The Prime Minister’s press conference at European Council on 20 December 2013.
Well, good afternoon and welcome to the last European Council meeting of 2013. This European Council has focused on 3 issues: defence, economic and monetary union, and third, enlargement and association agreements. Let me just say a few words on each of those.
First, on defence: protecting our national security is a first priority for all of us as national leaders, and for the UK (let me be clear) NATO has been and will remain the bedrock of our national defence. Of course it is right for European nation states to cooperate on defence issues and, let us also be clear, the UK is always in the vanguard when European allies ask for our practical help. We were the first to offer President Hollande support in Mali, and we’ve already completed 3 C17 airlifts for French troops and kit in the Central African Republic. And the EU’s counter-piracy mission off the horn of Africa is co-ordinated out of our command centre in Britain.
But there is an important principle here. Defence issues, ultimately about war and peace and a nation’s armed forces, must be driven by nations themselves on a voluntary basis, according to their own priorities and needs, not by some Brussels diktat about grand union ambitions. The European Union’s principle focus should be on boosting economic growth and creating jobs, not fantasising about getting its own army or defence equipment.
Now the European Commission’s proposal on defence, published in July, explicitly suggested EU kit. They called for work on, and I quote, ‘EU owned dual use capabilities and a proposal to explore how capability needs could best be fulfilled by assets directly purchased, owned and operated by the Union.’ It was important for national leaders to be clear on this issue. Co-operation between nation states, yes. EU assets and EU headquarters, no. And I have made sure this is clear in the conclusions that we’ve agreed today. 8 more references to member states, 5 more references to NATO.
And we have removed references to Europe’s armed forces; to an EU pooled acquisition mechanism for new capabilities, and to EU assets and fleets. And on equipment such as drones and air-to-air refuelling tankers we have made absolutely clear that these capabilities are owned and operated by member states. The European Council position is clear: it is nations, not EU institutions, that are in the driving seat of defence and that is the way it should always stay.
There were also important discussions on the future of the Eurozone, and measures to strengthen economic and monetary union. As I’ve said many times before; we’re not in the Eurozone, we’ll not be joining the euro. But it is in our interest to have a strong and stable single currency. We support efforts to achieve that as long as Britain’s interests are protected. So my priority at this council was to ensure that as part of these discussions it’s absolutely clear there can be no financial liability for Britain, whether in banking union or any future Euro area mechanism of loans or guarantees for Eurozone countries, just as we got Britain out of the EU Eurozone bailout mechanism. It is not our banking union, so we should not be paying for it.
That is what I’ve achieved. The conclusions make clear there will be no obligations on countries not participating in these areas. These conclusions also reiterate the importance of making the EU more competitive, completing the single market and cutting red tape for business.
Leaders have also agreed to build on my G8 agenda with an explicit commitment to agree further measures on tax transparency as swiftly as possible. A small number of countries in the EU have been blocking the automatic exchange of information for more than a decade. Because of what we’ve agreed today, that is coming to an end.
One further point: the measures on the table for the Eurozone – while not applying in any way to Britain, are far reaching. They involve nations agreeing contracts with the European Commission and the council that would bind them to a wide range of economic reforms, and in return those countries would also agree to provide financial support for fellow Eurozone members when required. Now, this will obviously mean much deeper integration, and ultimately I believe as others do, and indeed have said in recent days that this will require treaty change. As I said back in January I believe we do need a new EU treaty, and as part of that I’m determined to improve the UK’s relationship with the EU and then to give the British people their say on the membership of a reformed European Union.
Finally, this morning we took stock of the EU’s enlargement process and the association agreements. I support enlargement; I believe it’s one of the EU’s greatest strengths. The prospect of EU membership has proved a huge driver for peace and prosperity and progress across our continent. But we have to accept that the EU of today is very different to the European Community of 50 years ago. The EU’s founding fathers simply did not envisage that the accession of new countries would trigger mass population movements across our continent.
So as we contemplate countries like Serbia or Albania one day joining the EU, we must find a way to slow down full access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure this will not cause vast migrations. That is the point I made to fellow leaders today; we need to return the principle of free movement to a more sensible basis and make it clear that it cannot be a completely unqualified right. We must return it to what the EU first envisaged; the free movement of workers ready to work hard and get on in life, not the free movement of those after the best benefit deal.
That is not just my view; at the recent meeting of interior ministers Germany, Austria and the Netherlands made clear that we need to find a better approach to tackle free movement abuse. So I look forward to continuing these discussions next year and finding a way to continue with enlargement but in a way that regains the trust and the support of our peoples.
On Ukraine and association agreements, the mood of the meeting, I thought, was very clear. We backed the aspiration of the Ukrainian people for a democratic and European future, while being clear that their leader should stand up for those people’s aspirations. On Syria, finally, as we may be looking forward to festive celebrations at Christmas, we should remember the millions of Syrians in desperate humanitarian need. These are people without shelter or food, facing a daily onslaught of bombs and bullets. We’ve agreed that the European Union will make a strong stand to urgently improve access for aid agencies inside Syria, and I made clear that all European countries need to step up and provide support to help alleviate this humanitarian crisis. The United Kingdom is the leading European bilateral donor, spending more than the next 5 largest European donors combined. I do believe it is time for others to assume their responsibilities in the way that we have done ourselves.
Thank you very much; happy to take some questions, starting here.
Prime Minister, just picking up on what you’ve just been saying about freedom of movement; rather than just talking about curbs on the benefits that might be available to newcomer – European citizens coming to Britain, it would appear that you’re questioning the fundamental principle of freedom of movement. Could you enlarge on that a little bit? And you – presumably you mean this would only apply to new accession countries, not to any of the existing 28, when in fact there’s actually no prospect of anybody else joining for probably at least a decade.
Let me make 3 points in response to that. I mean, first of all, I think it is important that we get our rules in place on things like benefits to make them as robust as they possibly can be. That is why we’ve looked at all of the legal advice, we’ve looked around Europe at what others do and that is why we’re putting in place the changes that I set out in my Financial Times article. And we brought forward some of those changes so that they’re coming in faster. That’s the point on benefits.
On the point on new countries. Look, when a new country joins the European Union you’re able to put in place transition controls. The point I’m making is when that happens we need to look very hard about what sort of transitional controls we put in place. And as I argued in that FT article, it may be necessary to look at new mechanisms such as the percentage of GDP they attend or the weights of wages because what I don’t want to see is what has happened in the past. We’ve had these vast movements of people that I just don’t think have the support of our publics back at home, and indeed, in some cases I don’t think necessarily have been brilliant for the countries concerned.
The third point I’d make is on the issue of free movement. I don’t think that the status quo really reflects, as I said in my remarks, what was originally put in place. That it was meant to be about movement to go and, you know, take on a job that was – that you could apply for. It was not about free movement for benefit tourism; it was not about free movement for people who don’t have the means to support themselves. So we do need to re-examine this area, and I think it’s important that we do that now, but it’s also something we can look at in the renegotiation process as well.
Prime Minister you’ve been very clear in saying you don’t want the Commission to come forward with binding legal restrictions on fracking. The Commission has now said it’s not minded to introduce any such legislation. Why is that important and how happy are you with that outcome?
Well I think this is – if this is – I haven’t seen all of the facts and figures about this. But if this has happened it is a good result. I wrote to every European Union president and prime minister. I’ve been in contact regularly with the Commission about this.
I was just very worried that we’re already behind on fracking and unconventional gas compared to America and we’d fall even further behind if we had more legal processes to go through, including EU processes. I mean, the figures comparing what happens in Europe with what happens in the US in terms of the numbers of wells that have been dug – something like 10,000 in the US compared to 100 in the EU, even though we probably have 3 quarters as much unconventional gas – are very worrying.
So it’s a good step forward. I think we want to make sure we can access this low cost energy source. It could mean 70,000 jobs or more for people in the UK, as well as helping to keep the bills of individuals down, but also helping to make us more competitive as a location for investment. So good news today, we’ve got to follow through on that and make sure that this industry can really go ahead.
Prime Minister, in relation to free movement, most of the plans you’re talking about relate, as we’ve just heard, to the future, perhaps 10 years down the road. Isn’t it the case in relation to Bulgaria and Romania, there is in fact very little that you can do to influence the numbers who might come in the next year?
Well I don’t really accept that. I think it is important in advance of that event on 1 January, to make sure we’ve put in place all of the right controls and measures that we can. And that is what I’ve said. I’ve scoured Europe for what other countries do and I’ve checked all of the legal positions and pushed them as hard as I could so that we make absolutely clear and send a very clear signal that while there is free movement to come and get a job, there is not free movement to come and claim, and I think that is very important.
Look, I think we should learn the lessons of history. I think that the mistake the last government made of giving unfettered immediate access to UK labour markets to Poland and Hungry and the Baltic states in one go, I think, was a huge mistake. You know, people simply didn’t envisage that something like 1 and a half million people were going to move across Europe because that step was taken.
So the first thing I did – one of the first things I did as Prime Minister was to extend the transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria to the maximum amount from 5 years to 7 years, now we’ve put in place these other measures as well. We’ve done what we are able to do within the law, and it think that’s the right approach. But to say that these won’t make any difference I don’t think is true at all. If they weren’t going to make any difference why on earth would people like Commissioner Andor have been making such a fuss about them?
You talk about limiting free movement because of the dangers of benefit tourism; what figures are you basing your assumptions about benefit tourism on?
Well we don’t have nearly good enough figures on benefit tourism or indeed on any forms of welfare tourism. We’ve seen some very interesting figures recently on the NHS, but it’s been a struggle actually to get departments really to examine exactly what the costs and what the numbers are. The second point I make is, obviously, when it comes to the issue with Romania and Bulgaria, part of this is about sending a very clear signal that not only – you know, of course people are able to come and work, but they shouldn’t assume they are able to come and claim. I wanted to put that in black and white, with a new set of rules, with a new set of restrictions in place.
Last point I make is we also need to examine some of these benefit issues. I absolutely do not think that it is right for instance that people can come and work in the UK with their families at home but getting UK level child benefit back in their original country. That seems to me – and I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks this is particularly fair – that seems to me to be wrong and we need to change that. Now, when you’re trying to change things in Europe it takes time, it takes negotiation, it takes legal challenges, it takes renegotiation; it takes all of these things. But I think what I’ve demonstrated is that we’ve got the will power and the energy and the effort to do it.
Thank you Prime Minister. Many people were appalled this morning to hear the radical preacher Anjem Choudary interviewed on the Today programme. Do you think it was appropriate for the BBC to give this man airtime the day after the verdict was brought in the Lee Rigby trial?
Well first of all, let’s be clear about Anjem Choudary. He does have absolutely despicable and appalling views. It’s the sort of absolutely classic case of that poisonous narrative of extremism and violence that we need to confront and defeat. Now that should mean confronting and defeating it by demonstrating just how – just what a minority approach it is, just how few people agree with it, just how appalling the consequences of what he believes really are. And so I think it’s actually important that we make sure that these views are properly examined and then, you know, properly trashed and destroyed for all to see.
As for scheduling responsibilities, that belongs to the BBC. The only point that I’d make is that his views do not reflect the mainstream of British Muslims. He is a minority of a minority of a minority, and I think he should be treated appropriately.
Prime Minister, can I ask you about what happened in London at the Apollo Theatre last night, do you think we need to invest more in these historic buildings? And can I also ask if Team Nigella is relieved that the court case is now over?
On the second question I think I’ve probably said enough about this issue so I will plead the fifth on that one.
On the Apollo Theatre, I mean, this clearly was an absolutely appalling event. I was following it on the internet on my mobile devices and everything else I could get hold of while I was in the council meeting last night and keeping in close touch with my team. And it was clearly an absolutely appalling event. From what I can see, the emergency services and other services actually responded brilliantly and did a fantastic job. I’m sure there will be lessons to learn from what happened and we need to make sure those are properly learnt and properly examined, and I’m sure they will be.
Just coming back to the free movement issue, could you tell me what sort of response you got to your proposals, looking ahead to the longer-term discussion, and perhaps renegotiation of the issue? And I’d like to know where you stand on opening up – agreeing that Albania become a candidate for EU membership; the Dutch parliament, for example, has voted against this. And will Britain be supporting the notion of Albania as a candidate country?
First of all, on Albania: we are not currently supporting a move to candidate status. You have to remember with the EU there are a lot of steps before you become a member. I think, with Albania – and I met the Albanian Prime Minister, who’s making a lot of efforts at reform in his country. I think there are quite a lot of steps that need to be taken before candidate status would become appropriate. I think we should use these steps genuinely to encourage countries to put in place measures against corruption, measures against organised crime, measures in favour of proper legal practices, rule of law. You know, this is the opportunity, as I said, that the accession process into the EU can be a very good development policy, and we should make sure that applies in the case of Albania. What I’ve said is that I remain in favour of enlarging the EU; I think it’s been a successful policy. But as we look to the future clearly I don’t want us to repeat the big movements of population that we’ve seen in the past, and so we need to look at transitional controls in a new way.
Now, we’ve only just started these discussions with other member states. I would make the point that when it comes to new accessions, actually, this is decided in unanimity, and so they don’t happen unless everybody agrees, and so you do have a real opportunity, irrespective of treaty change – and I’m interested in treaty change in this area – irrespective of treaty change to insist on a different approach. As I said, I think we have to learn the lessons of history. Enlargement has been a success, transitional controls have been a success. It has not been successful when countries haven’t applied transitional controls, and as I’m arguing we need to go one step further and look at more robust transitional controls in the future, as I set out in that FT article.
The French President, François Hollande, said that your concerns on defence, were fake or false. The European Commission document that you mentioned also does talk about the sovereignty of member states. It doesn’t talk about a European army. Is he correct?
And secondly, you mentioned that NATO’s the bedrock of European defence; why on earth couldn’t the other European leaders put that in the Council’s conclusions?
Well first of all – I mean, on that latter question of course there are some members of the EU who aren’t members of NATO, and you always have to remember that, and our conclusions are agreed by unanimity. But NATO now runs through those conclusions like the words on a stick of rock and they didn’t before I got going on them.
On this question though; was this some sort of false debate? Absolutely not. You know, there’s no doubt in my mind. You’ve just got to compare the conclusions we had before I started to change them. And also look back at that document; it might well have said some good things about nation states, but it also talked about jointly-owned assets and EU assets and the rest of it.
And frankly I’ve been doing this job – coming here to the European Council – for long enough to know that these words matter, this stuff we sign up to. And if you take your eye off the ball and allow through a sentence that says this or says that then – you know, these conclusions – I sometimes wonder what happens to these EU conclusions: is it like the, sort of, you know, complaints department at some companies? Do they sort of go and sit in a dusty room and never get looked at again? No they don’t; they become part of the text of this organisation. So you need to be very careful to make sure you’re clear about what you mean. And I’m very clear about what I mean.
Co-operation with other member states to improve our security: absolutely yes. Working together with other members to deal with piracy, to deal with broken states, to deal with cyber-attacks: absolutely yes. As sovereign states, that’s a sensible thing for us to do, always making sure we’re not duplicating with NATO and wasting money: absolutely vital. Making sure NATO remains the prime organisation for Britain’s defence: absolutely yes. But we shouldn’t be looking at, you know, EU owned drones or tanker fleets or anything like that. And we need to be very careful to write this down in language that people can see that that’s not being contemplated. So, this was not some sort of false debate; it’s important to lay these things down in black and white, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.
But let me just make the point, in the spirit of Anglo-French cooperation: I absolutely agree with François Hollande that we need to work together to increase our capabilities and capacities, and the exciting prospect about Britain and France doing that together, doing that bilaterally. And I think that is completely consistent with the belief in the importance of the nation state as the key actor in terms of defence.
Britain and France are similar-sized countries, we have similar-sized armed forces, we have similar types of roles and ambitions in the world; we both see that link between our domestic prosperity and being active players on the global stage to make sure that there’s a system of world rules for trade, that we don’t suffer from broken states, that we cope with problems like cyber-crime, that we deal with terrorism.
So, François Hollande and I will be looking in detail, at what more we can do to put flesh on the bones of the Lancaster House Agreement about real defence co-operation. Because obviously if we do more with our French allies and partners then we’ll be able to make our defence budgets go further, we’ll be able to have better equipment, we’ll be able to run that equipment better, we’ll be able to have a greater impact.
So, there is a real role for some enthusiastic working with European allies, but I think it’s best when you do that bilaterally with the French, as I’ve said, who have similar ambitions and similar capabilities to ours. There is no hesitation in making the most of what we’ve got, but let’s be clear: EU assets, EU drones and planes and the rest of it – some of which were being floated – I think it’s very important to be clear that’s not on the agenda.
Thank you very much, and can I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy festive period? Thank you.