deception for anyone to argue that the UK could "shut down" in the face of the social and technological change brought by globalisation.

"The answer to the white, working class, unemployed youth in alienated communities in Britain, is not to tell them their problems would be solved if there were fewer Polish people working in the UK," he said.

"It is to provide them with the education and the skills and the connectivity that gives them the ability to face the world's challenges and overcome them."

The former Labour leader said it would be a "folly" for the UK to leave the EU, claiming it would lead to a "haemorrhage of investment" and a reduction in the UK's geo-political influence.

In a Q&A session after his speech, he suggested the UK could get the changes it wanted in Europe if it built alliances and aligned its own interests with those of its fellow members.

"We have absolutely no problem leading in Europe. A lot of people want us to lead in Europe. We don't have a huge problem winning our corner in Europe. The problem is often we think we can't or people think we can't."

'Not a candidate'

Mr Blair also ruled himself out as a candidate to lead the European Commission and said someone able to "drive through a big agenda" was needed.

"It is an important job... there should not be any pre-disposition towards or against any one person. We should look for the best person to do the job."

The former Luxembourg prime minister is the preferred candidate of the European People's Party (EPP) bloc, which won the most seats in last month's elections, and from which the Conservatives withdrew in 2009.

The UK and some other countries oppose him, believing him to be a federalist at heart who backs closer integration as the solution to Europe's problems.

Mr Juncker has expressed confidence that he will secure the post this summer, telling Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper that Europe "must not allow itself to be blackmailed".

Speaking on Channel 4 News, the pro-European Conservative cabinet minister Ken Clarke said UK politicians had "got to have" a debate on the country's future in Europe "if we are seriously considering our role in the world".

He said of himself and Mr Blair: "We both agree with David Cameron that it's got to change and be reformed."

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