The Prime Minister
Before I turn to the European Council, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our congratulations to Her Majesty the Queen as she marks her sapphire jubilee today. It is testimony to Her Majesty’s selfless devotion to the nation that she is marking becoming our first monarch to reign for sixty-five years not with any special celebration, but instead by getting on with the job to which she has dedicated her life. On behalf of the whole country, I am proud to offer Her Majesty our humble thanks for a lifetime of extraordinary service. Long may she continue to reign over us all.
Turning to last week’s informal European Council in Malta, Britain is leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe, and a global Britain that stands tall in the world will be a Britain that remains a good friend and ally to all our European partners. So at this summit we showed how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe long after we have left the EU, in particular through our contribution to the challenge of managing mass migration; through our special relationship with America; and through the new and equal partnership that we want to build between the EU and an independent, self-governing, global Britain. Let me take each point in turn.
First, on migration, the discussion focused on the route from Libya across the central Mediterranean. As I have argued, we need a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach, and that is exactly what the Council agreed. That includes working hard in support of an inclusive political settlement to stabilise Libya, which will help not only to tackle migration flows, but to counter terrorism. It means working to reduce the pull factors that encourage people to risk their lives and building the capacity of the Libyans to return migrants to their own shores, treat them with dignity and help them return home. It means looking beyond Libya and moving further upstream, including by urgently implementing the EU’s external investment plan to help create more opportunities in migrants’ home countries and by helping genuine refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. It also means better distinguishing 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 action in all those areas.
Britain is already playing a leading role in the region and at the summit I announced further steps, including additional support for the Libyan coastguard and more than £30 million of new aid for the most vulnerable refugees across Greece, the Balkans, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Libya. Britain is also setting up an £8 million special protection fund to keep men, women and children in the Mediterranean region safe from trafficking, sexual violence and labour exploitation as part of our commitment to tackle modern slavery. The Council agreed with my call that we should do everything possible to deter this horrific crime, including by introducing tough penalties for those who trade in human misery and by working together to secure the necessary evidence for prosecutions that can put these criminals behind bars, where they belong.
Turning to America, I opened a discussion on engaging the new Administration, and I was able to relay the conversation I had with President Trump at the White House about the important history of co-operation between the United States and the countries of Europe. In particular, I confirmed that the President had declared his 100% commitment to NATO as the cornerstone of our security in the west. I also made it clear, however, that every country needed to share the burden and play its full part, meeting the NATO target of spending 2% on defence. It is only by investing properly in our defence that we can ensure we are properly equipped to keep our people safe.
I was also able to relay my discussions with President Trump on the importance of maintaining the sanctions regime on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine, and I very much welcome the strong words last week from the new US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in confirming America’s continued support for these sanctions.
Of course, there are some areas where we disagree with the approach of the new Administration, and we should be clear about those disagreements and about the values that underpin our response to the global challenges we face. I also argued at the Council, however, that we should engage patiently and constructively with America as a friend and ally—an ally that has helped to guarantee the longest period of peace that Europe has ever known. For we should be clear that the alternative of division and confrontation would only embolden those who would do us harm, wherever they may be.
Finally turning to Brexit, European leaders welcomed the clarity of the objectives we set out for the negotiation ahead. They warmly welcomed our ambition to build a new partnership between Britain and the EU that is in the interests of both sides. They also welcomed the recognition that we in Britain want to see a strong and successful EU, because that is in our interests and the interests of the whole world.
On the issue of acquired rights, the general view was that we should reach an agreement that applied equally to the other 27 member states and the UK, which is why we think a unilateral decision from the UK is not the right way forward. As I have said before, however, EU citizens living in the UK make a vital contribution to our economy and our society, and without them we would be poorer and our public services weaker. We will therefore make securing a reciprocal agreement that will guarantee their status a priority as soon as the negotiations begin, and I want to see this agreed as soon as possible, because that is in everyone’s interests.
Our European partners now want to get on with the negotiations. So do I, and so does this House, which last week voted by a majority of 384 in support of the Government triggering article 50. There are, of course, further stages for the Bill in Committee and in the other place, and it is right that this process should be completed properly, but the message is clear to all: this House has spoken, and now is not the time to obstruct the democratically expressed wishes of the British people. It is time to get on with leaving the EU and building an independent, self-governing, global Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for her statement and for advance sight of it, and I echo her sentiments towards Her Majesty. I wish her Majesty well at this auspicious time in her life and thank her for her service.
The Prime Minister has used this curiously named “informal” EU summit to press the EU’s NATO members to fulfil their defence expenditure requirements. The last Labour Government consistently spent over 2% on defence. The Tory Government’s cuts since 2010 have demoralised our armed forces, cut spending by 11% in the last Parliament and reduced the size of the Army from 82,000 to 77,000. As well as making these cuts, they have changed the way the 2% spending is calculated. Given that she is lecturing other countries, will she tell the House why her Government changed the accounting rules to include aspects of expenditure not previously included? The Defence Select Committee in 2015 noted that the Government were only meeting the 2% figure by including areas, such as pensions, not previously included. It went on to say that
“this ‘redefinition’ of defence expenditure undermines, to some extent, the credibility of the Government’s assertion that the 2% figure represents a…increase”.
To add to this disarray, this weekend, The Sunday Times uncovered a series of equipment failures and bungled procurement deals, including apparently ordering light tanks that are too big to fit in the aircraft that are supposed to be transporting them. This really does cast some doubt on the Government’s competence in this area, so perhaps it is not such a good idea to go lecturing other countries on defence spending and procurement.
Labour has long been concerned about poor planning and short-sightedness by the Ministry of Defence and long delays in delivering projects. The extent to which the MOD appears to have lost control of some of its biggest equipment projects is worrying, and it would be nice to know what action the Prime Minister is taking on this matter.
Earlier today, the Prime Minister had a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Did she make it clear to him that, as is often mentioned in this House and by the Prime Minister herself, there is continued opposition by the British Government to the illegal settlements being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
Labour has been unequivocal about the fact that it is within this Government’s gift to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to remain in this country. There is no need to wait for negotiations to begin; the Government could do it now. This is not a question about Brexit; it is a question about human rights, democracy and decency towards people who have lived and worked in this country. Many families have had children born here, and I think we must guarantee their rights. Many of those people have been left in limbo, and are very deeply concerned and stressed. Did the Prime Minister discuss this issue with her European counterparts, and will she today provide those people with the clarity and assurances that they both need and, I believe, deserve?
We are clear that we accept the mandate of the British people to leave the European Union, but we will not accept this Government turning this country into a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe.
Finally, we welcome the additional £30 million that the Government have committed to the refugee crisis across Europe. Last week at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the UK had resettled 10,000 refugees from Syria. According to the House of Commons Library, we have resettled less than half that figure—4,414. There is an ongoing and grave human tragedy that has resulted in more than 5,000 people drowning in the Mediterranean last year and 254 already this year, and we are only at the beginning of February.
I believe that we should also note the phenomenal commitment of the Government and people of Greece to the huge number of refugees in their country, and the difficulties they are having in supporting them. What conversations did she have with her Greek counterpart on this important matter? I also say to the Prime Minister that, even post- Brexit, this is an issue that will affect every country in Europe. It is the biggest humanitarian crisis that we have ever faced in the world, and we will need to co-ordinate as a continent to address this issue with all the humanity and resources that our collective values determine should be deployed towards it.
The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman opened his remarks by referring to what I think he called the “curiously named” informal Council. It is the convention that at every new presidency—there are two new presidencies each year—the presidency holds an informal Council in which people are able to talk about a number of issues looking ahead to the formalities of the Council. There we are; that is what happens; and that is what we were doing in Valletta.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to my meeting earlier today with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I have to say that this was not a subject for discussion at the European Union Council last week. However, I have made the UK Government’s position on settlements clear, and I continued to do that today.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of UK nationals. As he said, it is absolutely right that we value the contribution that EU citizens are making here in the United Kingdom—their contribution to our communities, our economy, our society, and, as I have said, to our public services—but I think it is also right that we ensure that the rights of UK citizens living in other European states are maintained. It is clear from the conversations that I have had with a number of European leaders about this issue that they think that it should be dealt with in the round as a matter of reciprocity, but, as was made plain by, for example, the conversations that I had with Prime Minister Rajoy of Spain, we are all very clear about the fact that we want to give reassurance to people as early as possible in the negotiations.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the issue of refugees, and about people drowning in the Mediterranean. Of course the loss of life that we have seen has been terrible, as is the continuing loss of life that we are seeing despite the best efforts of the United Kingdom: the Royal Navy and Border Force have been there, acting with others to protect and rescue people. That is why it is so important that we stop people making that perilous journey in the first place and risking their lives, and that is why the work that we discussed at the EU Council in Valletta on Friday is so important.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about our relationship with Greece. We continue to support Greece: we have a number of experts providing support on the ground, giving the Greeks real help with the task of dealing with the refugees. I made a commitment that we would want to continue to co-operate with our European partners on this issue after leaving the European Union, because it is indeed not confined to the European Union; it affects us as a whole, throughout Europe.
The right hon. Gentleman made a number of comments about defence. Indeed, he devoted a fair amount of his response to the whole question of defence. At one point, he said that the fact that we were spending 2% on defence cast doubt on the competence of the UK Government in matters relating to it. I think this is the same right hon. Gentleman who said that he wanted to send out our nuclear submarines without any missiles on them. You couldn’t make it up.