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The Prime Minister David Cameron gave a press conference at the European Council in Brussels.
Good afternoon and welcome. It has been 24 hours in Brussels with some notable and important successes, but also with some deep frustrations and frankly quite a bit of anger about the way we have been treated.
First of all, let me deal with the good news, because there is good news. In facing Ebola we are facing one of the worst public health emergencies in a generation, and I have been absolutely determined that Britain, with other countries, will lead the way in dealing with this. Dealing with it because there is a massive crisis in West Africa, and we should feel some moral obligation as a wealthy country to help. But also, dealing with it because it directly threatens our national interest and our people in the United Kingdom, and that is why we have taken such a leading role. Britain has already pledged over £205 million; we have British troops going to West Africa; we have British health workers in West Africa and we are using all the resources that we have to help bring this crisis under control.
And we played a leading role here in Europe. I said I wanted to come to this European Council and get other countries in the European Union to more than double the EU effort, to get €1 billion committed. And I can tell you now, at this press conference, that is what we have achieved. Over €1 billion across Europe will be galvanised and spent on dealing with this issue. It is an example of where Britain in Europe can lead on these issues, can demonstrate a leading role in this issue, and can win over others and get things done. Get things done that will be good for Africa, but actually good for us in the United Kingdom as well. It’s a great example where doing the right thing is clearly in the national interest, and shows that our aid budget, when properly used, can be brought absolutely into helping with the national interest.
The second issue has been climate change, where I want to make sure Europe is playing its part in delivering a global deal that can prevent dangerous climate change. I think it was very important that Europe stepped up to the plate, and we have done that, with committing ourselves to more than 40% reductions of greenhouse gases by 2030. But I also think it’s important we try and do this at the least cost: at the least cost to our industries, at the least cost to our consumers and at the least cost to families up and down Britain who don’t want to pay any more on their energy bill than they otherwise should have to. And I believe that is what we have achieved with the deal that was signed yesterday. When these previous deals were done, there were binding targets on renewables, binding sub‑targets, rather than just saying, ‘How do we get greenhouse gases down?’ We’ve not made that mistake this time; we only have one binding target, which is the 40% reduction in greenhouse gases. The other targets about renewables, about energy efficiency, they don’t have any national targets. That is what Britain wanted; that is what Britain has achieved. And once again, I think it shows that we can on these issues in Europe, we can lead, we can win, we can get the right outcome.
That’s the good news. Now for the frustrations. The first is obviously it is frustrating that the European economies aren’t growing faster. We’ve seen Britain’s growth figures out today and it shows broadly based and relatively strong economic growth. We’re now growing at 3% a year. It’s good that construction and manufacturing are showing strong like‑for‑like growth over the last year. We’re building homes, we’re building businesses, we’re making things again in Britain; you can see a strong recovering economy, with an economic plan that is working, and that is putting our people back to work, with almost 1.8 million more people in work than the day I became Prime Minister.
That is very positive. But we have to be frank. There are threats to the British economy, from slow growth in Europe, and challenges in other parts of the world. And so it’s very important to play a role here in encouraging other countries to make the structural reforms that we’ve made, to make sure people set and stick to targets in terms of deficit reduction and make sure that Europe does the key deals in terms of completing the single market and services, signing trade deals with the fastest growing parts of the world, the things that will make a difference to get this continent, to get these economies growing faster, which would be good for them and good for Britain.
That’s the frustration. But that leads me on to frankly the downright anger about something that has come about at this European Council. And that is the completely unjustified and sudden production of a bill for Britain of £1.7 billion, over €2 billion, that is apparently supposed to be paid by 1st December. This is completely unacceptable. It is an unacceptable way for this organisation to work, to suddenly present a bill like this for such a vast sum of money with so little time to pay it, and it is an unacceptable way to treat one of the biggest contributors to the European Union.
That is why this morning I interrupted the Council meeting that was discussing the economy, and said that before we went any further this had to be discussed urgently, and we needed to start to seek a resolution to it urgently. And in that I was supported by the Italian Prime Minister, by the Dutch Prime Minister, by the Maltese Prime Minister, the Greek Prime Minister and others. And so there will be an emergency meeting of finance ministers to discuss what has happened, and I think it’s vital that that happens.
Let me just make a couple of points about this. First of all, now, according to the Commission, it is an estimate; it is not a final figure, and we need to make sure the Commission start answering questions and the experts start answering questions about how on earth these numbers were arrived at. Because let me put it like this, of course in an organisation like this if your economy grows a little faster or your economy grows a little slower there are adjustments and there can be adjustments ever year, and we’ve seen them. Sometimes you pay a little bit more, sometimes you pay a little bit less, but it has never been the case that a €2 billion bill has suddenly been presented. And it is not acceptable, it is an appalling way to behave, I’m not paying that bill on 1 December. If people think I’m going to - then they’ve got another think coming. It is not going to happen.
These emergency meetings need to take place. The figures need to be thoroughly investigated. An explanation of how this happened needs to be properly produced. But people should be in no doubt, as an important contributor to this organisation, we are not suddenly going to get out our cheque book and write a cheque for €2 billion. It is not happening.
Prime Minister, you say you won’t pay for this bill on 1st December. You speak of talks; there may even be legal challenges. Ultimately, if this bill or one similar to it remains on the table do you pay it?
Well we will challenge this in every way possible. We want to check on the way the statistics were arrived at, on the methodology that was used, was it all done correctly, and yes there may indeed be legal challenges.
And I’ve said, look, we’ve been a member of this organisation for a reasonably long time. I’ve been Prime Minister for over 4 years. There have been adjustments when you’ve had to pay a little bit more or some years you – because your economy hasn’t been growing as fast as others, you pay a little bit less. There’s a process of adjustments. But it had never been the case that a €2 billion bill has been presented in this way. And if people think I’m paying that on 1 December, no, that is not happening.
What about later?
Well let’s see what we come up with. I want to see proper meetings take place, emergency talks to happen, go through all these numbers. As I’ve said, we’ve had adjustments in the past – I’m not against adjustments because that has happened. Sometimes we’ve benefited; sometimes we’ve lost. But €2 billion. That is bigger than many countries’ net contributions; it’s bigger than many countries’ gross contributions. It is not an acceptable way to run this organisation and I think that apart from the money, there are quite a lot of lessons to be learnt about the way this organisation goes about things.
Prime Minister, can you tell us when your officials first learnt of this, and how come it was you arrived in Brussels and discovered that Britain was facing a €2 billion bill?
Well I first learnt about this yesterday on Thursday, and immediately started to seek allies, and I found allies in the Italians and the Greeks and Dutch and others, on just how unacceptable this is.
In terms of when the Treasury got this information, it was a little bit earlier in the week. And I think the answer to that is when these sorts of memos come about is that they have to be interrogated, they have to be examined, people have to work out what lies behind them.
And frankly, in 24 hours when we’ve been busy as well dealing with Ebola, dealing with the problems in the eurozone, dealing with climate change, at that time, even though we’ve asked a lot of questions about exactly how these statistics were drawn up, what exact period does this refer to, why is this so much bigger an adjustment than we’ve ever seen before? We’ve not had answers. And I think a number of you have been asking the Commission for answers to these questions and I’m not sure you’ve had satisfactory answers either. I haven’t and I’ll go on asking those questions.
Prime Minister, can you tell us what your understanding at the moment of what the time span for this bill actually is? Four years? 18 years? We’ve seen different figures.
And secondly, in the various committees that have arrived at this conclusion, there had been British representation in the committees and the Council preparing these figures from the Treasury and from [indistinct] here. Why hasn’t the alarm been raised about this sooner?
Well on the period, according to some this is a classic, what’s called a T-minus four, it’s over the previous 4 years. But again, it’s not, at the moment, possible to get out of the European Commission an exact description of how these numbers have been arrived at, and also they are I believe publicly saying that they are estimates.
So I think we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves but I just want to be absolutely clear about 2 things: one, the way this was presented and – last night, in the way that it was, you know – I think it’s an unacceptable way to behave, and secondly the scale of what is being suggested. That somehow – and when you listen to some of the Commission, it’s almost like, ‘Well of course it’s a technical adjustment and that results in this bill but everyone has to pay.’ Well no they don’t, right? We are member of this organisation, we’ve invested in this organisation, we’re a leading player in it and you do not join an association that suddenly thumps you with a bill for €2 billion three weeks before you’ve got to pay it. It is not an acceptable way to behave. And you know, this organisation has got to understand, if it behaves in this way, it shouldn’t get surprised when it’s members say this cannot go on and it’s got to change.
Just to clarify, is it your position that you did not know that these calculations were being carried out at all, and that you believe UK officials were involved in that? And is it not a little bit embarrassing that the Treasury were told about this a few days ago and no one thought to tell you before you got to an EU summit and discovered [indistinct].
Look, on the first point - calculations like this are carried out every year, and adjustments are made every year, and there are important debates every year about the effect that has on the British contribution to the European Union. As I said, some years it means it goes up a little bit; some years it means it goes down a little bit, because it’s about relative growth rates and relative own resources within the EU. And I know that happens and I keep a close contact with this.
On this specific issue, the first that I saw of it was yesterday – Thursday – and my instant reaction was to look at the other countries that are being treated in this way, and to form an alliance with them and put a stop to this European Council so it can be properly discussed and an emergency meeting of finance ministers could be established. And I said, yes, the Treasury had this information a little bit earlier, but I don’t seek to, you know, single people out and say, “Why didn’t you tell me this? Why didn’t you tell me that?” When this information comes in, the first thing they do is try and check it and try and sort it, and I think frankly it’s a bit of a red herring.
You know, you can all do who knew what and when, and all the rest of it, but actually, frankly, it’s pretty – you know, you don’t need to have a Cluedo set to know that someone’s been clubbed with the lead piping in the library. It’s a €2 billion bill; you’ve only got a month to pay it; it gets presented with only a month to go. That is not an acceptable way to behave, and it is not an acceptable sum of money. It is a vast sum of money.
And that is what makes me so angry about it, is when you listen to some in the Commission, how they talk about it, “Oh, well it’s an adjustment. You just have to pay this bill. That’s the way it goes: sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down.” This is taxpayers’ money. These are the people who employ me. These are the people who give me my job. I represent them, and I want value for every penny that they have to give in their taxes. And to be a member of an organisation that suddenly says, “Right, €2 billion; I want it in a month’s time” – the British public find that totally unacceptable, and so do I.
When you learn something like this, does it make you wonder whether people in Brussels actually are serious about keeping Britain in the EU? I mean, this is a gift to UKIP, isn’t it?
There are still things that surprise you in this job -I thought the Italian Prime Minister put it as well as anybody when he said, I think, in the meeting – and I’ll probably get in trouble for quoting him, but he’s such a reasonable man, I’m sure he won’t mind. He said, “You know, people have got to understand: this isn’t a figure: this is a lethal weapon.” That was the first thing he said. And then he said, “And when people produce a lethal weapon like this, don’t they understand, it leads to people across Europe think that the – thinking that the European Commission consists of technocrats and bureaucrats without a heart or a soul.” That is what the Italian Prime Minister said, and I agree with every word of it.
Thank you Prime Minister. Doesn’t this bill make it more likely that Britain will vote to leave the EU, if and when we get to the referendum that you promised?
Well, it certainly doesn’t help. Let’s put it like that. I think there is a strong case for Britain being involved in the European Union, if we can reform it in the way that I’ve set out, and I’ve given some examples today. We’ve marshalled €1 billion of aid to tackle the Ebola crisis that threatens us back at home. Could we have done that if we weren’t in the European Union?
We could have banged at the door and said, “Here’s our money, will you chip in a bit?” But I was round the table, looking them in the eye, saying, “We have ponied up in Britain. We’ve put our money on the table. We’re sending our health workers. We’ve got the medevac. We’re sending our troops. What are you guys going to do?” Right? And I point out that companies like Ikea are giving more money than some countries in the European Union. And being able to make that point means that you can actually win over money and support, and get things done that make a difference.
Same with climate change. We may not agree with every aspect of this, but the fact is, it is good that Europe’s making a contribution to getting greenhouse gases down, but it’s doing it not on the basis of setting extra targets that will cost consumers money. So again, success.
But when you’re presented with a bill like this, with a month to go, is that helpful for Britain’s membership of the European Union? No, it certainly is not. But that’s why I want to address it so directly and so frankly, because we’ve got to sort this out.
I have a question looking forward to next year. After that frustration today, what do you think about the budget for next year? Have you had a chance to start discussions?
There wasn’t much discussion of the budget – the European budget for next year, and it’s caught up in discussions of endless amending budgets for this year. And while I feel a frustration about that, actually, we need to stand back and ask ourselves, ‘Why is – why are the debates on the budget so tough at the moment in Europe?’ And the reason is because we successfully – through the multi‑annual financial framework, we successfully cut the overall amount of money that is available for European budgets between 2014 and 2020.
So for the first time, the European Union is having to cut its cloth according to what it’s got, and that’s because of the move that I led with Angela Merkel and others to reduce the size of the EU budget at a time when we were making difficult decisions back at home. So what matters most of all with the 2015 budget – or indeed 2016, 2017 budgets – what matters most of all is we do not breach the limit that we set: 908.4, I believe it was, from that negotiation. And that is – what I will be absolutely vigilant about is whatever they do, moving money from one year to the next and trying to – what matters is, the budget cut that we announced, that we negotiated with much pain and difficulty, that budget cut will be delivered.
Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for coming. See you at the December European Council.