With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent developments in Libya and yesterday’s European Council.
Yesterday in Libya, after 42 years of tyranny and 7 months of fighting, the National Transitional Council declared the formal liberation of their country.
Everyone will have been moved by the pictures of joy and relief that we saw on our television screens last night.
From Tripoli to Benghazi, from Misurata to Zawiyah, Libyans now dare to look forward, safe in the knowledge that the Qadhafi era is truly behind them.
This was Libya’s revolution.
But Britain can be proud of the role we played.
Our aim throughout has been to fulfil the terms of the UN Security Council resolution, to protect civilians, and to give the Libyan people the chance to determine their own political future.
With the death of Qadhafi, they now have that chance.
The whole House will join me in paying tribute to our Armed Forces for the role they have played.
Over 3000 missions, some 2000 strike sorties.
One fifth of the total strike sorties missions flown by NATO.
As the Chief of the Defence Staff has written this morning…
…it has been “one of the most successful operations NATO has conducted in its 62-year history”.
And I believe it’s something the whole country can take pride in.
The decision to intervene militarily, to place our brave servicemen and women in the line of fire, is never an easy one.
We were determined from the outset to conduct this campaign in the right way, and to learn the lessons of recent interventions.
So we made sure this House was provided immediately with a summary of the legal advice authorising the action.
We held a debate and a vote in Parliament at the earliest opportunity.
We made sure that decisions were taken properly throughout the campaign, with the right people present, and in an orderly way.
The National Security Council on Libya met 68 times, formulated our policy, and drove forward the military and diplomatic campaign.
We took great care to ensure that targeting decisions minimised the number of civilian casualties.
And I want to pay tribute to my Rt Hon Friend the Member for North Somerset for his work on this.
It is a mark of the skill of RAF, British Army and other coalition pilots that the number of civilian casualties of the air attacks has been so low.
The military mission is now coming to an end - and in the next few days, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector will formally be concluded.
It will now be for Libyans to chart their own destiny - and this country will stand ready to support them as they do so.
Many learned commentators have written about the lessons that can be learnt from the last seven months.
For our part, the Government is conducting a rapid exercise, while memories are still fresh, and we will publish its key findings.
For my part, I am wary of drawing some grand, over-arching lesson - still less to claim that Libya offers some new template that we can apply the world over.
I believe it has shown the importance of weighing each situation on its merits; of thinking through carefully any decision to intervene in advance.
But I hope it has also showed that this country has learned not only the lessons of Iraq, but the lessons too of Bosnia.
When it’s necessary, legal and right to act we should be ready to do so.
Mr Speaker, let me turn to yesterday’s European Council.
This European Council was about three things.
Sorting out the problems of the Eurozone.
Promoting growth in the EU.
And ensuring that as the Eurozone develops new arrangements for governance, the interests of those outside the Eurozone are protected.
This latter point touches directly on the debate in this House later today, and I will say a word on this later in my statement.
Resolving the problems in the Eurozone is the urgent and over-riding priority facing not only the Eurozone members, but the EU as a whole - and indeed the rest of the world economy.
Britain is playing a positive role proposing the three vital steps needed to deal with this crisis - the establishment of a financial firewall big enough to contain any contagion; the credible recapitalisation of European banks; and a decisive solution to the problems in Greece.
We pushed this in the letter we coordinated to the G20 and in the video conference between me and Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama last week.
We did so again at the European Council this weekend…
…and will continue to do so on Wednesday at an extra European Council meeting.
But ultimately the way to make the whole of the EU, including the Eurozone, work better is to promote open markets, flexible economies and enterprise.
This is an agenda which Britain has promoted, under successive Governments and successive Prime Ministers.
But it is now an agenda which the European Commission is promoting too.
We have many differences with the European Commission, but the presentation made by the Commission at yesterday’s Council about economic growth was exactly what we have pushing for.
It drives home the importance of creating a Single Market in services; opening up our energy markets, and scrapping the rules and bureaucracy that make it take so long to start a new business.
Both Coalition parties are pushing hard for these objectives.
This may sound dry.
But if we want to get Europe’s economies moving, to succeed in a competitive world, then these are the steps that are absolutely necessary.
These are arguments which Margaret Thatcher made to drive through the single market in the first place; and which every Prime Minister since has tried to push.
I am no exception.
If the countries of the EU were as productive as the US…
…if we had the same proportion of women participating in the economy…
…and were as fast and flexible at setting up new businesses…
…then we would have the same per capita GDP as the US.
The remainder of the Council was spent on the safeguards needed to protect the interests of all 27 members of the EU.
The Council agreed that all matters relating to the Single Market must remain decisions for all 27 Member States…
…and that the European Commission must “safeguard a level playing field among all Member States including those not participating in the Euro.
This leads me directly to the debate we are having in this House later today.
Members of my party fought the last election committed to three things:
…stopping the passage of further powers to the EU;
…instituting a referendum lock to require a referendum, by law, for any such transfer of powers from this House;
…and bringing back powers from Brussels to Westminster.
All three remain Conservative Party policy.
All three are in the national interest.
In 17 months in Government, we have already achieved two of the three.
No more powers to Brussels - indeed the bail out power has actually been returned…
…and, of course, the referendum lock is in place.
And I remain firmly committed to achieving the third - bringing back more powers from Brussels.
The question tonight is whether to add to that by passing legislation in the next session of this Parliament to provide for a referendum…
…which would include a question on whether Britain should leave the EU altogether.
This was not our policy at the election and it is not our policy now.
Let me say why I continue to believe this approach would not be right…
…why the timing is wrong…
…and how Britain can now best advance our national interests in Europe.
First, it’s not right because our national interest is to be in the EU, helping to determine the rules governing the single market - our biggest export market, which consumes more that 50 per cent of our exports and which drives much of the investment into the UK.
That is not an abstract, theoretical argument: it matters for millions of jobs and millions of families in our country.
That’s why successive Prime Ministers have advocated our membership of the EU.
Second, it’s not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in-out referendum.
When your neighbour’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help him put out the flames…
…not least to stop the flames reaching your own house.
This is not the time to argue about walking away.
Not just for their sakes, but for ours.
Legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth.
Third, and crucially, there’s a danger that by raising the prospect of a referendum - including an in/out option - we miss the real opportunity to further our national interest.
Fundamental questions are being asked about the future of the Eurozone and therefore the shape of the EU itself.
Opportunities to advance our national interest are clearly becoming apparent.
We should focus on how to make the most of this, not pursue a parliamentary process for a multiple choice referendum.
Those are the reasons why I will not be supporting the motion tonight.
As yesterday’s Council conclusions made clear, changes to the EU Treaties need the agreement of all 27 Member States.
Every country can wield a veto until its needs are met.
So I share the yearning for fundamental reform, and I am determined to deliver it.
To those who are supporting today’s motion but don’t actually want to leave the EU, I say to you this: I respect your views. We disagree not about ends, but about means.
I support your aims.
Like you, I want to see fundamental reform.
Like you, I want to re-fashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves this nation’s interests.
The time for reform is coming.
That is the prize.
Let’s not be distracted from seizing it.
And I commend this statement to the House.