A transcript of press conference given by the Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels on Friday, 11 March 2011.
Well, good evening and welcome. Let me first of all say a few words about the events occurring today in Japan.
Like many others around the world, I have been shocked at the devastating scale of this earthquake and the tsunami that it has triggered. Before coming down to this press conference, I looked again at some of those dramatic pictures on our television screens and the, frankly, appalling situation that has been created.
We do not yet know what the full effects of this disaster will be, but on behalf of everyone in Britain I want to send our sympathies and our condolences to the people of Japan and to their government. At these incredibly distressing times we stand with you and stand ready to help in any way that we can.
I spoke a short while ago to the Foreign Secretary who, earlier today, chaired a meeting of our government’s emergency committee COBRA, to review our contribution to the international response and also what else we can do to help British nationals who may have been caught up in the tragedy. We made clear to the Japanese government that if they need any additional or specialist help we stand ready to assist and, of course, the British embassy in Tokyo and our network of embassies around the Pacific region will offer all the support that is needed to any affected British nationals. We will keep our response and our support for Japan and the region under close review in the coming days.
Events in the Middle East and North Africa are an immense challenge and an opportunity for Britain, for Europe and the world and that is why I supported, with President Sarkozy, calling this special European Council today. I believe this is a once in a generation moment, as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, where democratic awakenings have begun but are not yet complete. This can be a huge opportunity for people to change their lives forever and realise their dreams for a more open and democratic form of government. But as we are seeing in Libya, this is a dangerous moment too. There, we are witnessing, frankly, what can only be called barbaric acts, with Qadhafi brutally repressing a popular uprising led by his own people and flagrantly ignoring the will of the international community. And if we are to be clear, things may be getting worse, not better on the ground.
And let me remind everyone just why this matters to all of us. We should never forget this man’s track record. This is a regime which for years supported terrorism around the world and which was implicated in the biggest mass murder ever on British soil, the Lockerbie bombing, as well as being associated with the deaths of many innocent people around the world. And if we don’t sort out the current problems the risk is again of a failed pariah state festering on Europe’s southern border, threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies. That is what we must avoid and that is why this matters.
So let me tell you what we are doing about Libya. I had set four very clear objectives for Britain.
First, to ensure the safe evacuation of British nationals from that country, a task which is now largely complete.
My second objective has been to step up the pressure on the Qadhafi regime and ensure he is held fully accountable for his actions. On that, we put in place almost two weeks ago one of the toughest UN Security Council resolutions ever seen, in record time we agreed asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo, as well as referral to the International Criminal Court. And let’s not forget how swiftly we took that comprehensive action. And today, European leaders were united, categorical and crystal clear Qadhafi must go. We also agreed to tighten the net on him and his henchmen, so we’ve strengthened the financial sanctions on the regime, we’ve added the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority to the EU asset-freezing list and in doing so the UK has frozen a total of £12 billion of Libyan assets.
Our third objective on Libya was to ease the suffering of all those affected by the violence. Britain has played a significant role in the humanitarian response and today the EU has also committed to playing its part.
Fourthly, I’ve consistently called for proper contingency planning for all eventualities, because it is the duty of governments everywhere to look around the next corner and that planning work is happening. NATO yesterday had an important discussion and agreed to step up its surveillance in the Mediterranean and to continue to plan for things like a no-fly zone. This is something I’ve discussed with Presidents Obama, President Sarkozy and others. We are clear that action must be necessary, legal and win broad support, but we must be ready to act if the situation requires it and today the EU agreed to consider all necessary options when it comes to these eventualities.
Let me now touch on the wider strategic challenge that we face. As I’ve said before, this is not some far-flung part of the world. North Africa is only a few miles from southern Spain. What happens there has a direct impact on Europe and it is in our national interest to help shape these momentous events. Greater openness in the region will, in the long term, I believe, lead to stability and economic success, so Europe needs to seize and shape this moment.
On this long term agenda Europe can make a difference. I argued today for a fundamental transformation of the EU’s approach. We must encourage change, we must apply a greater conditionality to the billions of Euros we spend and we must make a real and credible offer to these countries based around the massive economic opportunities that lie in greater trade and cooperation with Europe.
Now, today, we had a first discussion of these issues. There’s a lot more work to be done. It is clear we need to overhaul our approach and make the most of the economic incentives we can offer. Europe has a real role here and I’m determined that we will play it.
Let me finish by saying this: we should not underestimate what the international community has done so far – a UN resolution agreed in record time, strong EU sanctions that followed and the coordinated international humanitarian effort. But the truth is this: Qadhafi is still on the rampage, waging war on his own people. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and right now there is no sign of this ending. And around the region people continue to campaign for change and their aspirations have not yet been met. Britain should be a relentless advocate for greater political openness, support for human rights and non-violence. In the long term, that is the way to get stability and prosperity for this region, but we cannot do this alone. The international community must be ready to act if the situation requires it. We simply don’t know how bad this could get or what horrors already lie hidden in the Libyan Desert. There is still a huge job to be done, but I’m determined that Britain will play its part.
Thank you very listening. Very happy to take some questions.
Thank you very much, Prime Minister. Do I sense a frustration from you after this meeting? Can you confirm that Britain wanted the words ‘no-fly zone’ in the communiqué and they are not, I believe, in the communiqué now? Is it your sense that lots has been achieved but, frankly, Europe’s leaders have not lived up to what you’ve described as ‘a moment in history’?
No, I don’t feel frustrated. Europe is an alliance of 27 and all our meetings tend to overrun and discussions continue, but the fact is Europe today has said some very significant things: absolutely united Qadhafi must go; absolutely united that this regime is illegitimate; and on the issue of planning for the future the Council conclusions say this, ‘The European Council expresses its deep concern about attacks against civilians including from the air. In order to protect the civilian population member states will examine all necessary options provided there’s demonstrable need, a clearly good basis and support from the region’. ‘All necessary options’ I think is strong language and rightly so because, as I’ve argued, we should be looking round the corner.
Now, of course the EU is not a military alliance and I don’t want it to be a military alliance. Our alliance is NATO, which discussed these issues yesterday. But I think on the urgent question – how do we deal with Libya, how do we turn up the pressure – we’ve made good progress today and it was worth having this meeting. On the longer term question, how do we offer a partnership to this region and to the countries in the region that want to reform and want to be more democratic and open, I think Europe is taking a good hard look at what it’s done in the past, saying it’s not good enough, it needs to change, and that is very much because of the UK effort that was made at subsequent Councils as well as at this Council today. So I think it is progress, but sometimes progress can take some time when you’re having 27 conversations around the table, but I think ‘all necessary options’ is pretty tough when it comes to the dreadful events that are happening in Libya.
Thank you, Prime Minister. I think we all understand that these things take time. The trouble at the moment is Colonel Qadhafi is using that time to crush the resistance and while outwardly it appears that Europe is divided, yourself and France going one way, wanting to go a bit stronger, can you honestly say that today has changed anything?
Yes, I think it has, because what you’ve got is alongside a UN Security Council resolution that was tough with sanctions, tough with travel bans and asset freezes, you’ve now got Europe coming in on top of that and actually taking the freezes and the bans and everything, taking them further, making them tougher.
And at the same time, you’ve got the countries of Europe following on from NATO saying that in order to protect the civilian population member states will look at all necessary options. That’s right, but what we need to do now is to start the planning and the preparation so that if it’s necessary to act that we can act. Of course, there’s no substitute in the end, words are not enough, in the end what we’ll be judged on is our actions but has the international community come together and come together rapidly in order to isolate this regime and put in place a tough approach?
My answer would be yes it has, and that a lot of that is down to the role that Britain has played. You know, we drafted that statement for the UN Presidential Statement, we helped draft the UN Security Council resolution, we’ve been arguing for these bans and freezes and the rest of it, we argued for the Council meeting today, we have a tough set of measures as a result of it. Do we need to do more? Yes, of course we do, because the fact is that this man is brutalising his own people and we cannot stand by while that happens but I think we’ve made good progress in the UN, good progress in the EU, good progress in NATO. And what is also remarkable, I think, is when you look at what the Gulf Cooperation Council has said and when you look at what the Libyan opposition is saying, they want countries in the West with support in the region to be engaged, to put pressure on Qadhafi, because everybody wants him to go.
Prime Minister, are you concerned that Colonel Qadhafi’s forces could crush the opposition while the international community is still considering its response?
Well, obviously it’s deeply concerning what we see on our television screens and that is why it’s important the international response is strong and clear and united, and there’s further pressure that we must put on. But I think when you look back and actually ask, ‘How quickly did the UN act in this case?’ it has been much faster than in previous cases, and people with great expertise have been surprised how much unity there was in the Security Council. But clearly every day that he goes on brutalising his people is a bad day for humanity, it’s a bad day for people in Libya and we should be standing with those people that want a better future for Libya, and that future cannot include Colonel Qadhafi.
Prime Minister, you talk about Qadhafi brutalising his own people and carrying out barbaric acts. As you consider your response to this, how heavily does it weigh on you that previous governments stood by and allowed genocides to take place in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda?
Well, I think you’re making a good point, which is many people say we have to learn the lesson of Iraq, and yes we do, but we also have to learn the lesson of what happened in former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia as well, and I think that is important. Obviously it’s very important that as we prepare for what might be necessary if this brutalisation continues and if things get worse, yes of course we’ve got to make sure that we have the support of Arab states and others, and we do have that support, there’s actually a surprising amount of unity in the international community about the need for Qadhafi to stop what he’s doing and for him to go and that Libya’s future can’t include him. So of course we have to learn that lesson, but you’re right, we also have to learn the lesson of what has happened in other parts of the world where there might have been talk but there wasn’t action when it was necessary, and I do think we have to think about that as we go ahead.
Thank you. Prime Minister Cameron, can you confirm if there have been talks today amongst leaders on stepping up more sanctions on Libya and actually targeting the oil sector?
What there has been is stepping up of sanctions, as I said in my statement about enlarging the number of organisations that are covered by sanctions. There’s also consideration being given, because the point was made very powerfully by Cathy Ashton, that this regime is still in receipt of a huge amount of money, including oil money, and so we do need to look at that whole question about how revenues flow, who they flow to, whether they’re flowing into Qadhafi’s hands. So it’s a complicated question, but one the international community needs to get right.
I’d like to ask your response to the increasing crackdown in Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen today reports of various unpleasant things going on in Saudi, so what is your response to that? And should King Abdullah still go to the royal wedding?
Well, my response to all that is going on in the Middle East is to say that what we want to see and what we think is good for stability and progress, as I said in my speech in the Kuwaiti parliament, is to see countries put in place the building blocks of democracy and civil societies and all that goes with it, and I think what I was pleased to see as I went round the Gulf was actually the number of regimes that understand that and are taking those steps. I accept that in the short term, as these things happen, there will be difficulties, as we see in the region, but in the long term, the argument I made that actually economic progress and stability will go better as countries put in place the building blocks of democracy I think is profoundly right.
Thank you very much for coming and thank you very much for your questions.