Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga: PM press conference

David Cameron gave a press conference at the Eastern Partnership Summit.

Houses of Parliament

Good afternoon. It’s good to be back in Riga and at another EU summit.

I had 2 clear priorities here. First, to demonstrate our support for, and our solidarity with, the EU’s eastern neighbours. And second, to start to discuss with other leaders here how we can change the UK’s relationship with the EU to address the concerns of the British people.

I want to say a few words on each.

Eastern Partnership

This is our first Eastern Partnership summit since the crisis in Ukraine. What has happened there challenges our shared values and our common sense of security. And it underlines the importance of standing by our eastern neighbours.

We strongly support their independent and sovereign right to determine their own futures. And we want to help them build a better future for their people.

That means creating jobs and growth by opening up their economies - and seizing the potential of trading with the world’s largest single market. It means tackling corruption and strengthening the rule of law. And it means transparent and accountable governance that serves the public interest, not vested interests.

That’s why I set up the Good Governance fund and I can announce today that the UK will invest almost £3.5 million in 10 projects in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

These initiatives will help to improve the business environment, help to encourage investment, help to strengthen a free and independent media, and support judicial reform.

Our approach will be driven, of course, by the aspirations of people in these countries.

But these countries having strong successful economies and strong and successful governments is in our national interest too.

It is not about competing with Russia. It is not about forcing our Eastern partners to make a choice between their neighbours. It is about standing up for the values that led countries like Latvia to independence 25 years ago and to greater success.

These are the values we have always fought for and that we cherish, and that which underpin our own society and our prosperity.


That has been the main business of the summit. But it has also been an opportunity to start to talk to leaders about how we can reform the EU and the UK’s relationship with it.

Britain benefits from having access to the world’s largest single market. And as a member of the EU we can get things done on issues that we care about – a greener environment, tackling poverty and standing up for democracy and the values we cherish.

But we need to address the concerns of the British people. They are not happy with the status quo. And frankly neither am I. There’s the concern that we are being driven towards an ever closer union: that may be what some others want but that is not for us. There’s the unnecessary and burdensome EU rules that hold some of our businesses back and stopping them from seizing the enormous potential of the single market. And there’s the concern of course – that I fully share – about the huge increase in people migrating to the UK from Europe and fear that we can do nothing to address this.

But I believe we can find a way through all of these problems. I believe that we can transform our relationship with Europe for the better. And that is what I have now embarked upon.

Today I held discussions with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and leaders from Poland, Sweden, Hungary and Latvia. Next week I will meet with President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, I’ll hold talks with the President of the European Commission and I’ll be visiting other European capitals too.

I don’t expect to find agreed solutions straight away. As I said this morning these talks will require patience and tenacity. There will be a lot of ups and downs along the way. But by working together in the right spirit and sticking at it, I believe we can reform the EU and our relationship with it.

And then the British people will have the final say in an in/out referendum. They will decide. But I want to give them a proper choice: staying in a reformed European Union, or leaving it. And that is why these negotiations, these talks, which are really just starting to scratch the surface today, are so important.


Have you secured a discussion of your renegotiation agenda for the June EU summit? Noises from French and German politicians suggesting that treaty reform is not on the agenda?

Prime Minister

Ok, first of all on future summits, this issue is going to be discussed and how we make these reforms are in Britain’s interest and I would argue in the Europe’s interests too. I think they’ll be discussed every time we’re together. We’re here at a Riga summit really to talk about the Eastern Partnership and these discussions have got going and I’m confident about discussing them and making progress and I want to make early progress, so the sooner we get on with this the better.

In terms of noises, as you put, it from other countries. I made this prediction this morning and I’ll make it again. You are going to hear lots of noise over the coming weeks and months. You’re going to hear one day that this is possible and the next it’s completely impossible. You’re going to hear the Germans say no and the French say yes. You’re going to hear loads of stuff and I’m not going to negotiate in public or through the media. I’m going to get on with the job, get my head down and have these discussions and deliver. As for the noises, you’ll have plenty to report. You’ll be able to do a report on Europe every day, twice a day, many more. But my advice would be a bit like the election really – wait for the result.


How confident are you of actually getting a deal? We’re hearing positive noises from EU leaders today but are they going to fight you every step of the way on the detail?

Prime Minister

I’m confident because I think in the end it’s in everyone’s interest. Britain benefits from being in a reformed EU but I think a reformed EU will benefit from having Britain in it. We are a net contributor to Europe. The second largest economy in Europe. We’re the leading military power in Europe. We’ve got the largest network of diplomatic embassies in Europe. We have the biggest aid programme in Europe; think of what that can bring to this crisis we’re facing in the Mediterranean. So it’s not just that Britain wants changes in Europe. What Britain wants – I think Europe would like Britain to stay in a reformed Europe because of what Britain brings. So I’m confident.

It’s not going to be easy, these are difficult problems we are grappling. Britain’s not happy, I’m not happy with the concept of ever closer union, it’s not really what we joined and signed up for so let’s sort that out. I’m not happy that the single market is properly safeguarded, when you’ve got the countries of the Eurozone having to move towards greater integration, let’s sort that out. I’m not happy with the situation with regards the scale of migration and the interaction between migration and welfare, let’s sort that out. Is it possible to do this? Yes, of course it is but we need to get our heads down, get on with it, have these discussions, have a negotiation and bring them towards a successful conclusion, that’s what this is going to be about.


You’ve wasted no time in introducing into a Summit that is about something else entirely. Are you in a hurry, do you really want to get this referendum done next year?

Prime Minister

Well, I’ve set a date for the referendum so it must be done by the end of 2017. Obviously if we can achieve progress before then that would be good. But I’ve always thought it will take time. But I’m not coming here today trying to sort of usurp a Summit that’s about Eastern Partnership for my own gains, I came here to sign up to this important communique and to give it the great support that Britain has given to our Eastern partners. When it comes to support for Ukraine I’d argue actually that Britain has done as much as any other country. When it comes to standing up to Russia and being very clear about the need for tough sanctions, we’ve really led the way on that. But obviously it makes sense that while they are in the Summit like this and there are opportunities to have conversations with other Prime Ministers and Presidents, to have those conversations, which is what we’ve done. But it will take time – so don’t think it will be wrapped up in super quick time, it won’t - these are complicated issues, it will take time, but better to make a start. But I’d say today was not the start of detailed negotiations, its about making a start. Set out the issues, have those conversations and try to explain what it is you want to achieve.


Is it a possibility that you could get these reforms within a year? And secondly if I may, do you share any of the concerns of the Business Secretary on extremism?

Prime Minister

On the second question, I haven’t seen this memo or whatever it is, I can’t really comment. All I know is I think our proposals on extremism are sensible and you know, I think need to be put into place. And we’ve of course got a role actually to make sure we don’t broadcast extremist messages through our media as well.

In terms of how long this is going to take, look this is the danger of process stories about this every day. If I sound confident, you’ll rush off and say it’s going to be very quick, if I sound worried about it, you’ll say oh, it’s all going to take terribly long. Well I mean that’s your job I suppose but I’d say, so far we’ve had bad news from the French and then good news from the French it underlines my point that there’s going to be a lot of noise, some of it from the French and some of it from other leaders and ditto on timings.

So what I’ve said is I’ve set a deadline of 2017. Whatever happens I’m keen for us to get on with the process of these discussions but I’m not going to get into timelines and deadlines and a running commentary.


When it comes to reform, do you expect every minister in your government to pull rank and campaign?

Prime Minister

We’ve got a very clear government policy, which is the whole government is behind the process of renegotiation, which is a referendum, based on that a successful outcome, which is what everybody has signed up to.


Do you detect any irritation [inaudible] from other leaders and does it matter at the end of this process if we’ve got fewer friends. And you’re pretty clear you want our system to discriminate against EU workers, EU leaders seem pretty categorical that it musn’t?

Prime Minister

First of all on the irritation factor, I’m not going to pretend I was met with a wall of love, but I met lots of people who are very excited about our election results and congratulated me and say what an important job we can do together. The way Europe works is that if a country has a problem or a difficulty, you should be able to put it on the table and talk about it. When Germany had difficulties with the way the Eurozone was working, you know, there have been treaty changes brought forward and treaty changes agreed and changes have been made and my argument is that Britain is a similar position, we have some serious problems with the way the current European settlement works and the dangers of the single market being overrun by the single currency, problems we have with an ever closer union, we have difficulties with this mass migration movement and the interaction of welfare and migration. These are serious problems and we should be able to be address them.

So look. I don’t think - I’m sure that there are many other things that Europe needs to discuss, but my sense is that if the British Prime Minister set out a very clear set of things that he wants to discuss, we had an election in Britain in which that approach has received the mandate of the British people, then these issues should be discussed. I don’t sense any issues or problems there. On welfare, I just simply believe it must be possible to make reforms that chime with common sense, that you should have to pay into the system before you get out. That if you come and work in Britain when your family stays at home you shouldn’t be able to suddenly have very high levels of child benefit meant to meet the costs of a family living in Britain. These are common sense issues that Europe must be able to address if they are a concern of a major member of the EU. I’m confident we can do that and I think we’ve made a reasonable start today.


You’re talking about changes to the EU, but when will you be concrete about what you want to change, I think that’s what everyone is waiting for.

Prime Minister

Well I just had an election where we set out in our manifesto the changes that we want to see. They are all there in black and white. In terms of changes to the ever closer union, the changes about the single market I’ve spoken about, the system we want to see so that national Parliaments can get together and make their suggestions that legislation shouldn’t go ahead, and of course these vital changes to welfare. So I think I’ve set them out in a number of speeches, that’s all in the manifesto. And what I’ve found is that other leaders in Europe have seen what these issues are and I’ve given some added clarity to that and I’m sure there’s more that we can say in the weeks to come.


I understand you’ve met with some leaders today, some very concerned about curtailing freedom of movement, how are you going to get them on board?

Prime Minister

Well I’ve had some good discussions with the Prime Minister from Latvia, discussions with the Polish Prime Minister this morning and I’m going to Poland too to have further discussions. I’m very clear that there’s two issues here - there’s the issue of the freedom of people to go and take a job in another European country and many British people take the opportunity to go and work in other European Union countries, and many people in Europe take the opportunity to come and work in Britain. It’s not so much about that, it’s the interaction of that with the welfare system, and the very generous way that you can access our welfare system and our in-work benefits almost on day one of arriving in Britain and I quoted the figures yesterday, when talking about immigration that, as well as people from Europe coming to take a job here, there were some people - like last year almost 90,000 – just coming to seek for work in Britain.

And it seems to me that the welfare changes are so significant when we’re looking at those sorts of numbers. So I think this is the sort of thing that needs to change. I don’t think it was the intention of free movement that the movement would be on this scale. It’s perhaps as many as one out of nine, out of ten or even out of eight, Lithuanians who live in Britain. A very big scale movement, far bigger than anyone intended and the figures yesterday prove it’s still a huge issue in Britain so we need to address it. And this is the right way to do that.


The one thing you’ve set out very clearly is what you’d like to see in terms of welfare reform, taking away people’s access to benefits for 4 years and rejecting people who come to Britain who don’t find work within 6 months. You also said those things are not for negotiation. So if you don’t get those specific things from the 28 countries, 27 others, will you recommend Britain leaves the European Union?

Prime Minister

Well what I’ve said is that I am confident. You know I’ve set out the areas of change which I think address the main concerns that the British people have, that I have about Europe in a way that works. I’m confident of getting those changes. I’ve tried to aim at things that are deliverable and doable rather than the things that are impossible. But I’ve always said if I don’t get what I think we need, I rule nothing out and I mean exactly what I say. You start negotiations confident that you will deliver what needs to be delivered, and that’s in the spirit of which I approach this. I feel, coming here after an election and starting the process, people can see that the British public has had a big debate about this issue, my proposals were very clearly set out in the manifesto – the approach of a renegotiation and a referendum. I feel they have the backing of the British people so I come here not having to clear things with coalition partners, I’ve got the British people at my back, backing this approach. Let’s sort this out, let’s get this deal, let’s have this referendum and let the British people decide. And that’s the way it should be. I think underlining all of this is the fundamental issue of trust. The people of Britain feel you know, we’ve had all of these changes, all of these treaties, we had Nice and Amsterdam and Lisbon, you’ve got to be 58 or something to have had a choice in Britain, to have actually voted for whether you want to be in this organisation or not, and it’s time for people to have that choice again. I want to give them the very best possible choice, not a choice of the status quo or leaving, because they don’t think the status quo is acceptable - neither do I – so let’s change the status quo, get a better deal, put that on the table, then the British public decide. That’s the right process and it’s what I look forward to following.

Thank you very much indeed.

Published 20 May 2015