Good afternoon and welcome. Another European Council concluded. Three particular issues were top of my agenda.
First of all, the battle to cut red tape, not just in Britain but here in Brussels. My taskforce produced this excellent report, which I think has had a real impact, both in the UK, and around Europe.
We had a meeting this morning, as many would have seen, with seven heads of state or government. They came from countries of the north and the south, the east and the west; there were people there who are on the centre-right, the liberal-centre and the centre-left, and all agreeing this was an excellent report and we needed to make more progress in terms of cutting regulation, helping our business to compete and to succeed, and to increase the number of jobs.
The conclusions which you’ll see coming out of this European Council are once again very strong on deregulation: I think perhaps the strongest we’ve seen over many, many years. They call for a further, substantial set of actions on deregulation. They talk about setting up a proper score card so we can see how much regulation is being cut by, and I think you can see a sea change, really, of thinking here, in terms of what the Commission is going to do and the priority given to identifying and removing excessive regulation. So I think that is a success story; not just for Britain, but a success story for Europe, and I will keep pushing it.
Second thing is completing the single market and trade deals. We welcomed, obviously, the conclusion of the Canada-EU trade deal. This could be worth £1.3 billion to the British economy. Some estimates say it could see exports to Canada going up by well over 20%, so this is a very positive step forward. It means we can move on to the TTIP – the EU-US trade talks – which are getting going. Attempts to take it off track were seen off, and I am very excited about that going ahead.
In terms of completing the Single Market the real impetus at this Council was in terms of the digital single market, where we had a whole set of conclusions on that; a proper discussion – a proper debate about it. Britain is a leader in e commerce, in terms of the digital agenda, and it’s really in our interest that the digital single market is completed. That means we need to have action on telecoms; we need to have action on barriers to e-commerce – all sorts of changes have to be made. Good conclusions I think have been achieved on that.
The one area where we had some concerns, because the right drafting and thinking hadn’t been done, was data protection, where there was a rather false deadline for next year. We got that removed. We do need to have a data protection directive in the EU but the current draft would add a lot of cost to businesses. It’s not right, and so I made sure there was no false deadline for next year for that one.
The third thing was to make sure we protected British interests with respect to the single market and with respect to calls for greater economic policy action at the European level and greater social policy action at the European level. When you see the conclusions you’ll see that littered throughout it is that these changes should be voluntary for those countries not in the single currency. Britain isn’t in the single currency; we’re not going to join the single currency. We shouldn’t have to take part in these additional bits of economic coordination or social score cards or all the rest of it, and it’s absolutely clear, not being in the single currency we don’t have to take part in these new pieces of Euro-coordination.
Obviously the priority for my government is the economy: getting the economy moving, getting jobs created, getting businesses going, making sure Britain is a success and helping people to fulfil their aspirations. I think the GDP figures out today – they do show our economy has real momentum. They show that we are on a path to prosperity.
We’ve got a huge amount more to do to secure that recovery, and above all, our work here in Europe and at home is about making sure it is a recovery for all: a recovery for north and south, for rich and poor, for people who have been excluded from our economy. And that is why we put so much emphasis in our economic approach on education, and training and apprenticeships, and also on welfare reform so people who have been excluded from our economy, or people who don’t have the training and education to take part in a successful economy, can take part. That is what we are aiming for: a recovery for all. But good news from those statistics today.
Happy to take some questions: who wants to go first?
Prime Minister, were you able to reassure your European partners that British Intelligence, GCHQ in particular, was not part of, nor knew about, the most egregious cases of bugging that we’ve learned about?
Well, first of all, let me just repeat something that British Governments have always held to and I hold to myself, which is not to comment on intelligence matters. And I think that is important. We’ll have secret intelligence services, as other countries do, but we don’t give a running commentary on what they do; we don’t comment on their work. That is very important. But let me make two points about the sort of framework for this.
The first is, I think the leaders of the European Union issued a good and sensible statement last night about this matter and I agree with that statement.
And the second thing is, specifically for Britain – but this applies to other countries as well, because remember this is a national responsibility: these intelligence agencies are – they’re a national responsibility. There’s no EU competence here. There’s no EU drift here. And at the national level, every national leader needs to be confident that their security services are properly overseen.
Now, in the United Kingdom, we have proper parliamentary scrutiny, through the Intelligence and Security Committee, the ISC, in parliament. We’ve strengthened that oversight. Everything that’s done is done within a framework of proper law. And we also have Intelligence Commissioners to oversee the work of these agencies. So I’m satisfied that our intelligence agencies are properly governed, properly run, act under the law and are subject to parliamentary scrutiny. And that is very important.
But let me also say this: the work they do is very important. As Prime Minister, I get to see that work at first hand. Every year for the last few years they have helped to obstruct, avoid and put off major terrorist attacks on our country. They help to keep our people safe. They actually help to keep people safe in other European countries too, because we share so much intelligence and information with our EU partners. So the work they do is vital, they will always have my support, and they are properly scrutinised and run under the rule of law.
Prime Minister, have you had any reason to believe that perhaps your mobile phone is being monitored or has been monitored, and have you actually asked the Americans whether they have ever monitored you phone?
While repeating my mantra that I don’t comment on intelligence issues, I think I can point you towards a statement made by the White House about this issue which might give you some reassurance.
Prime Minister, I can see a Cut EU red tape only behind you but in the other meeting rooms the other readers don’t have such banners, and you didn’t mention, for example, immigration. Does it mean that we have a Europe a la carte, where you pick up the cutting the red tape, others pick up other issues, and everybody’s happy?
Well what we had today was seven leaders of EU countries coming together to discuss cutting EU red tape and they were all happy to appear under that banner and to discuss this issue. It’s not just a British concern. We had an Italian, left of centre Prime Minister; we had a centrist Dutch Prime Minister; we had the German Chancellor as well as the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland and other countries. So this is an agenda that many people care about and it is important.
What is Europe – what should Europe be about, right now? Europe should be about helping businesses to grow, helping them to take on people, helping to get our economies moving. That is what we need in Europe. We need wealth creation, we need jobs, we need enterprise, and we’re not going to get it if we overregulate businesses. And that’s why I put this agenda at the heart of the European commission.
Do we have an a la carte Europe? Well, there are countries that make different choices. Britain is not in the single currency; we’re not going to be. We’re not part of the Schengen no borders agreement and we’re not going to join that. But I can point to other European countries that aren’t necessarily part of NATO, or don’t necessarily play such a big part in other global affairs. So there’s always been an element of people being able to choose in Europe those things they’re most enthusiastic about. And my argument is that that makes Europe stronger, not weaker.
Prime Minister, the French and German leaders are saying that they would like to negotiate, or stage a negotiation, by Christmas with the Americans on, kind of, codes of conduct and rules for intelligence services. That negotiation, they say, is open to anyone who wants to take part. Do you intend for Britain to take part? And secondly, do you – could you say anything about – we understand that the issue of the, kind of, Five Eyes intelligence sharing relationship was discussed at last night’s dinner. Can you see a situation where Five Eyes might be expanded? Thank you.
Well, first of all, as I said, I welcome the statement that was made last night. I thought it was a sensible statement. I was very struck by my colleagues, how they don’t want some breach between the EU and the US. They want a good partnership, good trust and good relations. I think that what Angela and François want to do is entirely sensible and other European countries are free to join in with that.
Obviously, Britain has a very strong, unique intelligence partnership, in many ways, with the United States; that’s been very long standing. Part of that is the Five Eyes partnership, which was established many, many years ago, involving New Zealand, Canada and Australia as well. So, I think that’s the right – that’s for us – I think we are in the right situation.
But I understand what others want to do and very much support that, as, I think, will President Obama. I think he will welcome this approach. Indeed, he really spoke about it as well, as they were speaking about it at the same time.
Prime Minister, re you able to reassure Angela Merkel that neither you, or any other member of your government, or an official, has seen any intelligence gleaned from tapping her phone?
And, secondarily, Nick Clegg has just been on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and said that the Conservatives really don’t care about families like my party does; is he right about that?
Well, on the second issue, no. He is wrong about that. It is a Conservative led government that has lifted people out of tax, that has made sure we help the poorest families by maintaining child tax credits, that has frozen the council tax, that’s made sure we’ve done a lot to help families with fuel bills by cancelling petrol increases.
In the end, you know, you best help families by keeping the cost of government on those families down. And we’ve done that by taking very difficult decisions, which have involved a lot of hard spending decisions. But, in the end, if you spend more, you end up taxing more. And I think it’s a very important argument to make that, actually, it is compassionate, and it is fair and it is right to keep the costs of government down.
As to the earlier question, as I said I’m not making further comments on intelligence and security matters, but they are properly governed in the UK.
I heard what you said, it’s still a serious matter, but the media has reported that the tampering programme was operating also in Italy. So, I just wanted to know if you knew about it, and if you discussed it – if you discussed about it with Premier Letta.
Well, there’s lots of discussions about these issues in the EU Council, as you could imagine. Let me say this, though, about what Mr Snowden has effectively done, and what some newspapers are assisting him in doing. And that is going to make it a lot more difficult to keep our countries and our people safe.
You know, we do have to take a, sort of, cold, hard look at this. As we stand today there are lots of people who want to do us harm, who want to blow up our families, who want to maim people in our countries; that is the facts. It’s not a pleasant fact, but it is true.
We see it with what happened recently in Kenya. We see it with what happened to, you know – whether it was Italians or British people in In Amenas in Algeria. We’ve seen appalling attacks on British soil. We’ve seen appalling attacks throughout Europe. That is the threat that we face.
And so, we have a choice: do we maintain properly-funded, properly governed intelligence security services that can gather intelligence on these people using all of the modern techniques to make sure that we can try and get ahead of them and stop them, or do we stop doing that?
And the point is, what Snowden is doing and, to an extent, what the newspapers are doing in helping him doing what he’s doing, is, frankly, signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence, and surveillance and other techniques. That is not going to make our world safer; it’s going to make our world more dangerous.
And the first priority of a Prime Minister is to help try and keep your country safe. And that means not having some la-di-da, airy-fairy view about what this all means; it’s understanding intelligence and security services do an important job. Yes, they must be governed under law. Yes, they must be scrutinised by parliament. But we need those people. They are brave people who help to keep us safe. And I’ve lost count of the plots that I’ve seen and the problems that I’ve seen being avoided by the work that they do.
And that is really important – not just for Britain, but the information that we gather, that we then share with other countries in Europe, has helped those countries in Europe too. So I make no apology for the fact that we have intelligence services, we will maintain intelligence services and I will back the work they do. And I will criticise, though, those that make public some of the techniques they use, because that is helping our enemies, simple.
Prime Minister, two quick questions. Following on from the earlier question, do you think that big increases in power bills are more than the wholesale cost are morally wrong, and how can you sell these – is it morally wrong to push up prices by much more than wholesale cost, which has happened recently in Britain?
Look, I think it is wrong for bills to go up when wholesale prices are not going up substantially. But we have to look at the causes of why bills are going up and act on those causes rather than just have some sort of blanket policy that doesn’t work. And that’s why I’ve identified, of the four parts to a bill – you’ve got the wholesale prices, you’ve got the transmission costs, you’ve got the green taxes and charges and then you’ve got the profits that the companies are making – it’s those last two where we need action.
So, on the profits you need more competition, you need more challenge. I want more companies in that sector. I want the competition in the market properly reviewed every year and we’ll have that. And on the green charges, yes we should be trying to roll those – roll the cost of those back – in the best way that we can, because that is one of the things that has been adding to bills in recent years.
First of all, would you like to congratulate the Unite trade union, and others, in keeping the Grangemouth petrochemical plant open?
And that just following on, on the green bills agenda; if bills go down simply because you keep the green schemes but transfer the costs to the tax payer, as some of your coalition colleagues have been suggesting, could that be seen – to coin a phrase – of a con? And secondly, when you mentioned that you have to take action on profits, are you keeping an open mind on John Major’s idea of a windfall tax?
First of all on Grangemouth, I mean, let’s congratulate everybody involved. This is excellent news on a day when the economy’s growth is picking up. It’s excellent news that a really important petrochemical plant will stay open, saving thousands of jobs, not just at that plant but in the supply chain. And also seeing the refinery reopen, it’s good news. I think sense has been seen, which is that when you have challenges and costs you need reform that goes with the investment. And it seems to be at Grangemouth that’s what we’re going to have, is the reform of the investment coming together. So I congratulate, that’s very good news on bills.
But what matters is getting to grips with the things that are causing the bills to arise. And that must be done, obviously, in an open and transparent way. So that if you end what’s causing the charge to rise, that’s transparent; if you move a charge from, you know, a bill to somewhere else, that’s transparent.
What is a con – just to be clear – what is a con is saying I’m going to cap energy prices when actually you aren’t doing anything to deal with the reason why they’re increasing. And that’s why I think the public don’t really believe the idea that you can set a freeze for energy prices in 20 years, because the British public are, basically, very smart, and they know that energy bills can go up when the world prices of oil and gas goes up. And they know that no politician has control of that.
But if you can explain to people here’s why bills are going up and we’re going to act on those things in a transparent and open way that you can see, I think that is – that is the right thing to do. And I think people understand that.
Just on energy bills: you’ve said in the past that fracking could help get UK energy bills down or halt the rise in the future, but The Sun reveals today how mining companies in the UK face 16 separate bureaucratic obstacles to fracking. I’m just wondering, are you going to be able to do anything to tackle that?
And separately, on the spying row – are you aware of any other EU country or ally that is eavesdropping on Britain or British ministers?
Right, on fracking: we do need to take action across the board to help enable this technology to go ahead. It’s not the whole answer to our energy problems, but if you look in America it’s providing a large amount of low-cost gas and that’s helping keep America competitive and helping to keep bills down.
And that’s why on our ‘Cut EU red tape’ easy fold-out guide, in terms of the 30 proposals we have to cut EU red tape number three – particularly noted by the Polish Prime Minister, who is very keen on this – number three is, ‘Don’t introduce new proposals on shale gas’, because there is a worry that people are going to have to have to go through so many different permits in order to start fracking that they simply won’t bother.
So, we need a simplified system. We’ve set up an office of shale gas in the UK government. We’re making sure that the – that you need permissions, you need safeguards on the environment, but we’re making sure that they’re sensible and proportionate. And Ed Davies is leading the work on that.
As to the other question, I – you know, without setting it to music – you know, I’m not going to comment on intelligence and security matters. I’ve set out the framework in which the British Intelligence services operate. I’m satisfied as Prime Minister – and the minister effectively for the intelligence services – I’m satisfied that’s a good framework. It’s a framework that works.
And above all, you know, at a time when everyone is discussing this issue, let’s remember that the people who do this work, that keeps us safe – that helps to keep us safe – they are people we can never properly thank, we can never properly identify. We can’t have medal parades and ceremonies for the very brave things that they do, and so it is worth saying every now and again on a public platform, these are some of the most talented and bright and hardworking and dedicated officials in our country. They love our country, they work for our country and we should thank them rather than try to make their job more difficult.
Thank you very much indeed.