The Prime Minister
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on yesterday’s European Council. This was the first Council since Britain decided to leave the European Union. The decision was accepted and we began constructive discussions about how to ensure a strong relationship between Britain and the countries of the EU, but before the discussion on Britain there were other items on the agenda. Let me briefly touch on them.
On migration, the Council noted the very significant reductions in illegal crossings from Turkey to Greece as a result of the agreement made with Turkey in March, but it expressed continued concern over the central Mediterranean route and a determination to do all we can to combat people smuggling via Libya. Britain continues to play a leading role in Operation Sophia with HMS Enterprise, and I can tell the House today that Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay will also be deployed to stop the flow of weapons to terrorists, particularly Daesh, in Libya.
On NATO, Secretary General Stoltenberg gave a presentation ahead of the Warsaw summit and the Council agreed the need for NATO and the EU to work together in a complementary way to strengthen our security.
On completing the single market, there were important commitments on the digital single market, including that EU residents will be able to travel with the digital content they have purchased or subscribed to at home. On the economic situation, the president of the European Central Bank gave a presentation in the light of the outcome of our referendum. Private sector forecasts discussed at the Council included estimates of a reduction in eurozone growth potentially between 0.3% and 0.5% over the next three years. One of the main explanations for that is the predicted slowdown in the UK economy, given our trade with the euro area. President Draghi reassured the Council that the ECB has worked with the Bank of England for many months to prepare for uncertainty and, in the face of continued volatility, our institutions will continue to monitor markets and act as necessary.
To return to the main discussions around Britain leaving the EU, the tone of the meeting was one of sadness and regret, but there was agreement that the decision of the British people should be respected and we had positive discussions about the relationship we want to see between Britain and our European partners and the next steps on leaving the EU, including some of the issues that need to be worked through and the timing for triggering article 50. Let me say a word about each.
We were clear that, while Britain is leaving the European Union, we are not turning our backs on Europe—and they are not turning their backs on us. Many of my counterparts talked warmly about the history and values that our countries share and the huge contribution that Britain has made to peace and progress in Europe. For example, the Estonian Prime Minister described how the Royal Navy helped to secure the independence of his country a century ago. The Czech Prime Minister paid tribute to Britain as a home for Czechs fleeing persecution. Many of the countries of eastern and central Europe expressed the debt they feel to Britain for standing by them when they were suffering under communism and for supporting them as they joined the European Union. President Hollande talked movingly about the visit that he and I will be making later this week to the battlefields of the Somme, where British and French soldiers fought and died together for the freedom of our continent and the defence of the democracy and values that we share.
Therefore, the Council was clear that, as we take forward this agenda of Britain leaving the European Union, we should rightly want to have the closest possible relationship that we can in the future. In my view, that should include the strongest possible relationship in terms of trade, co-operation and of course security, something that only becomes more important in the light of the appalling terrorist attack in Turkey last night.
As I said on Monday, as we work to implement the will of the British people, we also have a fundamental responsibility to bring our country together. We will not tolerate hate crime or any kind of attacks against people in our country because of their ethnic origin, and I reassured European leaders who were concerned about what they had heard was happening in Britain. We are a proud multi-faith, multi-ethnic society and we will stay that way.
I now turn to the next steps on leaving the EU. First, there was a lot of reassurance that, until Britain leaves, we are a full member. That means that we are entitled to all the benefits of membership and full participation until the point at which we leave. Secondly, we discussed some of the issues that will need to be worked through. I explained that in Britain there was great concern about the movement of people and the challenges of controlling immigration, as well as concerns about the issue of sovereignty. Indeed, I explained how those had come together. In turn, many of our European partners were clear that it is impossible to have all the benefits of membership without some of the costs of membership, and that is something that the next Prime Minister and their Cabinet are going to have to work through very carefully.
Third, on the timing of article 50, contrary to some expectations there was not a great clamour for Britain to trigger this straightaway. While there were one or two voices calling for this, the overwhelming view of my fellow leaders was that we need to take some time to get this right. Of course, everyone wants to see a clear blueprint in terms of what Britain thinks is right for its future relationship with the EU, and, as I explained in my statement on Monday, we are starting this work straightaway with the new unit in Whitehall, which will be led by a new permanent secretary, Oliver Robbins.
This unit will examine all the options and possibilities in a neutral way, setting out the costs and benefits so that the next Prime Minister and their Cabinet have all the information they need with which to determine exactly the right approach to take and the right outcome to try and negotiate. But the decisions that follow from this, including the triggering of article 50, are rightly for the next Prime Minister, and the Council clearly understood and, I believe, respected that.
I do not think it is a secret that I have, at times, found discussions in Brussels frustrating, but, despite that, I do believe we can be proud of what we have achieved, whether it is putting a greater focus on jobs and growth, cutting the EU budget in real terms for the first time, reducing the burden of red tape on business, or building common positions on issues of national security, such as sanctions to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon, standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and galvanising other European countries to help with the lead that Britain was taking in dealing with Ebola in Sierra Leone.
In all these ways, and more, we have shown how much more we have in common with our European partners as neighbours and allies and friends who share fundamental values, history and culture. It is a poignant reminder that while we will be leaving the European Union, we must continue to work together, for the security and prosperity of our people for generations to come. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for providing an advance copy of his statement. As he took part in what I assume will be his last ever EU Council summit, I was very pleased he took a more conciliatory tone in relation to our European neighbours than Nigel Farage did in the European Parliament yesterday.
As we negotiate our exit from the European Union, the British people are relying on the Government to facilitate as positive a transition as possible, and if we are to achieve this, we must proceed in a constructive and decent manner. I look forward to joining the Prime Minister, as I said at Question Time, at the commemoration of the Somme on Friday. He was right, too, to emphasise the role played by Britain in Europe in negotiating agreement with Iran and securing support for action to tackle the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. So I thank the Prime Minister for that.
Yesterday the Prime Minister said at the EU Council summit that in order to strike a new relationship between Britain and the EU, European leaders would have to offer the UK more control over immigration. The threat of losing access to the single market means we are already seeing a negative effect on investment and business in this country. On Monday, the Prime Minister said access to the single market without accepting free movement was impossible. Does the Prime Minister now believe that Britain can negotiate an unprecedented deal? Can he also spell out a little more clearly than in his statement what further discussions were held in this area? This is an issue on which there needs to be an open debate—dare I say, an open and “straight-talking” debate, that absolutely failed to materialise during much of the referendum campaign.
The Prime Minister stated in the House on Monday that article 50 will not be triggered until his successor is in place. I heard what he just said about the views of other leaders at the summit. When does he expect article 50 actually to be triggered so we will know what the negotiating timetable is?
As I raised in my response to the Prime Minister on Monday, we in this House have a duty to act in the national interest and ensure we get the best agreement for all our constituents. Does the Prime Minister feel that, without the structures in place for this House to debate the alternatives and lead a discussion in our communities, there is a risk of leaving Britain in a state of paralysis at a time when people need clear answers to their concerns? Will he also be able to tell us if there has been any further thought about the role of devolved Governments in future negotiations with the EU? We have seen today the First Minister of Scotland creating her own separate negotiating group and starting talks with the EU and it appears the Chief Minister of Gibraltar is doing the same. What conversations has the Prime Minister had with the First Ministers in Scotland and Wales and what legal advice has he received on separate negotiations by devolved Administrations and, indeed, overseas territories? I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that HMS Enterprise will continue to play its part in Operation Sophia.
Last week’s vote to leave the EU means that this country is currently in an unstable position. The next steps we take may be our most important and they must be taken with care. We have a duty now to reshape and rebuild an economy for the future—one that protects social and employment rights and builds new policies on trade, migration, environmental protection and investment, in order to deliver a country in which the prosperity that we create is shared by all. Therefore I urge the Prime Minister, and whoever his successor may be, to recognise that what our economy needs now is a clear plan for investment, not the further austerity and cuts to public services that the Chancellor put forward yesterday. I also urge the Prime Minister and his successor, one more time, to look at the suspension, and preferably the termination, of his now even more counterproductive fiscal rule.
I thank the Prime Minister for his assurances and his condemnation of racist attacks and abuse, wherever they occur in this country. I join him in that. We all need to calm our language and tone, and Members in all parts of the House must condemn the rise of racism in our society. Will he also reiterate absolutely his assurance to European Union nationals who are working here, providing support in our health service and in so many other services, that they are welcome and will remain welcome because of the work they do and the contribution they make? Our country is divided, so we must heal that division. Our economy is fragile, so we must begin to rebuild it. Our duty now is to move forward in a calm and conciliatory manner to build a new relationship with Europe and to build a Britain that works for everyone in every part of this country.
The Prime Minister
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response and for the way he has gone about it. He is right to say that “constructive” is the correct word. I was pleased that the discussions last night did not have a tone of European Union countries demanding this set of actions while Britain argued for that set of actions. There was a mature and calm understanding that we need each other and that we need this negotiation to proceed well and have a good outcome. That is in all our interests. I think we got off on the right foot, and I will do everything I can—whether in this job or as a Back-Bench MP—to ensure that we keep those strong relationships with our European partners, because we are going to need to.
On the issue of immigration versus the single market, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is the biggest and most difficult issue to deal with, whether we are in the European Union arguing for changes or outside it and trying to secure the best possible access to the single market. My answer to the problem was to bring in the welfare restrictions that I negotiated. It was incredibly tough to negotiate them, and I am sad that they will now fall away as a result of the referendum decision. There is no doubt that the next Government are going to have to work very hard on this. I personally think that access to the single market and the strength of our economy will be the single most important issue that they will have to deal with.
On the question of article 50, that will be a matter for the next Prime Minister, and there is a very good reason for that. Before we go into the tunnel of the article 50 negotiations, which have a two-year time limit, we will want to have made the best possible preparations for the precise blueprint that we want to achieve at the end. That will help Britain, and frankly it will help the other European Union countries to understand what it is that we are shooting for. They have said that there can be no negotiation without notification, but I do not think that that excludes discussions between the new Prime Minister and partners or institutions, so that we can continue to get off on the right foot. That is the strong advice that I would give to them.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the devolved institutions. I have had conversations with the First Minister of Scotland, the First Minister of Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and I shall continue to do so. I want them to be as involved as possible and I want their voices to be heard loud and clear.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about legal advice, and the legal advice that I have seen is that this is a UK decision to be made by the United Kingdom Government and the United Kingdom Parliament. It has to be done in that way. I completely agree with what he said about racism. We should all reiterate the statements that we have made to the EU nationals who are here. We should thank them for their contribution and say that their rights are guaranteed while we remain in the EU and we will be working hard on that question. I am sure that all the contenders in the Conservative leadership campaign will want to make it clear that they want to safeguard for the future the rights of people from the European Union who work here and study here, but that will be a matter for them.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about suspending the fiscal rule. This feels a little bit like a stuck record. Whatever the problem or issue, his answer always seems to be: more borrowing, more spending, more taxing and more debt. I have to say that you do not get investment unless you have economic stability, and you do not have economic stability if you do not have a plan for dealing with your debts and your deficit. This has been proved the world over, including in some of his favourite countries such as Venezuela, and I really would argue against going down that route.