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Transcript of European Council press conference

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Transcript of a press conference given by Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels on 14 December, 2012.

PM

Good afternoon and welcome.  It’s been an important European Council.  I wouldn’t describe it as a landmark Council, but as it’s the seventh this year, perhaps that’s not surprising.

For me, three important points have come out of this Council.  First on Syria.  The situation in Syrian is truly dreadful and getting worse. 40,000 people are dead already; there’s a hard winter coming; there’s an extreme humanitarian situation on the ground.  This is a desperate crisis that’s taking place, and it is taking place, as I said at the meeting of the European Council this morning, on our watch.  And people will ask in future years and generations, ‘What did you do?  What action did you take in order to help deal with this situation?  In order to help deal with this situation?  In order to help bring about a transition?  In order to help get rid of President Assad?’  There is no single simple answer but inaction and indifference are not options.  And I think it is notable, for the first time, the European Council has not just said that President Assad must go, but has described in the conclusions that his regime is illegitimate. Something that I have said for many months.  
Also I think significant in these conclusions is that we are saying all options should be considered in order to help the Opposition and in order to enable greater support for the protection of civilians.  I think that it is important that we do this.  I want a very clear message to go to President Assad that nothing is off the table.  That further support, further work, further help with the Opposition who are now better formed, better organised, better coordinated, is robustly on the table.  I want us to work with that Opposition, to help shape that Opposition, to advise and work with that Opposition so that we can see the speediest possible transition in Syria.

It is a very difficult situation, there are no easy answers.  These things do take time.  We have to understand all the complexities.  But as an European Union and as a country, Britain, we should be doing everything we can to help speed up that transition and work towards what it says again in the conclusions and we had an important role in drafting these is what we want is a future for Syria that is democratic and inclusive, with full support for human rights and the rights of minorities.  I think that is important.

Second thing that I think is notable about this European Council is further progress on my obsessions with the single market: deepening the single market, protecting the integrity of the single market which is now absolutely written like a stick of rock through all of the conclusions well, the words on a stick of rock written through all the conclusions that we now sign up to.  And I think some progress today on deregulation: getting the European Commission to deregulate, to scrap regulations, is something I’ve long wanted to do and for the first time I think, as far as I can remember, in Council conclusions, it talks about scrapping regulations that are no longer necessary.  And using that word ‘scrap’, I think it’s time we wrote into some of our conclusions in Europe words that people can understand and grab hold of.  And I think businesses up and down not just Britain, but up and down Europe will welcome the fact that the Commission is looking into scrapping some of its own regulation.  And I insisted on a report back in March at the Council meeting then so we can make some real progress taking regulations off business in terms of what the Commission does, not just asking individual countries, as they rightly do, to look at our own deregulation which we will continue to do.

But third, and above all, this meeting was really about the changes that are needed to make the eurozone work, to make the euro work.  And standing back and looking at this, I think there are some very simple facts.  The first fact is that the countries of the eurozone are committed to their currency; they are committed to making it work.  People might have their doubts about the euro, I’ve expressed my doubts in the past, but no one should doubt the commitment of the euro-area members to make their currency work.  

Another point is that the existence of the euro is driving change in Europe.  It is driving countries that are inside the euro to integrate more, to coordinate more.  That’s why we’ve had these discussions on banking union, that’s why there are discussions about transfer budgets, about further coordination, about a series of contracts between the European Commission and eurozone countries.  Of course, this integration doesn’t apply to Britain.  We’re not in the euro, we’re not joining the euro, so we don’t have to take part in any of this integration.  

And that leads me to the third point.  Not all countries in the European Union will join the euro.  Not just Britain: we have an absolutely copper-bottomed opt-out written into all of the treaties.  There’s no obligation on us to join the euro.  But I believe there are other countries in the European Union that have no early or immediate or indeed, perhaps longer than that prospect of joining the euro.  And I think that’s an important point.  Because the changes that the euro is driving, of course are affecting the eurozone countries, but they also affect all of us.  They affect the organisation that we are a member of, that we are a contributor to, that we are an important part of.

 And that leads me to two important conclusions.  First of all: there has to be flexibility in Europe.  There has to be flexibility that respects the fact that there are countries that don’t want to and never will in our case, in my view join the euro.  And so we need to be flexible about how Europe develops.

But also I believe that it will lead to opportunities for us in the UK to make changes in our relationship with the European Union that will suit us better, that the British people will be more comfortable about.  Because frankly the eurozone members are making changes that they need and we will be able to argue that we should make changes that we need.

 And I think in a way, banking union the proposals that were agreed in the last 48 hours are quite a good example of this.  The eurozone needs a banking union.  If you have a single currency, you have to have some single rules on banks.  We have a single currency, it’s called the pound.  We’re keeping it and obviously we have the same procedures for dealing with banks in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.  You need to have common rules for your banks if you have a single currency.

 So we didn’t stand in the way of the euro having a banking union.  We said, ‘You can go ahead with your banking union, but in return for that we need to have proper safeguards for those countries that stay outside of the euro and outside of the banking union.’  So in return, as it were, we got an entirely new voting mechanism to protect our interests; we got a proper clause on non-discrimination so you can’t discriminate against non-euro members.  So, I think it’s a small example of how a change in the eurozone necessary for them can lead to a change for countries outside the eurozone including Britain, which can help us to safeguard the things that matter to us, and that is of course particularly the single market because we are a trading nation.  We rely on not just having that single market open to us; we want to be in there writing the rules of that single market and that is what we do.

So, that was all I wanted to say in my remarks.  Very happy to take some questions.  

Question

Prime Minister, are you part of what Nick Clegg calls a conspiracy of silence over the failure of drugs policy?

PM

No, not at all.  I’ve said all sorts of things about drugs policy over the years, and happy to say more today.  I think that change was needed to the approach we took on drugs.  We needed a much greater emphasis on treatment.  We needed a much greater emphasis on getting people off drugs and able to lead drug-free lives.  We needed a much better emphasis on education and effective education about the dangers of drug abuse.  We need much more action on drugs in prisons and making sure people can get treatment for drugs in prison to continue the programmes they’ve had out in the community.

Now, the government I think has got a good record on these things and there is some good evidence that drug use and drug abuse is falling.  Of course the Deputy Prime Minister is entirely entitled to take a view for the next election and beyond for his manifesto: wanting to go further, wanting to have a Royal Commission.  I personally don’t support a Royal Commission.  In my view, there is always a danger of someone said that they can take minutes and last for years.

So, I’m very happy to debate and discuss drug policy.  I think the Coalition Government has taken a series of good steps.  I don’t rule out taking more steps but I don’t personally think that a Royal Commission is the answer and I don’t support the decriminalisation of any drugs that are currently illegal.    

Question

Why should the markets have any faith in the medium-term future of Europe?  You’ve taken one baby step towards a banking union, but we’re very far away from where leaders said in June that they needed to get to.  And on the very big substantial questions of where Europe’s going, they scrapped the timetable and agreed to have a timetable about when the timetable would be discussed, which seems like quite a big step backwards.  None of Europe’s big problems have been resolved or anything like resolved it seems like at this summit.  Aren’t we just heading for another moment where the markets start to question the viability of all sorts of countries around Europe?

PM

Well, I think you ask some very good and tricky questions for members of the eurozone.  What I would say is that I think there have been some quite important moves over recent months.  I think what Mario Draghi and the ECB have done has been significant.  That’s given, if you like, a breathing space for eurozone countries to take some of the steps necessary to deliver a stronger, sounder basis to their currency.  Clearly, the banking union is something you have to put in place.  As I’ve said, you know, you couldn’t have a single currency in Britain without a set of rules for how we deal with banks and what happens if banks get into trouble.  But clearly, there are more steps the eurozone has to take in order to make the single currency robust.

I wouldn’t underestimate two things, if you like.  First of all, the desire there is amongst eurozone countries to protect, defend and save their currency.  Don’t underestimate that.  But also one shouldn’t underestimate the very real difficulties and discussions that there are, because these go to very important issues about sovereignty and you could see that in the debates that were taking place around the table last night.  These debates about sovereignty are one of the reasons why Britain never joined and I believe, won’t ever  join.  One reason I personally believe that Britain won’t ever join the single currency, certainly not while I’m Prime Minister anyway.

But  these debates about sovereignty, and about control, and about how you deal with these things are debates they are going to have to have.  And that’s what’s playing out, if you like.  And my point, in my remarks is, as this plays out, this is changing the European Union.  And as it changes the European Union, and the eurozone make changes they need, so I believe there are opportunities for others, including Britain, to make changes ourselves.

Question

Prime Minister on Syria, you say all options should be considered, presumably, including military options.  Are there serious considerations going on for British military involvement in Syria?  And, from your discussions in the Council, are any other countries considering such a thing?

PM

No, the discussions we’ve been having are really about how we try and do two things.  First of all, how do you encourage transition at the top.  How do we work through the United Nations, how do we try and work on others in the United Nations like the Russians, to try and move towards a position where the world comes together and pushes transition at the top, and says that Assad has to go, a transition needs to take place, a move towards a democratic and inclusive Syria needs to happen?  That’s the first set of things.

The second set of things is how do we help work with, shape, support, advise, back the Opposition forces who are effectively creating a transition from below?  Now, Britain has good relations with the Opposition.  We’ve been working with them.  We’ve now recognised the new body.  We’ve been supplying them with non-lethal equipment and the conversation now is: well, what more should we do?  What more can we do to help, advise, work with, shape, and support?  And I think what’s interesting about these conclusions is that they say all options should be looked at.  We’ve mandated the Foreign Affairs Council, the Foreign Ministers, to look at those issues.

Now, I’m not pretending there’s absolute unanimity around the table, that it’s time to change the sanctions regime, or anything like that.  But it’s on the table now that it’s got to be looked at and we can’t just carry on as we are.

Question

Sorry, just to clarify: ‘all options’ don’t therefore include Libyan-style military intervention?

PM

Look, I’ve always said that Syria is different to Libya.  There are extra complications and difficulties, but we should be instead of asking what we can’t do, we should be asking what can we do.  And as you heard recently from the Americans,  there are steps which, if the Syrian regime took, including concerns about chemical weapons, which would have very, very severe consequences for that regime, and they should understand that, and understand that very, very clearly.

Question

Have you seen Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration?  Do you support what he’s saying?  Has he cracked the issue?

PM

I haven’t seen his speech on immigration, no, but I hope it includes an explanation of how, over the last ten years, a government [Party political content] allowed a net migration per year of over 200,000 to come to the UK.  [Party political content].  
And what we inherited was a situation that was in a complete and utter meltdown and mess.  Teresa May, I thought, made an excellent speech this week where she explained some of the steps that we’ve taken, including closing down 180 bogus colleges [Party political content] which  weren’t teaching.  They were bogus colleges, teaching bogus courses to bogus students so that they could get around the immigration rules.

And what is interesting is that, yes, we want Britain to be a magnet for the brightest and the best and the shutting of these bogus colleges, of course, has helped us to get net migration down by 25% over the last year.  We’ve actually seen the number of foreign students applying to British universities going up.  So, I believe it’s totally possible to get the brightest and the best to come here, while having the proper, rigorous control of immigration.

[Party political content].

Question

Prime Minister, isn’t the reality that now we are in a two-speed, two-tier Europe?  And that, as the eurozone integrates further, the future for Britain is that it will be seeking time and time again to protect its interests as a core works more closely together?  And isn’t that a difficult and uncomfortable position for Britain to be in?

PM

I don’t think Britain’s in a uncomfortable position at all.  I think we’re in a position where we have opportunities to maximise what we want from our relationship with the European Union, and I’ve always thought that the language of two tiers, two speeds, trains leaving stations, is terribly cliched and outdated.  

The fact is we have a multifaceted Europe.  We have a Europe where countries like Britain are absolutely at the heart of decision making over things like sanctions on Iran, the future of the single market, the enlargement of Europe.  Some of the most successful and important things the European Union does.

 But we’re not in the Schengen Agreement because we want to keep our borders and control our immigration.  We’re not in the single currency because we want our own interest rates, our own economic policy to suit our country.  And I think what you’ll see is a growth of this multifaceted Europe.  And I don’t think it’s something we should be frightened of at all.  I think we should be very confident about our own national strengths, about our own national position, about those bits of our relationship with Europe that are squarely in our national interest.

We  wrote the rules of the single market, and we benefit from it today.  We wrote the rules about enlargement, and it’s great that we’re bringing in countries from the east and south of Europe to make their futures more secure.  So, I think we should be confident about the future, and to those who talk about tiers two tiers and two speeds, I would argue right now, if you look at the British economy, I think outside the euro, we have every chance of going if you want to do speeds every chance of going faster rather than slower.
 
And this week, you know, while youth unemployment is a massive concern all across Europe, we had in Britain this week, the largest fall in youth unemployment since records began in 1992.  So, let’s be confident about what our national strengths are and national position is, and let’s be confident that we can negotiate hard and well in Europe and we can have a relationship which the British people will be far more comfortable with.

Thank you very much indeed.  Pleased as ever to be here.  That’s the last, I hope, European Council this year, but you never can entirely tell.  But I’m sure there’ll be one early next year.  Thank you.