Tony Blair is to take on a new role tackling antisemitism by assuming the chairmanship of a pan-European body that campaigns for stronger laws against extremism across the continent.
The British former prime minister has been appointed as chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation a week after he announced that he would stand down as the envoy of the quartet on the Middle East.
In an article for the Times, in which he sets out his plans for his new role, Blair says that he will campaign against the abuse of religions which has become a “mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide”.
Blair says he will be campaigning to implement the recommendations of a report by the council which outlined legislative proposals to give greater power to judiciaries to prosecute hate speech, to lower barriers to what constitutes incitement to violence, and to make Holocaust denial illegal.
Blair’s proposals will revive memories of some of the laws he tried to introduce in Britain in the wake of the 9/11 attacks which prompted a debate on civil liberties.
In the joint article (paywall) with Moshe Kantor, the president of the council and of the European Jewish Congress, Blair warns that Europe is entering a dangerous era as it is experiencing the slow rate of economic growth last seen on the eve of the first and second world wars.
Blair and Kantor write: “There have been three points in the past hundred years when annual GDP growth in Europe went below 1%: first in 1913, just before the first world war, second in 1938, just before the second world war and third, in 2014. Economic decline fuels instability and we know these concerns are being felt across the world.”
The pair cite work by the Kantor Institute at Tel Aviv University which found that 2014 was the worst year in the past decade for antisemitic incidents. It recorded 766 violent antisemitic acts compared with 554 in 2013.
They write: “As has been said before, but is worth repeating, prejudice and racism often starts with the softest targets, be it Jews or others, but it never ends there. Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, but one infecting the whole of society and needs to be tackled for the sake of us all.”
The announcement of Blair’s new role comes just a week after he announced that he would stand down as the special representative of the international quartet – the UN, US, EU and Russia – on the Middle East. Friends said Blair would continue to work towards peace in the Middle East amid criticism that he had failed to notch up any great achievements during his eight years as the envoy, a post he took up when he resigned as prime minister in 2007.
Blair faced criticism during his time in the position for being overly sympathetic to Israel. The Palestinian Authority’s former chief negotiator Nabil Shaath said Blair had “achieved so very little because of his gross efforts to please the Israelis”.
The new appointment suggests that Blair, who has been criticised for his worldwide business interests, sees a need to promote tolerance and to confront extremism closer to home. BHe runs a faith foundation and challenges the idea in his Times article that faith fuels conflicts and says extremists abuse religion.
Blair and Kantor write: “It is our firm belief that it is not religion or faith per se that causes or foments conflict. It is the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide. The real issues are far more complex and demand greater tolerance, understanding and legislative powers to achieve a solution.”
The council chaired by Blair believes it should promote education and ideas for legislation to confront extremists, leaving governments to deal with security and intelligence. Outlining a set of legislative proposals, they write: “The legislation includes giving greater power to judiciaries to prosecute hate speech, lowering the barriers to what constitutes incitement to violence, making Holocaust denial illegal, entrenching state funding for religious institutions into law, creating clearer definitions of what is racist and antisemitic, and securing educational programmes about tolerance in national legislation.”
Blair replaces the Polish former president Aleksander Kwaśniewski who served as the council’s president between 2008-14. Board members include Blair’s friend and political ally, the Spanish former prime minister Jose María Aznar.