The Prime Minister
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 those issues.
On 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. 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 to return those who have no right to stay. Ultimately, we 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.
I turn 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 that 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. We also agreed at the Council to renew tier 3 economic sanctions on Russia for another six months, maintaining the pressure on Russia to implement the Minsk agreements in full.
I turn to the appalling situation in Syria. 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 children’s lives destroyed. He had one simple plea for us: to get those who 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 safely evacuate the innocent people of Aleppo—Syrians whom 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 who must be rescued, and we cannot have those buses being attacked as they have been.
On Thursday afternoon my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary summoned the Russian and Iranian Ambassadors to make it 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. That has been agreed unanimously this afternoon, and we now need it to be implemented in full. 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, and one we will not forget. Last week’s Council reiterated that those responsible must be held to account.
Alongside our diplomatic efforts, the UK is going to provide a further £20 million of practical support for those who are most vulnerable. That includes £10 million for trusted humanitarian partners working on the front line in some of the hardest-to-reach places in Syria to help them to deliver food parcels and medical supplies to those most in need, and an additional £10 million to UNICEF to help it to 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 who have been lost, but it is not too late to save those who remain. That is what we must now do.
I turn to Brexit. I updated the Council on the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union. I explained that two weeks ago this House voted by a considerable majority—almost six to one—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 require 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 judgment goes, we will meet the timetable I have set out.
At the Council, I also reaffirmed my commitment to a smooth and orderly exit. 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 that I would like to agree quickly, but that clearly requires the agreement of the rest of the EU.
Finally, 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, and 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 that 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. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of her statement. As we approach the end of this year, I think we can all agree this has been a year of enormous change in this country and the rest of the world, but with that change comes a great deal of division. As we move swiftly towards the triggering of article 50, I want to appeal to the Prime Minister not only to work harder to heal those divisions in Britain, but to make sure that her new year’s resolutions include a commitment to build better relations with our European partners so that we get the best deal for the people of this country, not just a Brexit that benefits big business and bankers.
At the moment, it is clear that the Prime Minister and Britain are becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage. If we are to build a successful Britain after Brexit, it is more vital than ever that our relationship with our European partners remains strong, cordial and respectful. It is also clear from my own discussions with European leaders that they are becoming increasingly frustrated by her shambolic Government and the contradictory approach to Brexit negotiations. The mixed messages from her Front Bench only add to the confusion. This Government fail to speak for the whole country; instead, we hear a babble of voices speaking for themselves and their vested interests.
For instance, last week we were told by Britain’s permanent representative to the EU that a Brexit deal may take 10 years, contradicting what the Secretary of State for Brexit told a Select Committee that day, when he said a deal could be struck in 18 months. There is a bit of a difference there. We also heard from the Chancellor, who told us that Britain was looking for a transitional deal with the European Union, only for the Secretary of State for International Trade to warn against a transitional deal, saying any arrangements close to the status quo would go against the wishes of those who voted to leave. The people of Britain deserve better than this confusion at the heart of Government.
Confidence is being lost. The Office for Budget Responsibility made its own judgment on the Government’s Brexit plans in November, when it published new forecasts for 2017: growth was revised down, wages revised down and business investment revised down; the only thing the OBR raised was its forecast for inflation. The Government are risking even weaker growth than they have delivered so far and an exodus of financial services, and hitting manufacturing industry very hard.
I welcome the fact that the Government have now accepted Labour’s demands for a published Brexit plan, but it is still unclear how the plan will be presented and when we will receive it in Parliament. Can the Prime Minister today do what the Secretary of State for Brexit, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for International Trade and the permanent representative to the EU all failed to do last week and give this country some real answers? Can she tell us when the House will receive the Government’s plan for article 50 and how long we will be given to scrutinise that plan? Can she also tell us how long the Government envisage the whole process taking? Can she tell us whether the Government will be looking for an interim transitional deal with the European Union? These are basic questions that have still not been answered, nearly six months after Britain voted to leave the European Union.
There were also reports last week that the UK will be asked to pay a €50 billion bill to honour commitments to the EU budget until 2020. Can the Prime Minister tell this House if that is the case? Can she update us all on the Government’s contingency plans for those projects and programmes in the UK that are currently reliant on EU funding after 2020? There is much concern in many parts of the country about those programmes.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s desire to bring forward and give greater clarity on the issue of rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom. However, if she is serious about this, why wait? Why will the Government not end the worry and uncertainty, as this House demanded in July, and give an unequivocal commitment to guarantee people’s rights before article 50 is triggered, as both the TUC and the British Chambers of Commerce called for this weekend? Not only is it the right thing to do; it would also send a clear signal to our colleagues and our European friends that Britain is committed to doing the right thing and committed to a friendly future relationship.
With that in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Austrian President, Alexander Van der Bellen, on his election. I am sure we all agree that his victory in the presidential elections represents a victory for respect and kindness over hate and division, and is a signal against the dangerous rise of the far right across Europe.
I am also glad that the European Union Council leaders discussed the other pressing global issues last week, notably the terrible situation in Syria. I therefore want to use this opportunity to renew the calls I made in a letter to the Prime Minister last week for an urgent and concerted effort from the Government to press for an end to the violence and for a United Nations-led ceasefire, along with the creation of UN-brokered humanitarian corridors and the issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population, as well as urgent talks through the UN to achieve a negotiated political settlement. It is clear that the rules of war are being broken on all sides. Labour has long condemned attacks on civilian targets on all sides, including those by Russian and pro-Syrian Government forces in Aleppo, for which there can be no excuse.
I also know that Cyprus and reunification were raised at the Council meeting. Will the Prime Minister give us an update on what was said on this issue? Britain is after all a guarantor of Cypriot independence under the 1960 treaty.
There is a lot to do in 2017, with a lot of important decisions to be made. I make a plea to the Prime Minister to represent all sides, whether they voted to leave or remain, and to make the right decisions that benefit not just her party but everyone in this country.
The Prime Minister
On the issue of Cyprus, President Anastasiades updated us on the talks that had taken place. These are important talks. I think we all accept that we have perhaps the best opportunity for a settlement in Cyprus that we have seen for many, many years. The talks have been taking place under UN auspices between the two leaders. They have been encouraged and generated by the two leaders on the island, and it is important that we recognise the leadership they have shown on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman is right. There are three guarantors: Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom. We stand ready to play our part, as required and when it is appropriate for us to do so. There is a meeting coming up in January, and there is a possibility that it will be attended by others such as the United Kingdom. In the EU Council’s conclusions, it said that it stood ready to participate if that were part of helping the deal to come through.
On Syria, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me asking for us to take action through the United Nations. We have consistently taken action through the UN. We have been working over the weekend to ensure that there was a UN Security Council resolution today that was accepted. As all Members will know, Russia has vetoed a number of previous Security Council resolutions, and the most recent one before today was vetoed by both Russia and China. It is very clear that we now have a resolution that has been accepted by Russia and China, and accepted unanimously by the Security Council. It provides for humanitarian access and for UN monitoring of people leaving Aleppo, which is important.
The right hon. Gentleman spent most of his comments on Brexit. He started off by talking about our wanting a deal that benefits the United Kingdom. Yes, I have been saying that ever since I first came into this role. We want to ensure that we get the best possible deal, but I have to say to him that we do not get the possible deal in negotiations by laying out everything we want in advance. That is the whole point of negotiations.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about isolation. The point is that the UK is going to leave the European Union. We are leaving the group that is the European Union. In due course, they will meet only as 27 members, because we will no longer be a member. It is clear from what happened at the EU Council that, as long as we are a member, we will continue to play our full part with the European Union.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about EU funds, and funds that are currently intended to continue beyond the date at which we would leave the European Union. The Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the position very clearly some weeks ago. Those funds will continue to be met provided they give value for money and meet the UK Government’s objectives.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the length of the process. As he knows, once we trigger article 50, the treaty allows for a process that can take up to two years. Of course, how long it takes within that period depends on the progress of the negotiations that take place. He then spoke about uncertainty and the need for investment in the UK. He gave the impression of a bleak economic picture, but I remind him that ours is the fastest-growing economy this year in the G7. Let us look at the companies that have announced new additional investment since the Brexit referendum: Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Aldi, Associated British Ports, CAF, Facebook, Google, GlaxoSmithKline, Sitel and Statoil. The list will continue because this is still a good place to invest and a good place to grow businesses.
The right hon. Gentleman then talked about confusion on the Front Bench. Well, he has obviously been looking at his own Front Bench. Let us take one very simple issue: immigration. The shadow Home Secretary suggests that freedom of movement should be maintained; the shadow Chancellor said that we should have a fair deal on freedom of movement; and the shadow Brexit Secretary says we should have immigration controls. They cannot even agree on one aspect of leaving the European Union. With the Leader of the Opposition’s negotiation technique, if he were in office, we would as sure as goodness be getting the worst possible deal we could get for the United Kingdom.