The following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC EXCLUSIVE interview with Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and CNBC’s Wilfred Frost on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” (M-F 3PM – 5PM) today, Wednesday July 25th. The following is a link to video of the full interview on CNBC.com: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/07/25/watch-cnbcs-full-interview-with-former-uk-prime-minister-tony-blair.html?play=1.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.
WILFRED FROST: Welcome back to “Closing Bell.” President Trump meeting European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Washington today in an attempt to overcome differences on tariffs. As U.S. European relations continue to strain over policies, could this meeting make a difference? In a CNBC exclusive, we’re joined now by former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Blair, welcome to “Closing Bell.” Thank you for joining us.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: Thanks, Wilf.
FROST: So in this -- this meeting today, just some brief comments we’ve had out of it already, the president said that he hopes to work something out on a fair trade deal with Europe. Do you think that is likely to materialize in the near future? And if it does will it justify the tactics would it justify the tactics he’s deployed to get to this point?
BLAIR: Well, I think it -- it all depends whether the purpose of the tactics is to put the issue on the table and then get a resolution, or whether it signals, you know, more profound shift in policy towards economic nationalism. If it’s the first, I think it can be dealt with. If it’s the second, obviously it will trigger a series of reactions that would be unfortunate. But I’m hoping it is the first. I mean there are real trade issues between the U.S. And the E.U., between the U.S. and China. And these are things that are perfectly reasonable to want to work out. It’s just they have to be done in a way that doesn’t end up causing a – a problem in the whole global trading system.
FROST: Does the president have a point when he suggests in various comments and Tweets that the E.U. is quite hard to negotiate with?
BLAIR: Well, the E.U. Is going to look after its interest, in the way America will look after its interests. And that’s perfectly natural. But I think -- the key thing for me is whether you’re adjusting the terms of trade in order that you deal with certain grievances that both sides might have about the practices of the other or whether you’re embarking on a -- really a new approach to the global trading system, now that would really worry me. If that was the case then we were about to see a descent into a -- a sort of spiral downwards into a trade war. That would obviously be, you know, it’d be a huge problem for the world economy. I don’t think that is what the U.S. is trying to do and it’s certainly not what Europe wants. So, let’s, you know, let’s -- let’s give it a chance to work. By the way, and Juncker – the Juncker obviously I know extremely well – I mean has got 30, 40 years’ experience of dealing with the issues.
SARA EISEN: I wonder though if he has the backing of all 28 leaders that are in the European Union. And what do you think about the tactic of imposing unilateral tariffs in the name of national security as a negotiating tool to drive better trade deals. Is that going to work?
BLAIR: Well – it’s -- people are going to -- to ask whether that indicates that there’s going be a reasonable dialogue or not. The important thing to understand about Europe is it’s – you know – it’s a huge market. It does immense amount of trade with America. It’s very important that it protects that market. But he will have the -- the full backing of the European Union in taking, you know, a reasonable but still tough stand. And he will want to make sure he is representing European interests properly.
FROST: Let’s move on and talk about Russia. Many people wonder whether President Trump is underestimating Russia and President Putin. When you -- when President Putin first came to power did President Bush and you underestimate President Putin?
BLAIR: I don’t think we underestimated him, but I think at that time when I first got to know President Putin, I think we very much hoped that we could create a cooperative atmosphere between the west and the changed Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union. And for whatever reason that didn’t materialize and today I think President Putin regards himself very much in competition with the west. Now there are certain areas where we still have to cooperate and fight against terrorism, for example. And then there are other things that Russia is doing where the west has got to take a -- a clear and principled stand. So I think again there the question is – you know, the west and the alliance of western nations and NATO, that is an alliance of interests but that is also an alliance of values. And it’s important that we’re clear that those values are going to be protected. Now whatever people say about the recent summit between President Trump and President Putin, if you look on the ground as the Secretary General of NATO was actually explaining to me last week, actually America has stepped up its defense commitments to Eastern Europe, which is a good thing, by the way. So again, let’s leave aside whatever the talking is and focus on what the reality is.
FROST: So in that essence, do you think the media criticism of the president’s meeting in Helsinki and the rest of the dealings with Russia perhaps is overstated a little bit?
BLAIR: Well, I think it was bound to happen as a result of the way the meeting came out. But in the end the thing for me that matters is to reassert the importance of NATO, the importance of collective defense and to send a very clear signal to Russia that we want a cooperative relationship. Where we need to work together, we should work together. But there are certain clear rules that have got to be abided by. And you know, you’ve got a situation still in the Ukraine which is extremely difficult for the people there.
FROST: On the topic of Iran, clearly the president has taken a very hard line. He’s pulled out of the deal that was signed in July 2015 against the wishes of various – various allies. Do you think that hard line on Iran is fair, though?
BLAIR: Look, I’ve said I would have kept the deal in place. But I do think a tough position against Iran and destabilizing tactics in the Middle East is absolutely right. Look, I’m in the Middle East once or twice a month. My institute works -- does a lot of work there particularly on the relationships with different countries in the Middle East. And you see the destabilizing impact of Iran. In a way I would prefer to see the nuclear issue as it were dealt with by the agreement and a real pushback against the other activities of Iran. But I think given where we are now, it’s important that we try and build as much unity between America and Europe on the areas we can definitely agree with in relation to Iran which is their activities around the region.
FROST: Let’s switch focus back home to the United Kingdom. Do you envy the Prime Minister’s job at the moment?
BLAIR: No. I think she’s got a really, really tough job. And I always say even when I am criticizing her policy that I accept it comes from a well-intentioned place. But I think she’s going to find that the deal she wants to do now is a deal that one, won’t pass Europe and two, won’t actually pass the views of the British people. And therefore it’s going to be very difficult for it to proceed on that basis.
FROST: You’ve campaigned, you think it’d be good to have a second referendum. You said that loud and clear before. Do you think the chances of that second referendum are higher today than at any point since 2016?
BLAIR: I think -- I think the steps to look at it are these. First of all, I don’t think there’s any Brexit proposition that can command majority in the House of Commons. So I think there will at a certain point or may well be, stalemate. If there is stalemate, then I think in the end the only way you can resolve this is not to rerun the last referendum but in a sense to go back to the British people and say, “do you want to go forward on this basis or would you want to stay?” Now I think one other element of that is that Europe itself is looking at reforms and changes that needs to make. Immigration was the big driver of this Brexit referendum in the U.K. I think that Europe itself knows it’s got to deal with its immigration issue. The Italian election tells you that, the recent elections in Austria, all over Europe, this is a big question. So I still think it’s possible and I think it’s more likely now than it was a few months ago that you will get a benign coming together of circumstance where there isn’t really a Brexit that works that works that is going to command a majority and Europe itself also recognizes that there are changes that it needs to make, which are changes very much in line with the sentiment that gave rise to Brexit.
EISEN: I am curious how you would characterize President Trump and Prime Minister May’s relationship. President Trump says it was “the highest level of special.” Do you see it that way? Was it as close as yours with President Bush?
BLAIR: You know, I mean I was prime minister for ten years and I had a close relationship with President Clinton and President Bush. I hope they get on really well. Because it is in the interest of the two countries that they do. And you know, it is not my job to criticize your president or indeed criticize her. I hope the relationship’s special because it should be because these are two countries – his and my country and your country -- we’ve got a lot of in common.
EISEN: We have a special relationship.
FROST: The highest level.
BLAIR: I won’t go into that right now. But -- i don’t know what that says about their relationship, either. But any way--
FROST: Talking friendships. Purely friendships.
BLAIR: Right. Okay – good.
FROST: Going back to the idea of a second referendum very quickly, Tony, so John Major just said on the march on Sunday that a second vote has democratic down sides but that it was morally justified. What would you say to the people who were told first of all it was a once in a lifetime vote that voted for Brexit, won the vote and still want Brexit? Would their democratic rights be bulldozed in the instance of a second referendum?
BLAIR: No. I don’t think you can say they’re going to be bulldozed. Because we are not suggesting anything different happens without their consent. But when you’ve large numbers of people who voted for Brexit saying that this deal that the prime minister is putting forward, which is kind of half in Europe, half out of Europe, when you get the people who supported Brexit saying that is not what we meant by Brexit, it is very hard to argue that there is a mandate for that. Because 48% of the country voted to stay. And of the 52% who voted to leave, it’s clear there was a deep division within that as to what it really means. And in the end – my view is that in the end it’s a very simple thing: if you are going to leave Europe, okay, leave but understand short and immediate term there is going to be significant economic pain. If you going to stay, then stay. I think -- I think what the prime minister will find is the problem with the proposal is that it doesn’t satisfy the people that want to stay. It doesn’t really satisfy the people who want to leave.
FROST: And my final question, Mr. Blair, because we’re right up against the clock. But in the instance of a no deal, clean Brexit, does the U.K. still flourish long-term either way?
BLAIR: If we do a no deal sort of absolute rupture with Europe, yes we can flourish but we’re going to have to do a lot of economic and social restructuring. And my anxiety has always been that the people who want that vision for Britain will pull us out of Europe but they’ll never actually persuade the British people to then do that economic and social restructuring. So, if you want that new vision for Britain which is very different -- implies a very different system in Britain I think that is another reason why it is voted for by the people to make sure that they are prepared to go for that type of future. Because I suspect a lot of people in the labor voting constituencies in the north of England, they might want Brexit but they certainly don’t want that type of deregulated light-tax low public spending future that some of the Brexiteers want.
FROST: Mr. Blair, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us here on the “Closing Bell.”
BLAIR: Thanks very much.
FROST: The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
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