Blair at the Chilcot inquiry: the first session

After a nervous beginning, the former PM has hit his stride.

It's the first break of the morning. Tony Blair eventually hit his stride in the questioning, but in the first few moments the previous prime minister seemed to shake with nerves, his face tense with anticipation. Chilcot gave a preamble -- this isn't "a trial", he reminded us.

Blair, tanned as ever, was soon on typical form. He half-smiled his way through many of the questions, shrugging self-deprecatingly and making jokes at his own expense ("there were no shortage of people challenging me" on Iraq, he grinned). He was keen to emphasise his preparations, too -- he'd read all his own speeches, had documents (such as the options paper) that had only just been declassified by the government, much to the obvious irritation of the inquiry panel.

The question about the Fern Britton interview was one of the few moments when Blair seemed to admit a mistake of any kind; he half-retracted what he'd said in that interview (which SIr Roderic Lyne skewered him on the timing of) about supporting the Iraq war whether WMDs were found or not. He said self-mockingly that he still had lessons to learn on handling the media.

But otherwise Blair was unquestioning in his "belief" in his strategy. After the September 11 2001 attacks, he said emphatically, everything changed. The changes weren't objectively clear, but manifested themselves in his perception of the "calculus of risk" (a phrase he used repeatedly).

He dismissed the debate over the Crawford meetings, saying he had publicly always expressed his loyalty to President Bush. In fact, he tried to give those meetings a human slant, saying how Bush had talked about his "fear" of not acting in a "strong way". He even, unnecessarily, announced his "hard line" on Iran and the danger of such a country having nuclear capability.

That is what the morning session came down to -- a sense of morality, of right and wrong (he cited Kosovo a number of times, specifically reminding the inquiry that he had acted to defend a Muslim population, as though this proved that he wasn't motivated by his Christian faith in Iraq), and of his overriding "belief" in the correct strategy despite the challenges from within cabinet.

So far, then, it has been a relatively easy ride for the former prime minister. And Blair has started to deploy his performative weapons to full effect.

The second session is now about to start . . .


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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Will the collapse of the EU/Canada trade deal speed the demise of Jean-Claude Juncker?

The embattled European Comission President has already survived the migrant crisis and Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled President of the European Commission, is likely to come under renewed pressure to resign later this week now that the Belgian region of Wallonia has likely scuppered the EU’s flagship trade deal with Canada.

The rebellious Walloons on Friday blocked the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The deal for 500 million Europeans was at the final hurdle when it fell, struck down by an administration representing 3.2 million people.

As Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, walked out of talks in tears and declared the deal dead, fingers were pointed at Juncker. Under pressure from EU governments, he had agreed that CETA would be a “mixed agreement”. He overruled the executive’s legal advice that finalising the deal was in the Commission’s power.

CETA now had to be ratified by each member state. In the case of Belgium, it means it had to be approved by each of its seven parliaments, giving the Walloons an effective veto.

Wallonia’s charismatic socialist Minister-President Paul Magnette needed a cause celebre to head off gains made by the rival Marxist PTB party. He found it in opposition to an investor protection clause that will allow multinationals to sue governments, just a month after the news that plant closures by the world’s leading heavy machinery maker Caterpillar would cost Wallonia 2,200 jobs.

Juncker was furious. Nobody spoke up when the EU signed a deal with Vietnam, “known the world over for applying all democratic principles”, he sarcastically told reporters.

“But when it comes to signing an agreement with Canada, an accomplished dictatorship as we all know, the whole world wants to say we don’t respect human right or social and economic rights,” he added.  

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to sign CETA, which is backed by all EU leaders.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, has today spoken to Trudeau and his visit is currently scheduled to go ahead. This morning, the Walloons said they would not be held to ransom by the “EU ultimatum”.

If signed, CETA will remove customs duties, open up markets, and encourage investment, the Commission has said. Losing it will cost jobs and billions in lost trade to Europe’s stagnant economy.

“The credibility of Europe is at stake”, Tusk has warned.

Failure to deliver CETA will be a serious blow to the European Union and call into question the European Commission’s exclusive mandate to strike trade deals on behalf of EU nations.

It will jeopardise a similar trade agreement with the USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commission claims that an “ambitious” TTIP could increase the size of the EU economy by €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP).

The Commission has already missed its end of year deadline to conclude trade talks with the US. It will now have to continue negotiations with whoever succeeds Obama as US President.

And if the EU cannot, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, get a deal with Canada done, how will it manage if the time comes to strike a similar pact with a "hard Brexit" Britain?

Juncker has faced criticism before.  After the Brexit referendum, the Czechs and the Poles wanted him gone. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban muttered darkly about “personnel issues” at the Commission.

In July, it was reported that Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, was plotting to oust Juncker. Merkel stayed her hand, and with German elections looming next year is unlikely to pull the trigger now.

When he took office in November 2014, Juncker promised that his administration would be a “political Commission”. But there has never been any sign he would be willing to bear the political consequences of his failures.

Asked if Juncker would quit after Brexit, the Commission’s chief spokesman said, “the answer has two letters and the first one is ‘N’”.

Just days into his administration, Juncker was embroiled in the LuxLeaks scandal. When he was Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, the country had struck sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies.  

Despite official denials, rumours about his drinking and health continue to swirl around Brussels. They are exacerbated by bizarre behaviour such as kissing Belgium’s Charles Michel on his bald head and greeting Orban with a cheery “Hello dictator”!

On Juncker’s watch, border controls have been reintroduced in the once-sacrosanct Schengen passport-free zone, as the EU struggles to handle the migration crisis.

Member states promised to relocate 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece across the bloc by September 2017. One year on, just 6,651 asylum seekers have been re-homed.

All this would be enough to claim the scalp of a normal politician but Juncker remains bulletproof.

The European Commission President can, in theory, only be forced out by the European Parliament, as happened to Jacques Santer in 1999.

The European Parliament President is Martin Schulz, a German socialist. His term is up for renewal next year and Juncker, a centre-right politician, has already endorsed its renewal in a joint interview.

There is little chance that Juncker will be replaced with a leader more sympathetic to the British before the Brexit negotiations begin next year.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.