Prime Minister Theresa May gave a statement on the issues discussed at the December European Council: migration, security, Syria and Brexit.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council.
Both the UK and the rest of the EU are preparing for the negotiations that will begin when we trigger Article 50 before the end of March next year.
But the main focus of this Council was rightly on how we can work together to address some of the most pressing challenges that we face. These include responding to the migration crisis; strengthening Europe’s security; and helping to alleviate the suffering in Syria.
As I have said, for as long as the UK is a member of the EU, we will continue to play our full part. And that is what this Council showed, with the UK making a significant contribution on each of these issues.
First, migration. From the outset, the UK has pushed for a comprehensive approach that focuses on the root causes of migration as the best way to reduce the number of people coming to Europe.
I have called for more action in source and transit countries to disrupt the smuggling networks, to improve local capacity to control borders and to support sustainable livelihoods, both for people living there and for refugees.
I have also said that we must better distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, swiftly returning those who have no right to remain and thereby sending out a deterrence message to others thinking of embarking on perilous journeys.
The Council agreed to action in all these areas – and the UK remains fully committed to playing our part.
We have already provided training to the Libyan coastguard. The Royal Navy is providing practical support in the Mediterranean and Aegean. And we will also deploy 40 additional specialist staff to the Greek islands to accelerate the processing of claims, particularly from Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals, and to help return those who have no right to stay.
But ultimately, we do need a long term, sustainable approach. For that is the best way to retain the consent of our people to provide support and sanctuary to those most in need.
Security and defence
Turning to security and defence, whether it is deterring Russian aggression, countering terrorism or fighting organised crime, the UK remains firmly committed to the security of our European neighbours. That is true now. And it will remain true once we have left the EU.
At this Council we welcomed the commitment from all member states to take greater responsibility for their security, to invest more resources and to develop more capabilities.
That is the right approach. And, as the Council made clear, it should be done in a way that complements rather than duplicates NATO. A stronger EU and a stronger NATO can be mutually reinforcing – and this should be our aim.
We must never lose sight of the fact that NATO will always be the bedrock of our collective defence in Europe and we must never allow anything to undermine it.
Mr Speaker, we also agreed at the Council to renew Tier 3 economic sanctions on Russia for another 6 months, maintaining the pressure on Russia to implement the Minsk agreements in full.
Turning to the appalling situation in Syria, Mr Speaker, we have all seen the devastating pictures on our TV screens and heard heart-breaking stories of families struggling to get to safety.
At this Council, we heard directly from the Mayor of Eastern Aleppo – a brave and courageous man who has already witnessed his city brought to rubble, his neighbours murdered, and childrens’ lives destroyed. He had one simple plea for us – to get those that have survived through years of conflict, torture and fear to safety.
Together with our European partners, we must do all we can to help.
The Council was unequivocal in its condemnation of President Assad and his backers – Russia and Iran – who must bear the responsibility for the tragedy in Aleppo.
They must now allow the UN to evacuate safely the innocent people of Aleppo – Syrians who President Assad claims to represent.
We have seen some progress in recent days but a few busloads is not enough when there are thousands more that must be rescued. And we cannot have these buses attacked in the way we have seen.
On Thursday afternoon my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary summoned the Russian and Iranian Ambassadors to make clear that we expect them to help.
Over the weekend, the UK has been working with our international partners to secure agreement on a UN Security Council Resolution that would send in UN officials to monitor the evacuation of civilians and provide unfettered humanitarian access. This has been agreed unanimously this afternoon and we now need it to be implemented in full.
Mr Speaker, President Assad may be congratulating his regime forces on their actions in Aleppo, but we are in no doubt. This is no victory, it is a tragedy. One we will not forget.
And last week’s Council reiterated that those responsible must be held to account.
Mr Speaker, alongside our diplomatic efforts, the UK is going to provide a further £20 million of practical support for those who are most vulnerable. This includes £10 million for trusted humanitarian partners, working on the frontline in some of the hardest to reach places in Syria, to help them deliver food parcels and medical supplies to those most in need.
And an additional £10 million to UNICEF to help them provide life-saving aid supplies for Syrian refugees now massing at the Jordanian border.
As the Mayor of Aleppo has said, it is sadly too late to save all those that have been lost, but it is not too late to save those who remain. That is what we must now do.
Mr Speaker, turning to Brexit, I updated the Council on the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union.
I explained that 2 weeks ago this House voted by a considerable majority – almost 6 to 1 – to support the government by delivering the referendum result and invoking Article 50 before the end of March.
The UK’s Supreme Court is expected to rule next month on whether the government requires parliamentary legislation in order to do this.
I am clear that the government will respect the verdict of our independent judiciary. But I am equally clear that whichever way the judgement goes, we will meet the timetable I have set out.
At the Council, I also reaffirmed my commitment to a smooth and orderly exit – and in this spirit, I made it clear to the other EU leaders that it remains my objective that we give reassurance early on in the negotiations to EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in EU countries, that their right to stay where they have made their homes will be protected by our withdrawal.
This is an issue which I would like to agree quickly but clearly that requires the agreement of the rest of the EU.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I welcomed the subsequent short discussion between the 27 other leaders on their own plans for the UK’s withdrawal. It is right that the other leaders prepare for the negotiations just as we are making our own preparations. That is in everyone’s best interests.
My aim is to cement the UK as a close partner of the EU once we have left. As I have said before, I want the deal we negotiate to reflect the kind of mature, co-operative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy.
A deal that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market – and allow European businesses to do the same here.
A deal that will deliver the deepest possible co-operation to ensure our national security and the security of our allies.
But a deal that will mean when it comes to decisions about our national interest, such as how we control immigration, we can make these decisions for ourselves.
And a deal that will mean our laws are once again made in Britain, not in Brussels.
With a calm and measured approach, this government will honour the will of the British people and secure the right deal that will make a success of Brexit, for the UK, for the EU and for the world.
And I commend this statement to the House.