On Monday in the House of Commons, MPs will question me about last week’s European summit. It is entirely right that the Prime Minister is held to account in this way. That is the role our ancient Parliament plays. When I sit in those summits, often late into the night, I never forget to whom I am accountable, and that my job is to serve this country’s interests.
At the summit on Friday, I strongly believed that an important principle was at stake, and that it was important to stand up for it – even if it meant being isolated, because sometimes it is possible to be isolated and to be right.
The principle was that it is for the European Council – the elected heads of national governments – to propose the president of the European Commission, not to let the European Parliament dictate that choice to them. In the past, this selection was always done by consensus. There was no need to depart from that practice this time, even if the relevant treaties permitted a majority vote. The approach I took wasn’t just my position, or a Conservative position – it was, and is, a British position, shared by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Of course, the result did not go our way. Jean-Claude Juncker has been nominated as the next president of the European Commission, and we will now work with him. He spoke in his campaign of his readiness to address the concerns of the United Kingdom; and his manifesto committed to working for a fair deal with Britain.
If by a fair deal, we can agree that we are not heading, at different speeds, to the same place – as some have assumed up to now – then there is business we can do. I do not oppose further integration within the eurozone: I think it is inevitable. Eurozone members must make those decisions. But I know the British people want no part of it, want to avoid deeper integration, and want our country properly protected from the impacts on the single market of any further integration that the eurozone undertakes.
I am ready to move on and keep fighting for Britain’s interests in Europe. But in the last few days, 3 wrong conclusions have been drawn from this episode that I want to set right.
First, it has been suggested that we now lack allies. That is not the case. Yes, we were on our own with Hungary on this issue – and it was an important one. But aside from the headline news on this appointment, we agreed some important things with other member states at the summit. We made progress on the Council’s mandate for the European Commission for the next 5 years, working with several countries from North, South and East to put trade, jobs and competitiveness up in lights. We agreed that national parliaments should have a stronger role, and that the EU should only act where it makes a real difference. And, importantly, we broke new ground on the issue of “ever closer union”, making clear that the wish of countries like Britain – who do not want to deepen integration – must be respected.
We also negotiated, with support from our allies, explicit recognition – for the first time – that the concerns of the United Kingdom will need to be addressed. It is there in black and white in the European Council’s conclusions, signed up to by all 28 heads of government.
These are steps in the right direction, only achieved by working with our allies in Europe – and I remain completely committed to continuing to do so.
The second wrong conclusion is that our attempt to block this appointment failed because of our strategy; that if the government had followed Mrs Thatcher’s lead, we would have achieved a different result. But we are dealing with a very different European Union to the one in the Eighties. Back then, there were 12 member states – now, there are 28. Back then, the British Prime Minister had a veto over such appointments – now, I don’t.
Of course, if we had been able to veto this appointment, we would have done. But the Nice Treaty, signed in 2001, abolished the veto over the nomination of the Commission President; and then the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, gave the European Parliament the stronger right to elect the nomination.
So we inherited a situation in which we are in real danger of being outvoted. That being the case, I could have either gone with the flow, or stuck my neck out and said what I really thought. I chose the latter.
The third wrong conclusion is that this has been a fatal blow to our renegotiation strategy in Europe; that we might as well give up now.
I do not deny that it has made the task harder and the stakes higher. But it is not in our nature as a country to give up. That is not what we do. When we encounter setbacks, we don’t throw in the towel: we redouble our resolve. The task of reforming Europe and securing Britain’s place in a reformed Europe was always going to be a long and tough campaign – and this is just one battle in that campaign. Along the way, there will be ups and downs, defeats and victories. You don’t turn around a tanker like the EU with ease; this will be tough, and we’ve always known that.
But to those who say “This proves you can’t change anything in Europe”, I would answer – we already have. They said we couldn’t cut the EU budget – we did, for the first time in Britain’s long membership.
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We’re making progress on the single market, and on the free trade deals that are vital to creating jobs and opportunities in Britain. This is real change – and we have achieved it.
As for my personal standing in Europe, this has proved one thing beyond doubt: I do what I say, and I stick to it. Anyone in Europe who thought I was going to back down or blink is now thinking again. It is important that the British people, and our European partners, know that about me, before the negotiations begin in earnest if I am re-elected as Prime Minister.
So as we move on from this episode, what do I take away from it? That the task is hard; and it has got harder. But my determination to succeed, for the sake of Britain and for the sake of Europe, is even greater.
In the European elections, people cried out for change – not just in Britain, but across the Continent. They are intensely frustrated and they deserve a voice. I am determined that Britain will be the voice of these people. I will keep on standing up for our principles, fighting for Britain’s interests, fighting with all I have to reform the EU over the next few years.
And at the end of 2017, it will not be me, our Parliament, or Brussels that decides on Britain’s future in the European Union – it will be the British people.