Tony Blair calls for tougher EU immigration rules in bid to avoid Brexit

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Tony Blair has called for tougher immigration controls in Britain in an attempt to stop the UK pulling out of the EU.

Anti-Brexit Mr Blair, who allowed open borders to immigrants from new EU member states when he was prime minister, said “times were different” now and Britain should be able to exercise tighter control over who comes into the country.

A new report by the ex-Labour PM’s Institute for Global Change is calling for modified free movement rules to be negotiated with the EU, which he said would both honour the will of the people while also “dealing with the anxieties” that led to June 2016’s Brexit vote.

He likened Britain leaving the EU to a top-six Premiership football club choosing to only play in the Championship.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party should back his approach for tighter controls without quitting the EU, Mr Blair added.

Tony Blair: The former PM has repeatedly said he believes Brexit is the wrong decision. (REUTERS)

Mr Blair’s intervention – which follows his repeated other public calls over the UK’s decision to leave the EU – appears designed to provoke a fundamental shift in the Brexit debate and solve the seemingly intractable trade-off between the economy and immigration.

Prime Minister Theresa May has made immigration her number one Brexit priority but Brussels has stressed the UK will have to leave the single market if it wants to end the free movement of EU nationals.

“There is no diversion possible from Brexit without addressing the grievances which gave rise to it,” Mr Blair said in an article on the Sunday Times online.

Pro-EU march: On Saturday tens of thousands of demonstrators marched to Parliament Square in protest at Brexit . (REUTERS)

“Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it.”

He went on: “We can curtail the things that people feel are damaging about European immigration, both by domestic policy change and by agreeing change within Europe.

“This is precisely the territory the Labour Party should camp upon.”

Mr Blair, 64, has been blamed in many quarters for the rise in public concern about immigration which culminated in the Brexit vote, after failing to impose transitional controls on migrants from new eastern European EU member states in 2004.

His approach was unlike most EU countries at the time.

But he said “back then the economy was strong, the -workers needed”, adding: “The times were different; the sentiment was different; and intelligent politics takes account of such change.”

Brexit voters’ concerns about “pressure on services”, “downward pressure on wages” and “cultural integration” now “cannot be ignored”, he said.

According to the newspaper, a report from the Tony Blair Institute, authored by former Downing Street policy expert Harvey Redgrave, urged the Government to force EU immigrants to register on arrival in the UK as well as ensuring they show evidence of a job offer.

Anyone without permission should be banned from renting a home, opening a bank account or accessing benefits, Mr Blair said.

Mr Blair added: “If we go ahead with Brexit, we will have taken the unprecedented decision for a major country to relegate ourselves, like a top-six Premiership side deciding to play exclusively in the Championship.

“Other than President (Donald) Trump, I can’t think of a single leader of any of our major allies or partners who thinks this decision is anything other than self-harming.”

Tory grandee Lord Heseltine also suggested the EU could be open to reform of free movement after the German election this month, while criticising “damaging” proposals revealed in a leaked Home Office document this week.

The peer said immigration as an issue was a “low hanging fruit” for politicians, who blame it for pressure on public services despite its contribution to the economy in an effort to win over voters.

Addressing the Home Office plans in the Mail on Sunday, he wrote: “Free movement of labour would end immediately and all but the most highly skilled EU workers deterred from coming to this country.

“I fear the very social fabric of our caring society, health services and swathes of the public sector which depend on immigrant support could be destroyed if this happens.

“There have to be controls on immigration across Europe.

“Free movement is under question and we should join a discussion that could follow on from the German elections.”

Additional reporting by Press Association.

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