Speech

European Council October 2016: Prime Minister's press statement

Prime Minister Theresa May gave a statement about the subjects covered in the European Council meeting: Brexit, migration, Russia and trade.

Good afternoon everyone. I am pleased to be here at my first European Council.

It has been an opportunity to talk to all 27 leaders about the UK’s departure from the EU. To make clear that Britain will continue to play a full and active role inside the EU until we leave. And to also make clear that Britain will be a confident, outward-looking country, enthusiastic about co-operating with our European friends and allies, after we leave.

At this Council, we’ve talked about working together to address the root causes of mass migration, ensuring a robust European stance in the face of Russian aggression and championing free trade around the world.

And of course the UK remains committed to trading freely with our European neighbours, and co-operating with them on matters including law enforcement and counter-terrorism.

Let me say a few words about the subjects we’ve covered over the last 2 days.

Brexit

The UK is leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe – and we are not turning our backs on our friends and allies.

While we have not yet formally started the exit negotiations, here at this summit I have been clear that my aim is to cement Britain as a close partner of the EU once we have left.

Yes, the United Kingdom will be a fully independent, sovereign country, free to make our own decisions on a whole host of different issues such as how we choose to control immigration.

But we still want to trade freely – in goods and services – with Europe. And the UK will continue to face similar challenges to our European neighbours. We will continue to share the same values. And so I want a mature, co-operative relationship with our European partners.

I recognise the scale of the challenge ahead. I am sure there will be difficult moments. It will require some give and take.

But I firmly believe that if we approach this in a constructive spirit – as I am – then we can deliver a smooth departure and build a powerful new relationship that works both for the UK and for the countries of the EU – looking for opportunities, not problems.

That is in British interests. And it is in the interests of all of our European partners too.

Migration

Turning to other issues, we have also discussed what more we can do to respond to the migration crisis.

From the outset, the UK has called for a comprehensive approach which addresses the root causes of migration.

Here in Brussels, I reiterated the case I made at the UN for a new global approach to migration based on 3 fundamental principles – ensuring refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach; improving the way we distinguish between refugees and economic migrants; and recognising that all countries have the right to control their borders and that all countries must commit to accepting the return of their own nationals when they have no right to remain elsewhere.

It includes working more closely with source and transit countries and here we have agreed to do more to help these countries prevent illegal migration and to return migrants who have no right to stay in EU countries.

Alongside this, the UK will continue to provide practical support to our European partners, whether that is deploying specialist staff to Greece to help them process individual cases or maintaining our naval presence in the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

And on that subject, I can announce today that HMS Echo will take over from HMS Enterprise on operations in the Central Mediterranean early next year.

Russia

It was thanks to the UK that Russian action in Syria was on the agenda for this summit.

I argued, along with Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and others for a robust and united message calling on the Syrian regime and Russia to stop their attacks on Aleppo and making clear that the EU will consider all options if the atrocities continue.

And that is what we have agreed.

It is vital that we keep up the pressure on Russia to stop the assault on Aleppo and to create the space for a genuine political transition in Syria.

In the meantime we will continue to do all we can to help alleviate the horrific suffering of the Syrian people.

Today in Geneva, the UK has secured an extraordinary session of the UN Human Rights Council to press for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian access to Aleppo.

There are millions of innocent civilians trapped there and in other besieged locations across Syria in desperate need of food, shelter and healthcare.

The UK is already the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor to this crisis. And if we can secure the access needed to Aleppo and other besieged areas, we stand ready to accelerate over £23 million of aid for the UN to distribute on the ground to help the most vulnerable in the hardest-to-reach parts of Syria.

Trade

Finally, this morning we have discussed trade.

The UK has long been one of the strongest advocates in Europe for free trade. And we will continue to be so. Indeed, I want the UK to become more active, not less, in making the case for free trade around the world.

That means that while we remain a member of the EU, the UK will continue to back the EU’s free trade negotiations.

And, as we prepare to leave the EU, I have been clear that the UK is discussing our future trading relationships with third countries.

This will not undermine the EU’s trade agenda. It is not even in competition with it: we will continue to help the EU reach these important trade agreements.

It is about seizing the opportunities of Brexit and about forging an ambitious and optimistic new role for Britain in the world.

And as we do that, we will work to make sure that more people benefit from free trade and, through that and through our other reforms, we can build an economy and a country that works, not just for the privileged few, but for everyone.

Questions

Question

Prime Minister, I believe as we speak 8 Russian naval warships are sailing past Dover, unhindered and unencumbered, on their way to Syria to potential join and increase the slaughter and carnage. Though you have achieved something at this summit, would you like to have achieved perhaps a little bit more in terms of increasing the pressure on Russia than is in the communiqué now?

Prime Minister

I think we had a very good discussion in relation to Russia and its actions in Syria, and through the impact that we’re seeing from the bombing – indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Aleppo, but obviously also the atrocities that we’ve seen elsewhere in Syria. We were very clear about the role of Russia, and very clear about the need for the EU to give the strong statement that it has, and to consider if the atrocities – as I say, if the atrocities continue – to consider all options. And that’s exactly what we will be doing, and around that table we were all agreed on that.

Question

Do you really expect all 27 countries in the European Union to keep listening to Britain when we are quitting? Aren’t they entitled, actually, to ignore us now? And if I may, what would you say to members of the public who are alarmed by Russian ships being in the English Channel?

Prime Minister

Well, first, on the question that you raised about the European Union and what we are doing in relation to the European Union – how they approach us – yes, we will be leaving the European Union. But I’ve been clear with everybody that I’ve spoken to – individual leaders that I’ve spoken to, but also sitting around the table here in Brussels – that as long as we’re members of the European Union, we will continue to meet our rights and obligations as members of the European Union. And that has been welcomed, and I think that is the right spirit and approach to take with this.

Of course, the 27 will have to take discussions among themselves. We will be, as I’ve said, in the first quarter of next year invoking Article 50. There will be a process for the 27 to consider how they are going to conduct the negotiations. But we will continue to play our role, as I have done sitting around the table today. I can assure you that I haven’t been backwards in coming forwards on issues.

And I think we’re all very clear about the role that Russia is playing in Syria, and that’s why it’s so important that the EU has come up with the statement that it has today.

Question

But it is human nature, though, isn’t it? If you’re leaving the room, if you’ve got your hand on the door handle, your voice is going to be heard over these summits – there could be quite a few more of them for you – less and less? And could I also ask you, it’s been signalled that Michel Barnier, the negotiator appointed by the European Commission, wants to conduct the negotiations in French? Do you consider that a gesture of good intent?

Prime Minister

We will conduct the negotiations in the way that is going to make sure that we get the right deal for the United Kingdom. And as I sit around the table, as I’ve seen over the last couple of days here in Brussels, I have played my full part and other member states want the United Kingdom to continue to play our full part for as long as we’re members of the European Union. There are many issues on which we agree with people sitting around the table about the challenges that are faced in Europe, and about the need for us to work together in relation to those challenges.

Question

Given you said you want to make free trade work for everybody in the United Kingdom, are you ready to rethink the government’s position on the lesser duty rule, given that the steel industry say that reforms to this, as the Commission proposes, are essential to protect steel jobs in the UK, and across Europe?

Prime Minister

Well, we’ve had a discussion about trade and about the modernisation of trade defence instruments, and what we have agreed around the table is that it is important that we look at that in a comprehensive way, that we do modernise Europe’s trade defence instruments – and we look at all of those instruments – and that we do that in a balanced way. And that’s what’s important, it’s important to balance, obviously, the interests of users, of producers and of consumers.

Question

Do you think that the other EU leaders are getting the message? Donald Tusk said last night that it was in Britain’s hands whether Article 50 was reversible or not. And in your words, you used a new formulation we haven’t heard before: ‘UK wants to trade freely in goods and services.’ Is that a hint about the single market or the customs union?

Prime Minister

No. I haven’t said anything that differs at all from what we said previously, because we’ve got a very clear position on this, which is that we want to have the best possible deal for trading goods and services with – and operation within – the single European market. Now, as I have also said, I think we need to look at this in a new way, which is saying what we will be doing is, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it will be having a different relationship with the EU from the relationship that it has as a member of the European Union. And so what we will be doing is negotiating that new relationship with the EU. As I say, we want the best possible deal to maximise our ability to trade with and operate within the European market, and that covers both goods and services.

Question

When were you first made aware of concerns about Lowell Goddard’s leadership of the abuse inquiry? Who told you, what did they tell you and what did you do about it?

Prime Minister

Well, I set this out, actually, in an answer that I gave in PMQs in the House of Commons earlier this week. But I was aware of tensions between the inquiry panel and the chairman. But I was also very clear that – and it is clear that the Home Secretary cannot intervene in a public inquiry – judge-led public inquiry – on the basis of suspicion, of rumour or of hearsay. When the Home Office was officially made aware of the issues, then the Home Office acted on those issues.

And there’s another important point here, Francis, which is, first of all – 2 important points. First of all, let’s just remember why this inquiry was set up and why I set it up, which is that there are people in the United Kingdom who suffered sexual abuse as children, who for many years have been searching for justice, and who have sadly had the experience that their voice has not been heard, and that they have not been given justice. And we owe it to victims and survivors to ensure that they can have that justice. And for many of them, they have felt over the years that people in positions of power have intervened to stop their voice from being heard. And that’s why it is absolutely crucial that people in positions of power do not just intervene on the basis of hearsay and rumour.

Question

I’ve got a question on CETA. First of all, what’s your assessment on the situation we’re just facing, the Europeans and you are facing, and – so concerning the Walloons. And what is your assessment, then? What does it mean for the Brexit negotiations, if one single little region is actually putting everything on hold, what would this mean for the future negotiations with the UK?

Prime Minister

Well, on CETA, obviously, as you’re aware, the Walloon Parliament has been looking at this particular issue. I understand that discussions are continuing and negotiations are continuing. I think that it’s important that the EU is able to sign this trade deal with Canada. As you say, it’s been a long time in the making, and I think that it can be signed. But the discussions, as I understand it, are continuing on that particular issue.

From the UK’s point of view, we’re not looking to replicate a model that another country has. We’re not looking to adopt another model that somebody else has in relation to their trade with the European Union. What we want is to develop what is a new relationship for the UK when we’re outside the EU. What we want is to ensure that we have the right deal for the United Kingdom.

And I’m optimistic about that. Obviously, we’ve got negotiations ahead of ourselves. Those negotiations will take time, as I say, there will be some difficult moments. It will need some give and take. But I’m optimistic that we can achieve a deal that is right for the UK because I actually think the deal that’s right for the UK will also be right for the European Union.