G20 Summit: PM press conference with President Obama – 4 September 2016
Prime Minister Theresa May and President Barack Obama held a joint press conference during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China.
Good morning, everybody. I want to begin by saying what a pleasure it was for me to meet with Prime Minister May and congratulate her on becoming the Prime Minister. We’ve had occasion to be together before in other settings, but this is the first time that I have a chance to address her as Madam Prime Minister. I’m glad that Theresa and I could meet early in her tenure. The Prime Minister continues to be a steadying influence during a time of transition.
It was a wide-ranging conversation but it began with the basic premise that even as the UK pursues an orderly exit from the EU, together we reaffirm the very special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. It will not simply endure, but it will continue to grow stronger with time.
The vibrant economic partnership between our countries will continue as the UK gains further clarity on its new relationship with the EU. Our 2 countries will be discussing ways in which we continue to sustain and strengthen our trade and investment ties. Here at the G20, we will continue to pursue an agenda of inclusive and sustainable growth.
When it comes to security issues, under Prime Minister May, the UK has reaffirmed its strong commitment to the transatlantic security architecture. We are NATO allies. We see the world in the same way. We will continue to oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. We will continue to counter cyber threats. We will continue to work diligently to root out terrorist networks and we’ll work to destroy ISIL.
At a time when the international order is under strain, I also emphasise the degree which United Kingdom’s leadership on the world stage is essential. We are grateful for the UK’s indispensable role in achieving landmark agreements on climate change, on issues of energy security and global development. We will continue to count on being able to stand together, stand strong with our British friends to make sure that international norms and rules are enforced and are maintained. The bottom line is that we don’t have a stronger partner anywhere in the world than the United Kingdom and despite the turbulence of political events over the last several months, we had every intention to make sure that that continues.
And so, I look forward to our partnership. This is my last G20, Theresa’s first – but the continuity of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, that stretches back many decades, and it will continue for many decades to come.
Thank you very much and I’m very pleased to be here at my first G20 summit and pleased to have had the opportunity to meet you, Barack, and as you say, the United States is a special partner for the United Kingdom. A long-standing ally and a close friend. We share the same values of freedom, openness and tolerance. We share intelligence and technology. Our troops train, fight and recuperate together, and together we do more together than any other 2 countries in the world, and I think that’s as true now as it has ever been.
And our discussions today have been wide-ranging. We focused on Brexit, on the threat from the Daesh, the situation in Syria and on the need to do more to solve the migration crisis. I’d just like to say a few words on each of those.
First, we have talked about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.The process now and what Brexit means for UK’s relationships with our European friends but with other countries too. The UK has always been a strong partner for the US and that will remain the case. We have a thriving economic relationship. British businesses export twice as much to the United States as they do to our next largest market, and United States is the largest inward investor in Britain with total American investments providing more than 1 million jobs. We need to build on that strong foundation as the UK leaves the EU.
We are both strong supporters of free trade, and today we’ve discussed how to take forward consultations to ensure that the UK and US have the strongest possible trading relationship. And this reinforces my belief that as we forge a new global role for the UK, we can and will seize the opportunities that Brexit presents and make a success of it.
We’ve also discussed the threat from Islamist terrorism. The UK and the US have been at the forefront of efforts to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and it’s vital that we take action to degrade Daesh abroad to help keep the streets of Britain safe. And the coalition is making progress. Daesh is losing territory in Iraq and Syria. Its finances have been hit. Its leaders are being killed and fighters are deserting. And in recent weeks, thanks to US efforts, Daesh in Libya have been forced backwards, too. But we must not be complacent. We know these terrorists are intent on destroying our way of life, and the threat in the UK remain severe. So as we drive Daesh out of one area, we must be alert to the risk they will seek a safe haven elsewhere, and we must work internationally to defeat their ideology of hatred and murder. And we need to support other countries in the region, helping to protect them from the threat of Daesh and, thereby protecting people home in Britain too.
We must also continue to strive for a political solution in Syria. The goal remains negotiating a settlement which delivers stability for all Syrians and a government with whom we can work to defeat the terrorists. We welcome US efforts to broker an end to the violence and to help protect moderate opposition forces. It’s vital that humanitarian supplies get to innocent Syrians who are in desperate need, and this afternoon I will urge President Putin to do what he can to get the aid convoys in, and to end the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.
And next week, the Foreign Secretary plans to host the moderate Syrian opposition in London as we continue to support their hopes for a democratic, peaceful and inclusive Syria.
And, finally, we discussed the global migration crisis. Across the world, there are now over 244 million migrants, 65 million displaced people and over 20 million refugees. This growing crisis cannot be solved by the actions of one country alone. We need an international approach which better identifies those refugees who most need support, deals more effectively with economic migrants and does more to address the root causes of migration. This issue will be top of the agenda at the UN General Assembly later this month, and I hope we can make concrete progress to stem the flow of migration and help people in their home countries and regions.
So, we’ve had a productive meeting. It’s been an opportunity to discuss how we respond to some of the great challenges we face and I look forward to continuing our discussions at the summit, particularly on the global economy.
We understand that many of our citizens are frustrated by the pace of globalisation and feel they are not experiencing the benefits of international trade. We both believe this is an issue that we as G20 leaders cannot afford to ignore. Instead, we must all work together to spur economic growth, to boost free trade and build a fairer economy that truly works for all.
I had a question on Syria first of all. It seems like there is a deal with the Russians within reach. I was wondering, do you not think there’s a risk that there’s another short-lived agreement that doesn’t end the war but which allows the Russians to deflect criticism at the G20 here and at the UN General Assembly? And secondly what do you make of the kerfuffle yesterday at the airport? And for the Prime Minister you said that Brexit means Brexit. I wonder if you could be a bit more specific. Could you categorically rule out the UK staying within the EU? Thank you.
With respect to Syria, we have long been interested in finding a way to reduce the violence, improve humanitarian access on the ground as a precursor for a political transition inside of Syria. Now it is a very complicated piece of business. You have the Assad regime which has been killing its own citizens with impunity, supported by the Russians and the Iranians. You have a moderate opposition that has continuously tried to consolidate a position that would lead to an inclusive representative government, but is often outgunned. Then you have ISIL and you have Al Qaeda in the form of Nusra on the ground as well, and a range of other players from the Turks and the Gulf states to the Kurds, and trying to corral all of those different forces into a coherent structure for negotiations is difficult. But our conversations with the Russians are key, because if it were not for the Russians then Assad and the regime would not be able to sustain its offensive and these are difficult negotiations. We have grave differences with the Russians in terms of both the parties we support, but also the process that’s required to bring about peace in Syria. But if we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase. So John Kerry and his counterpart Sergey Lavrov have been working around the clock, as well as a number of other negotiators, to see what would a real cessation of hostilities look like that could provide that humanitarian access and provide people in places like Aleppo relief. We’re not there yet, and understandably given the previous failures of cessations of hostilities to hold, we approach it with some scepticism, but it is worth trying, to the extent that there are children and women and innocent civilians who can get food and medical supplies and get some relief from the constant terror of bombings. That’s worth the effort and I think it’s premature for us to say that there is a clear path forward. But there is the possibility at least for us to make some progress on that front.
In addition, I should point out that the UN special rep, Staffan de Mistura, has been also coming up with a longer term structure for a political transition. We are supporting his efforts as well and those 2 things hopefully can operate in tandem. And the last point I would make is that none of this is slowing down our very aggressive efforts against ISIL. As we’ve seen in recent weeks not only have we been able to clear out ISIL from additional territory inside of Syria as well as Iraq, but we continue to systematically go after their leadership including their head of external operations and probably the second most prominent person in the ISIL infrastructure. So that none of this is slowing down a very aggressive effort to go after what I think we all consider to be the principal threat that’s emanating out of Syria.
It is true that not for the first time when we come here there ends up being issues around security and press access, and part of the reason is because we insist on a certain approach to our press pool, for example, that other countries may not insist on. We think it’s important that the press have access to the work that we’re doing. That they have the ability to answer questions, and we don’t leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips. It can cause some friction. It’s not the first time it’s happened. It doesn’t just happen in China. It happens in other countries where we travel. I think this time maybe the seams are showing a little more than usual in terms of some of the negotiations and jostling that takes place behind the scenes. And in fairness, when delegations travel to the United States, sometimes there are issues about our security procedures and protocols that they are aggravated with, but don’t always get reported on.
But none of this detracts from the broader scope of the relationship. As we saw yesterday President Xi and I continued what has been a historic joint project to elevate climate change issues, the bilateral discussions that we had yesterday were extremely productive and continue to point to big areas of cooperation. When I bring up issues like human rights there are some tensions there that perhaps don’t take place when President Xi meets with other leaders, but that’s part of our job. That’s part of what we do, and so I wouldn’t over-crank the significance of it because as I said, this is not the first time that these things happen and it doesn’t just happen here. It happens in a lot of places, including by the way sometimes our allies. Part of it is we also have a much bigger footprint than a lot of other countries, and we got a lot of planes and a lot of helicopters and a lot of cars and a lot of guys, and if you’re a host country sometimes it may feel a little bit much. You notice some chortling among the Brits. They probably find it a little overwhelming as well. But the one thing I will say is we don’t make apologies for pushing a little bit harder when it comes to press access, and that’s been the case from my very first state visit here. And we don’t always get everything that we’d like to see, but we think it’s important for us to at least stand up for those values.
One of the questions you asked me about Brexit – yes, Brexit does indeed mean Brexit. On 23 June, the people in the UK voted for the UK to leave the European Union. The government respects that decision, we respect the wishes of the people and we will put that into practice. So there will be no second referendum, no attempt to turn the clock back, no attempt to try and get out of this. The UK will be leaving the European Union.
Mr President, you came to London earlier this year and urged the British people not to vote for Brexit, and warned them that they’d be at the back of the queue for a trade deal if they did. Do you accept you got it wrong on Brexit and do you regret making that threat, or are you really going to punish us for taking a democratic decision?
And could I ask just quickly whether you’ve got any advice for the Prime Minister this autumn when she’s got the pleasure of hosting Donald Trump in London?
Prime Minister, can I ask whether you’ve had any trade reassurances from the president about your place in his queue? And could I also ask you quickly about Hinkley Point, which you’ll be discussing with President Xi tomorrow? You’ve said you’ll look at all of the evidence. Does that include getting the National Security Council to look at the potential security implications?
On the first point that you raised, we’ve had discussions about the importance of the trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. As you know, I’ve been very clear that following Brexit we will be looking to establish new trading relationships around the globe. I think there are real opportunities for the United Kingdom. We will be going out and seizing those opportunities. But we have a very strong – as I indicated in my own statement with some of the figures that I gave – we have a very strong trading relationship with the United States and we will be looking to ensure that we can maintain the strongest possible relationship into the future.
And on the question that you asked about Hinkley Point, I would be doing exactly as you said, indeed, in your question. Which is, as you know, I will be looking at all of the evidence around this issue. The way I work is that I don’t just take an instant decision. I actually look at the evidence, take the advice, consider it properly and then come to a decision. I’ve been very clear that I will be doing that and will be taking a decision sometime this month.
It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote – and continue to believe post-Brexit vote – that the world benefitted enormously from the United Kingdom’s participation in the EU. But I also said at the time that ultimately this was a decision for the British people, and the British people made that decision. And I never suggested that we would quote unquote punish Great Britain, as you will recall, if you were at that press conference. I was asked about the viability of immediately negotiating a separate trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom. Because I think the notion was that the consequences of Brexit would be minimal, and we would just go ahead and start lining up a whole bunch of free trade agreements separate and apart from the EU relationship. And my simple point was just that we’ve put great priority on first the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which now that we have an agreement we want to put into force, that we are also negotiating effectively with the entire EU around the Transatlantic Trade Agreement, or TTIP, and those negotiations are proceeding. And so it would not make sense of us to put those efforts aside, particularly at a time when my working assumption was that if in fact the people on the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, their first priority would be to renegotiate terms of trade with the economic unit that they sell half of their goods to.
So that in fact is, I think, the approach that the Prime Minister is wisely taking, that in a prudent well-informed fashion with consultations with businesses and stakeholders as well as her counterparts across the channel, the Prime Minister makes a determination about when to invoke Article 50, how those negotiations should proceed. And we are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that not just the people of the United Kingdom but people around the world can benefit from continued recovering economic growth. And what I have committed to Theresa is that we will consult closely with her as she and her government move forward with the Brexit negotiations to ensure that we don’t see adverse effects in the trading and commercial relationships between the United States and the United Kingdom. Obviously we have an enormous amount of trade that already takes place, we have a lot of investment between British companies in the United States and US companies in the United Kingdom. And that’s not going to stop and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the consequences of the decision don’t end up unravelling what is already a very strong and robust economic relationship that become even stronger in the future. But first thing’s first. You know, the first task is going to be figuring out what Brexit means with respect to Europe, and our first task is making sure that we first get TPP done, but also that we move forward on the TTIP negotiations, in which we’ve already invested a lot of time and effort.