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European Council

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PM: we have decided, in the communique, to work together to document evidence of Syrian atrocities

The Prime Minister has attended a European Council session in Brussels in the margins of which he held a press conference:

Prime Minister

Good afternoon and welcome everybody. This Council has focussed on three issues. First, the need for the European Union to address its growth crisis and real action to be taken on the single market. Second, the opportunity of Serbia joining the European Union. And third, the plight of innocent Syrians being murdered by their own leader.

Let me start with growth. Yesterday’s unemployment figures for Europe, more than 24 million people out of work, are a stark reminder that we need to recover Europe’s dynamism and create jobs. Before this summit, 11 other EU leaders and myself set out an action plan for growth and many more have backed our plan since then. This is an unprecedented coalition; it brings together countries from all four corners of Europe. It wasn’t just the traditional allies from the northern European countries. It included Spain, it included Italy, it included Poland and many others. I have to say this letter has been the main focus at this Council. Together, the countries that signed this letter represent over half of the EU’s population - a quarter of a billion people. We made it clear that we should agree concrete steps at this meeting. Yesterday I was frustrated that the draft summit communique did not do this. But today in Brussels, as you will see when the communique is published, we have made our voice heard.

The communique has been fundamentally rewritten in line with our demands. There was in the original communique no mention of deepening the single market in services; now we have a clear commitment to take action in that area. There was nothing on tackling regulated professions and properly opening up this vital element of the single market; now we have a clear commitment to make progress on that specific area. There was no reference to deregulation; now we have clear references including sectoral targets, a timetable and targeted action for micro-enterprises - those firms that employ less than 10 people. There was no mention of completing the internal energy market. This is a change that can add several percentage points to EU GDP. There is now in the communique, a specific deadline to achieve this by June 2014. There was, incredibly, no mention of trade - one of the great drivers of economic growth. Now there will be a special focus on trade, including trade deals at our next meeting in June.

Now let me be clear, this was not just a British initiative. We were joined by a strong group of leading countries, all of whom spoke up very strongly at the Council meeting at dinner last night and again at the meeting we had this morning. I would say that for the first time since we’ve been setting out these ideas, our letter really did become the agenda for this meeting of the European Council. We now have a plan that we must stick to in the months ahead. We have the words, now we need to make sure we get the actions that follow from those words.

Second, on Serbia we have today put that country on the path to EU membership. Britain has long been a champion of enlargement and this step is important for the whole Balkan region. EU membership can help to entrench democracy, to help to entrench human rights and help to make sure that countries really focus on the rule of law right across the western Balkans. With that it can help anchor the lasting peace and stability that we want to see. Twenty years after war ravaged the Balkans, Serbia has turned a page, and I pay tribute to President Tadić for what he has done in that regard. It has turned over war criminals to face justice, a reminder to brutal dictators everywhere that justice has a long reach and an even longer memory.

That brings me very specifically to Syria where the Assad regime is butchering its own people. The history of Homs is being written in the blood of its citizens. The situation there is truly terrible: constant shelling, no water, no food, no medicine, freezing conditions. It is a scene of medieval barbarity. Now, last night the United Nations Security Council made a united call, with Britain in the Chair, calling for an immediate humanitarian access. This is the very least that must happen to bring immediate relief to those who are wounded or dying. But it is far from enough. The world must come together to condemn the killing, so I say to the Russians and the Chinese, ‘Look hard at the suffering from Syria and think again about supporting this criminal regime.’

I said this morning, when coming into the European Council, that we should do more to ensure those responsible for atrocities are held to account. We need to document their crimes. We need them written down. We need to make sure the evidence is there. Britain is playing its part in doing that and we have now decided, again in the communique, to work together to document the evidence of these atrocities. We will make sure, as we did in Serbia, that there is a day of reckoning for those who are responsible. So, I have a clear message for those in authority in Syria: make a choice; turn your back on this criminal regime or face justice for the blood that is on your hands.

Question

Prime Minister, you mentioned Syria. You said - I think for the first time you used the phrase that, ‘Assad’s regime is a criminal regime.’ You used similar language in relation to Libya. Can you tell us what the difference is when it comes to protecting civilians between Syria and Libya? Is it simply a matter of realpolitik?

Prime Minister

Well, first of all, let’s look at some of the similarities. I think there is a point at which a regime is taking criminal actions against its own citizens. When you see what you see in places like Homs, I think it’s very important that we then set out the war crimes that are effectively being committed; that we document, we write them down, we take the photographic evidence, we bring it together and we start to use all the legal processes at our disposal to make sure that, however long it might take, the day of reckoning will come when those people will face justice. People had their doubts whether that would happen in Libya, but it did. But we do have to accept that there are differences between the Libyan and the Syrian case, not least that we don’t have in Syria a UN Resolution that gives all necessary measures as we had in the Libyan case.

But instead of focussing on what we are not yet able to do, I think we should focus on those things we can do in terms of building the strongest possible political and diplomatic alliance to pressurise this regime, so further rounds of sanctions, further help for the opposition, further work with the opposition to increase their focus and their appeal to all of Syria. There’s a lot more that can be done and I think this specific thing I’m talking about today, about making sure the regime is accountable by gathering the evidence, I think is an important point.

Question

Thank you Prime Minister. Can I ask you about what you were talking about growth last night? I mean, what’s the point about complaining about a Brussels summit being a Franco-German stitch-up? That’s basically the way it works and, frankly, you are the last person who can really influence that at the moment. And can I ask you separately, I think people are curious to know, what do you really think about all this Rebekah Brooks horse riding thing? I mean, is it a silly Westminster village distraction, or is it in some way emblematic of the dodgy relationships between politicians, press, police and the rest?

Prime Minister

Okay. Well, first of all, on the issue of the European Council, I think what this Council has shown is that when countries come together, as we did over this letter, and have a forceful case for action at the European level for growth, you can make a real impact and actually France and Germany weren’t signatories to that letter. I think that they had some sympathies with some parts of the letter; they may have disagreed with other parts. But the facts is, we came to this Council with an alliance of 11 other countries with a whole list of demands, very few of which were in the original communique, but we leave this Council with a whole lot of them clearly documented and spelt out. As I say, look, politicians have been standing here for many years saying, ‘I’m coming to a European Council; I’ve written a very important letter and I hope that some of it will get into the Conclusions.’ This time, it’s not just that the content of the letter went into the Conclusions; it was the talking point of the Council.

The good thing about this Council is there hasn’t been the same air of crisis around the Euro. I think the Euro still faces some challenges, but there hasn’t been an air of crisis. There’s been an air of, ‘Let’s get on and do things that will help the European economy to grow,’ and the key list of things are the things that Britain and the other countries set out in their letter. So, I don’t see the EU, as you put it, as a ‘Franco-German stitch-up’. What I see is an organisation of 27 countries where clearly the bigger players - of which Britain is one - have a large influence. But when you work together with like-minded allies, particularly when you can include allies from unexpected quarters - the fact that the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, others are now supporting this approach - you make a real difference.

On the issue of horses, if a confusing picture has emerged over the last few days, I’m very sorry about that. I think my staff has had to answer a lot of questions about horses. Let me try to shed some light on it. I’ve known Charlie Brooks, the husband of Rebekah Brooks, for over 30 years and he’s a good friend and he’s a neighbour in the constituency; we live a few miles apart. I haven’t been riding with him since the election, as I said yesterday. Before the election, yes, I did go riding with him. He has a number of different horses and, yes, one of them was this former police horse, Raisa, which I did ride. I’m very sorry to hear that Raisa is no longer with us. I think I should probably conclude by saying I don’t think I’ll be getting back into the saddle any time soon.

Question

Thank you, Prime Minister. Can we go back to this question on influence? You spoke about your frustration that your ideas in the letter had not been included in the draft communique. Is this symptomatic of the fact that people in Europe aren’t really listening to you, at least until you raise your voice and bang the table?

Prime Minister

I didn’t have to bang the table particularly hard, because we had very strong allies, all of whom want to see the actions in the letter go into the communique. While yesterday they weren’t there, today, and you’ll see it when it’s published - they are absolutely there - on services, on trade, on energy, on the digital single market, on the number of regulated professions in Europe, which we have been going on about for years, but have never been able to make much progress on. All of those things are in there.

It wasn’t a question of banging the table, although I’m perfectly prepared to do that if necessary. It was, I think, about the fact - and I pay tribute to the very hardworking officials in the foreign office, in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, who have worked incredibly hard to put together a pretty unprecedented alliance. It’s well-known that the Dutch, the Danes, the Fins, the Swedes, the British, often get together and say, ‘If only Europe moved in a more free market, liberal, open trading direction.’ That’s what we think; we northern Europeans are very alike. What’s different is having the Italian Prime Minister, the Spanish Prime Minister, the Portuguese Prime Minister, very sympathetic too. Other member states actually coming out during the Council, and saying, ‘Well, I actually support what is in the letter and want to back you on this.’ That’s what changed. And I think there is a very simple reason for it, which is in Europe, there is no room for a fiscal stimulus; no governments have the money to stimulate their economy through large tax cuts that aren’t funded, or spending increases. There isn’t much room for monetary stimulus, certainly not when you’ve got interest rates as low as they are. So the one stimulus you have is trade, is opening up your markets, deregulating your economies. So, there’s real force behind this, and I think it’s made a really big difference.

Question

Senior lawyers and MPs have expressed great concerns about measures in the Green Paper on security and justice, in particularly, the extension of closed material proceedings, which they say is going to erode the ancient British tradition of open-justice. How can you justify such an extension of powers and secret closed hearings?

Prime Minister

I think it is absolutely justifiable. The situation today is that people from anywhere in the world can make accusations against the actions of our Security Service, and we’re completely unable to hear those cases in court and produce the intelligence or information that allow people who work for our country to defend themselves. So we end up having to pay out, often multi-million sums, to people who may be making completely unfounded allegations against our security services. We need to have a legal way of hearing this information in court. Other countries do so, and so Kenneth Clarke is coming up with a plan to deliver this. It’s an excellent plan that he’s put in place; he has consulted with judges extensively about how this can be done. We’ve published it in a Green Paper; we need to bring forward legislation.

It will be in a very, very small number of cases, because these are very niche cases, but I think it is absolutely vital that we can make sure that Security Service personnel can defend themselves in court, so these cases are heard in court if wrongdoing has taken place. I want to make sure that those cases can be heard, and justice can be done. So I think it’s absolutely essential we find a way of doing it in our criminal justice system and we can protect our national security in that way. What we can’t have is a situation where we have to go on making these payouts, or not having court cases at all, or having open court cases where we would have to reveal intelligence information which would harm our national security, or harm relationships with other vital security partners. So this is the right way forward. I’m absolutely convinced we can win the argument, and win the argument with anyone who has civil libertarian concerns, because it’s much more important that justice is done and that we have these court cases going ahead.

Thank you for coming.