Press conference at European Council

A transcript of press conference given by the Prime Minister David Cameron about the economy, Libya and Japan.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Cameron

Prime Minister

Good afternoon and welcome. 

Let me deal first with Libya, before covering the summit outcomes on the economy and on Japan.  On Libya, we have come a long way in a short time.  A week ago, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Benghazi were under a direct and imminent military threat from Gaddafi’s attacks.  He said he would show no mercy, but we made sure there was no entry. 

Last Thursday night we secured a United Nations resolution, which gave us the clear legal basis for taking action to protect those people.  On Saturday, a coalition came together in Paris and reached a collective judgement that Gaddafi was lying to the international community and breaching a ceasefire that he himself had announced. 

As a result, that day, that Saturday, just 48 hours after the agreement in the United Nations, military operations began to protect people in Libya.

The action we have taken in the space of a few short days has saved countless civilian lives and has successfully established a no-fly zone.  In the last 24 hours, the momentum has continued to build.  NATO has taken on the command the control of the no-fly zone, in addition to the arms embargo that it was already enforcing. 

The alliance is also planning for command of the wider operation to protect the civilian population.  The United Arab Emirates have now confirmed they will provide 12 fast jets and Britain will next Tuesday be hosting a broad international conference in London to review progress and to plan for the future. 

On the ground, our forces continue to make a vital contribution.  In the last 24 hours, there were successful strikes around Ajdabiya targeting Gaddafi’s tanks.  The total number of UK sorties now stands at 70, including the destruction of some of the regime’s tanks.

I want to thank all of those involved for their incredible skill and their courage, and perhaps today of all days, it is right to say that as we consider the incredible bravery of the 136 people who have been given awards for gallantry.  They are demonstrating and have demonstrated bravery in the finest traditions of the British armed services.  There are stories being told about what they have done and what their gallantry awards are for that truly take your breath away and are completely inspiring. 

At the same time, in Libya there remain real issues of concern.  The situation of civilians in Misratah and Zlitan is grave, but we have moved quickly and decisively over the last week, and I believe it was right to do so.

At this summit, Europe has really come together on Libya.  Today’s conclusions endorsed the UN resolution agreed last week.  They set out Europe’s determination to contribute to that implementation of that resolution and the conclusions also recognise that lives have been saved by the action we have taken so far. 

I believe this is an important step forward, and in the conclusions, which you will see when they are published, they specifically refer to the fact that military action should continue until people are safe and secure from attack and until UN resolution 1973 is properly implemented. 

So, politically the EU has now agreed to find ways to support the Libyan people’s aspirations for more democratic and open government.  Practically, we will provide humanitarian assistance to all those affected, and militarily, we now see a strong and broad European contribution from vital Italian and Greek air bases, to French, Belgian, Spanish and Danish fast jets, and of course, Romania’s frigate as well.  It is clear that European countries are now fully on board with this mission.

Let me now turn to the economic issues.  I had two goals at this summit on the economy: first, to support the Euro area’s efforts to bring stability to the Eurozone while protecting Britain’s sovereignty; and second, to win support for an ambitious pro-growth, pro-market agenda for Europe. 

Let me take each in turn.  I have always said that a strong Eurozone is in Britain’s national interest.  Forty percent of our trade is with Eurozone countries, and we want the Euro to be a successful currency and to sort out the issues and problems that there have been. 

So, I welcome the steps that Eurozone countries are committing to take today, but I have also said that Britain isn’t in the Euro, Britain isn’t going to be joining the Euro, and so it is right that we shouldn’t be involved in the Euro area’s internal arrangements.  That is why I secured in December a commitment which carves Britain out of future Eurozone bailout arrangements, and why we are not joining the pact that the Euro area countries have agreed today.

On my second goal, getting Europe growing, the progress today we have made, and you will see in the conclusions, is very, very welcome.  Coming to this council, I organised a letter that was signed by nine countries in total making the case for action on growth, on deregulation, on completing the single market, on extending it to services, on taking Europe in a more liberal, more market, more growth orientated approach. 

I think this has had a real impact, and it’s not just now Britain making the argument - there is also Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  As a result, the European Council has agreed today that ‘the single market has a key role to play in delivering growth’, and that we should bring new impetus to our efforts to complete it.  We also agreed that the overall regulatory burden should be reduced, and we also concluded that the Doha round and other free trade agreements that have been immensely powerful should be done in 2011.

Obviously, there is more that needs to be done, but I do believe this is a strong start.  I was particularly heartened on the language there will be on micro-enterprises and exempting micro-enterprises from future regulations for their first 5 years of existence.  You will have noticed in the Budget in the UK we had a moratorium on regulation for small businesses.  It looks as if we are going to be achieving something like that here in the European Union as well.  I think that is a great step forward.

Finally, we discussed Japan.  I spoke to the Japanese Prime Minister yesterday, and I said we would do all we can to speed Japan’s recovery from the earthquake and the tsunami of two weeks ago.  Today, Europe has made the same pledge. 

I believe one of our priorities in order to demonstrate good faith must be to invite Japan to enter into a free-trade area with the EU, which would help boost their economy and help their businesses to recover.  I secured a specific reference to that in the conclusions that will be published later.

So, today we have seen real European unity on our vital mission to protect the people of Libya.  We have made good progress in translating Britain’s budget for growth into a new agenda for the European economy, and we have sent a clear message of solidarity to the Japanese people.  Those are the main points I wanted to cover.  We are very happy to take your questions.


Prime Minister, why is NATO in charge of a no-fly zone over Libya, but not in charge of bombing things on the ground?  Secondly, can you tell us a little bit about your impromptu bilateral with President Sarkozy this morning?  What did you discuss, and did you have to run more slowly than him?

Prime Minister

Well, I went for a run around one of the parks in Brussels, and very nice it was too.  Halfway through my run I noticed this slightly larger motorcade than mine pull up, and Sarkozy got out, so Nicolas and I had good run around the park.  I actually practised some of my French, which is very bad, but we managed to have a good conversation, mainly about Libya and what we are doing, and making sure that we work very, very closely together on the next steps forward.  I think the British/French relationship - with all the defence cooperation that I announced last year, with what we are doing together in Libya, with the work that Nicolas and I are doing together - I think is in an extremely good place, and I really welcome that.

On the issue of command and control, let me make one point first of all, which is from the moment these operations launched, there was a very effective command and control situation put in place under American leadership, and that was coordinating both the no-fly zone that needed to be put in place and also the necessary attacks on the ground to protect Libyan civilians.  At no point was there any loose arrangements.  It was very important that this was properly commanded from the outset.  Everybody wanted to move to a situation where NATO, which has the tried and tested machinery, comes into place to actually coordinate these operations.

What has happened is NATO is now already commanding, controlling and using its machinery for the maritime operation that is principally about the arms embargo.  NATO, as we have now heard, is providing the command and control and the machinery for the no-fly zone, and shortly, NATO will also be providing the command and control and the machinery for the measures on the ground to protect civilians.  It was important to put these things in place properly, to have the proper agreements.  These things always take a bit of time, but it will be seamless and because the NATO machinery is so good, I believe it will work well.


President Sarkozy has just said that political decisions will be made by the eleven-member coalition.  He said: ‘NATO cannot swallow the Emirates and Qatar.  It would play into the hands of Gaddafi to say that NATO is taking over.’

Prime Minister

He is entirely right.  We need to make sure we present to the world what is actually happening, which is that a broad alliance has come together that includes the Qataris, includes the Arab League, includes the UAE, and may include other non-NATO members.  This is the alliance that has come together to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and we will go on meeting in that way, as we will be doing on Tuesday in London.  That is vitally important, but we also have to make sure, and Nicolas and I absolutely agree about this, that we have very effective command and control operations and the machinery in place to make sure that all the operations are properly coordinated.  That is what has been agreed in NATO.  It took a bit of time.  These things always take time, because you’ve got the complexities you just referred to, but I think we have a very good set of agreements to cover all the operations that are underway, and I think those operations are proceeding, as I said, quite successfully.


Just to follow up on that, Prime Minister.  NATO have taken over enforcing the no-fly zone, but isn’t Britain and America - aren’t they still enforcing a no-drive zone, and is that an acceptable place for us to be?  You’ve got other EU countries on board for the mission, but what is the mission’s objective?

Prime Minister

Very simply put, the mission’s objective is to enforce the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and the key thing about that resolution is that it had two parts to it.  It had many parts, but there were two vital parts.  One was about a no-fly zone - essential to put in place to make sure that Gaddafi could not attack his people from the air.  That no-fly zone is now properly in place and indeed, the proof of that, as it were, was yesterday, when a Libyan plane attempted to take to the skies and it was actually shot down.

The second thing in that resolution, also important, was to take all necessary measures to protect civilian life, and what that has meant is that attacks are being carried out to hit Libyan tanks and Libyan forces that were heading into cities and on the brink of destroying civilian life.  Again, that has been effective.

So I divide between the no-fly zone and then the action to protect civilian life; on both grounds I think we have made good progress, but it is very important that we do both because the aim of this is to enforce the resolution which says we must act to protect civilian life.  It is for the Libyan people to determine their own future, but we are giving them the space to do that by stopping them from being killed by a brutal dictator.


But how long do you envisage British jets policing the skies over Libya?

Prime Minister

We will do it so long as we need to enforce Resolution 1973.  This is still early days, but I would say in terms of from where we were a week ago, and where we were from Saturday when we were staring down the barrel of a massacre in Benghazi, we are not looking at that today.  There are all sorts of problems, as I said in my statement, in Misratah and elsewhere, but the action we have taken has already saved lives and I am very keen that we should go on taking that action to make sure we continue to save lives and effectively change the facts on the ground.


Two questions, if I could.  On Libya, earlier this week Hilary Clinton talked about the possibility of Gaddafi going into exile and said that was something the US would encourage; what is your view on that?

And, secondly, there is a lot of anger back home in Britain about garages not passing on the fuel-duty cut to motorists; figures out today show that only about 60% of that 1p cut has been passed on.  What is your view on that?

Prime Minister

First of all, my message to Gaddafi, in absolute coordination with what Hilary Clinton said, is that he should leave, he should go.  I don’t believe there is any future for Libya and the Libyan people with him at its helm, so he should go.  And the message also to those around him is that every day you work with this dictator who has now announced two ceasefires and broken both of them, and continues to murder his own civilians, every day you work for him you are at risk of the International Criminal Court and you are at risk of being found guilty of war crimes.

The people around him and the people who are obeying his orders should recognise that that time is up; do not obey his orders, walk away from your tanks, leave the command and control that you are doing, give up on this regime, because it should be over for him and his henchmen.

On the issue of fuel duty I am delighted with what the Chancellor did yesterday; let’s remember it is not just putting off an RPI, an inflation increase in petrol, it’s not just abolishing the escalator of a penny increase every year through the parliament, but it was a cut of a penny in tax this year as well.  So, compared with what was going to happen, it is a 6p reduction.

Of course I want to see that passed on by garages and what I would say is this: we have done what we can as a government to cut taxes, it is now right that the market should respond and, if the market does not respond, obviously there are proper ways for the Office of Fair Trading and others to make sure this market operates properly.  We will be watching like a hawk to make sure the action we take actually helps consumers and helps motorists at the pump.

We are obviously not responsible for the oil price which, as we know, can go up and down, but we have done what we can in terms of giving the consumer a break by cutting that fuel duty and making what was, as I said yesterday, a multibillion pound effort to try and help consumers at this difficult time.


Thank you, two questions if I may.  Firstly, on Libya, you talk about changing the facts on the ground; how worried are you that when NATO does take over both aspects of the Security Council Resolution, including protecting civilians, that we might see action on the ground changing, in effect, that we have got two or three days to be aggressive on the ground and change the facts on the ground?

Secondly, on Portugal, if Portugal does apply for a bailout, will you be arguing that the exposure of the mechanism to which we are exposed as the UK should be limited in favour of the bailout facility to which we are not exposed?

Prime Minister

First of all, in terms of the action on the ground, I do not have that concern.  The UN Security Council Resolution is clear: all necessary measures to protect civilians.  I think you have seen from what British, French, Danish, American and other planes have been doing that it is about protecting civilian life, indeed to such an extent that when British Tornadoes were over a target and worried about civilian presence they actually did not fire their weapons and returned home to their base.  I think that was a very clear demonstration of the restraint that we are showing and making sure that we are protecting civilian life.

Secondly, on Portugal, the key to your question was the word ‘if,’ and frankly I am not going to speculate on another country’s financial situation.  I don’t think it would be right to do so.  The arrangements that are in place and the fact that we have carved ourselves out of future arrangements, those facts are well known.


You mentioned Japan; can you talk a little bit about the decisions that were made today on the nuclear stress tests?

Prime Minister

Yes, we had a long discussion about nuclear safety and I think it was quite right to do so.  Obviously I would make the point that in the UK we have had a very good and strong safety record and proper independent judgement of safety, but the Council agreed that we should learn any possible lessons from what has happened in Japan and I think that is absolutely right.  Obviously there are different reactors for many of us and different conditions, but nevertheless there are lessons to learn.

We should make sure in Europe that we are always looking at the very highest standards possible of safety and we also looked at this issue of stress testing nuclear facilities, making sure that is done by the appropriate bodies, carried out by independent national regulators, properly peer reviewed and tested, and we learn all the lessons.  I think there was a good consensus about what needed to be done and the way in which it should be carried out.


I was just wondering if you could tell us a bit more about this important meeting in London on Tuesday: who will be there, what will this new coordinating body be like, will it be the 11-member coalition that Sarkozy talked about, i.e. the people in Paris last week not including Turkey, or will it be a broader more ISAF-type structure?  If you could just tell us a little bit more about how you see that meeting playing out.

Prime Minister

First of all, it is going to be at a Foreign Minister level predominantly; that is the first point to make.  It is bringing together people to discuss and shape what we are doing, but also think about the future diplomatically and politically.  It should include the Arab League, it should obviously include the Arab nations that are participating; I think that is important.  Obviously, as well as having European members who are directly taking action, it will have Cathy Ashton to help represent other European nations.

I think Turkey should be there as a member of NATO.  I had a long conversation with Prime Minister Erdogan over the weekend; it is a country that is making contributions in terms of maritime and other assets and making sure there is proper humanitarian aid which I think is a good role for Turkey.  I think it is to bring all of these together and examine the parts of what we are doing - military, political, and diplomatic - and make sure that we are demonstrating to the world what is genuinely the case, which is that there is real Arab involvement.  We are both answering the call of the Arab League for a no-fly zone and to stop the killing and there is real Arab involvement.

I think the greatest testament of that is the decision by the United Arab Emirates to supply these 12 planes; I spoke to the Crown Prince myself last night - I broke out of the meeting to have that discussion - I think it is extremely welcome they have taken that decision and I hope there will be other countries doing more from the Arab world to demonstrate that this is the whole world coming together to say that what Gaddafi has done and is doing is simply unacceptable.  The message I get from the Arab world, and indeed from the Arab street, is pretty clear about that; they see what he is doing is unacceptable.


If Gaddafi does not heed your call and the people around him do not, can the people of Libya ever be ‘safe and secure,’ in your words, and do you think a time will come where you would consider him a legitimate target?

Prime Minister

I have made the point about targeting and I am not going to go into any further detail.  Targeting must be consistent with the UN Security Council Resolution, so it must be about putting in place a no-fly zone or protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s military machine.  In terms of the future for Libya, the UN Security Council is clear about what our aims must be; it is to protect civilian life, to allow humanitarian access, to put in place a no-fly zone.  It limits us, as it were, to those things and rightly so, and it actually specifically says we cannot have an occupying force and all the rest of it.

However, that does not change my desire and my belief - and a belief that has also been expressed by almost every leader of every major country in the world - that there is no future for Libya with Gaddafi and that he should go.  I think we need to be clear about those two things; what is in the UN Security Council and what we believe, as leaders, needs to happen.  In the end we are there to protect civilian life; it is for the Libyan people to choose how they are governed, who governs them and their own future.  They have a far better chance of doing that as we stand today than they did a week ago.

Published 25 March 2011