John O'Brennan

The call by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for a second referendum on Brexit has been met by a predictable set of reactions. For many on the Left, Blair is the eternal bogeyman, forever associated with the Iraq War and neo-liberalism. On the Right, the Brexit press presents Blair as an ‘arch-remainer, fuelled by a traitorous attachment to federalist EU ambitions and thus determined to wreck the democratic aspirations to ‘take back control from Brussels’ which underpinned the 2016 referendum. Blair’s successor as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, a less polarising figure, has similarly called for a second referendum

The prominence of Blair and Brown in the campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ prompts the question: what kind of EU policy did their governments pursue between 1997 and 2010? Did they really seek to change the British narrative about ‘Europe’ when in office? What role did Labour governments play in the Brexit imbroglio? 

Tony Blair came to office in 1997 as the self-proclaimed “most pro-European British Prime Minister ever” with the ambition of placing the United Kingdom “at the heart of Europe”.  Speeches to the 1994, 1995 and 1996 Labour party conferences marked Blair out as enthusiastic about European integration. After almost two decades of Conservative rule, the UK’s relationship with the European Union had deteriorated substantially with the UK constituting an increasingly sulky presence in EU fora during the second Major administration (1992-1997). The rows which marked the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty are often cited as marking the starting point of the Tory civil war on ‘Europe’ which culminated in the 2016 vote to Leave the EU. In contrast, Labour’s approach to European integration has received significantly less scrutiny. 

Blair’s landslide election win in 1997 at the very least contributed to a change in the mood music about the UK’s relationship with the EU. The glitzy launch of the 1998 UK Presidency of the EU at Waterloo station captured the zeitgeist. In March of that year Blair became the first UK Prime Minister to address the French National Assembly, and he did so in French rather than English. The Labour government quickly signed up to the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’, something the previous Tory government had been vehemently opposed to. 

Elsewhere the UK played a key role in supporting EU Enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. The St. Malo agreement, signed by the UK and France on 4 December 1998, argued for enhanced EU-level security cooperation and that the Union ‘must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises’. Some months later Blair was by far the most hawkish EU leader in prosecuting the Kosovo war against Slobodan Milosevic. In retrospect that now appears as the high watermark of Labour’s leadership and influence in Europe. 

Prime Minister Blair’s decision in late 2002 to back the US-led intervention in Iraq was fiercely opposed by France and Germany and all but put an end to any idea of a leading role for the UK in the European Union. One of the great counter-factuals of this period lies in asking what if Blair had thrown in his lot with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, rather than George W. Bush? Would the unity of the EU’s ‘big three’ have carried over into discussions about the EU’s constitutional order and the future direction of the integration process? Would the UK have been able – finally – to shed its reputation as the EU’s ‘awkward partner’ and move decisively from the margins to the centre of the European integration process?

The dispute about Iraq, however, was far from being the only setback in the UK-EU relationship. Instead of seeking to change the narrative of the UK as ‘the awkward partner’ in Europe, Blair often fell back on Conservative positions whilst espousing the rhetoric of ‘Third Way’ progressivism. Well before Theresa May and Nick Timothy dreamed up the UK’s ‘red lines’ on Brexit, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown turned up at European Council summits with entrenched ‘red lines’, often accompanied by hysterical media brinkmanship. Brown needlessly antagonised EU colleagues by missing important EU Council meetings and refused to countenance UK entry into the EU’s Single Currency: his ‘Five Tests’ for Euro entry constituted an insuperable obstacle to UK membership. Recent echoes of this approach can be gleaned in Labour’s ‘six tests’ against which Theresa May’s Brexit deal would be judged. 

I argue that Blair and Brown’s understanding of domestic UK politics decisively framed how they thought about the EU while in office. New Labour’s approach to European integration may have been somewhat more pragmatic than that of Tory administrations but, in the end, potential UK leadership in the EU was subordinated to the domestic imperative of securing and maintaining power.

Both Blair and Brown were traumatised by the loss of the 1992 general election. A key lesson they took from that experience was that New Labour needed the Murdoch and Rothermere newspapers on side to win elections. The quarter century that followed saw the UK’s notorious ‘red tops’ engage in more or less permanent vituperative representation of the European Union. At no point did Blair or Brown seek to challenge these increasingly toxic tabloid images of the EU. Beyond the tabloid sphere, the EU reportage of The Daily Telegraph and The Times was laced with mischaracterisations and often barbed commentary on the EU. The visceral hostility of the Murdoch and Rothermere stables to the European project meant that Blair and Brown would not countenance supporting any EU initiatives that potentially brought New Labour into conflict with ‘Middle England’: The Sun and The Mail, in particular, had to be appeased at all costs.

One of the great tragedies of the UK’s membership of the EU was that, at critical moments, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never embraced European integration in anything other than the thinnest functional terms, what Simon Bulmer termed ‘utilitarian supranationalism’.  Impulses within New Labour to re-frame the UK debate about the European Union or to assert UK leadership in Brussels were all too often sacrificed on the altar of domestic political expediency.  So whilst it is easy to blame Jeremy Corbyn and his Trotskyite allies for Labour’s confused and tepid approach to Brexit, the New Labour ‘backstory’ of missed opportunities on Europe suggests Blair and Brown also bear significant responsibility for the mess the United Kingdom now finds itself in. 


John O’Brennan is Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration and Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Maynooth University. He is also Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies. He is the author of a number of books on EU enlargement policy and also writes about Ireland’s relationship with the European Union. He is the co-editor (with Dr. Mary C. Murphy, UCC) of an upcoming special issue on Ireland’s relationship with the EU (Irish Political Studies). He is a member of the Irish government’s Brexit Stakeholder Group as well as Vice-President of the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies (IACES). He appears frequently in the media to talk about Irish and EU issues.


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane