My response to Theresa May’s European Council statement

The Prime Minister

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on my first European Council.

I went to the Council last week with a clear message for my 27 European counterparts. The UK is leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe, and we are not turning our backs on our friends and allies. For as long as we are members of the EU, we will continue to play a full and active role. After we leave, we will be a confident, outward-looking country, enthusiastic about trading freely with our European neighbours and co-operating on our shared security interests, including on law enforcement and counter-terrorism work. That is the right approach for Britain to take. It was in that spirit that we were able to make a significant contribution at this Council on ensuring a robust European stance in the face of Russian aggression, on addressing the root causes of mass migration, and on championing free trade around the world. Let me say a word about each.

Russian’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Aleppo and the atrocities that we have seen elsewhere in Syria are utterly horrific. It is vital that we keep up the pressure on Russia and the Syrian regime to stop the appalling actions and to create the space for a genuine political transition in Syria. It was the UK that put this issue on the agenda for the Council. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made the case for a robust response at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday, and I spoke personally to Chancellor Merkel and President Tusk ahead of the Council last week. The Council strongly condemned the attacks, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and demanded that those responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights be held accountable—but we need to go further, which is why we agreed that, if current atrocities continue, the EU will consider “all available options”. We also agreed that everything should be done to bring in humanitarian aid to the civilian population.

On Friday in Geneva, the UK secured an extraordinary session of the UN Human Rights Council to press for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian access to Aleppo. There are millions of innocent civilians trapped there and in other besieged locations across Syria in desperate need of food, shelter and healthcare. The UK is already the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor to this crisis. If we can secure the access needed to Aleppo and other besieged areas, we stand ready to accelerate over £23 million of aid for the UN to distribute on the ground to help the most vulnerable in the hardest-to-reach parts of Syria.

Turning to the migration crisis, the Home Secretary will be giving a statement on Calais shortly. At the European Council, I confirmed that the UK will continue to provide practical support to our European partners, including through our naval presence in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. As part of that effort, HMS Echo will take over from HMS Enterprise in the central Mediterranean early next year. However, I also reiterated the case that I made last month at the United Nations for a new global approach to migration based on three fundamental principles: first, ensuring that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach; secondly, improving the way we distinguish between refugees and economic migrants; and thirdly, developing a better overall approach to managing economic migration, which recognises that all countries have the right to control their borders and that all countries must commit to accepting the return of their own nationals when they have no right to remain elsewhere. This new approach includes working more closely with both source and transit countries, and the Council agreed to do more to help those countries prevent illegal migration and to return migrants who have no right to stay in EU countries.

On trade, I am determined that as we leave the EU, Britain will be the most passionate, the most consistent and the most convincing advocate of free trade anywhere in the world, so as we look beyond our continent, we will seize the opportunities of Brexit to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role for Britain in the world. As part of this, I have been clear that the UK is already discussing our future trading relationships with third countries. As I made clear to the other member states last week, this will not undermine the EU’s trade agenda. In fact, it is not even in competition with it, and for as long as we remain a member of the EU, we will continue to back the EU’s free trade negotiations.

I share everyone’s disappointment over the stalled talks between the EU and Canada, and we will, of course, do anything we can to try to help get those discussions back on track. I remind those who suggest that these difficulties have a bearing on our own future negotiations that we are not seeking to replicate any existing model that any other country has for its trade with the European Union. We will be developing our own British model—a new relationship for the UK with the EU—for when we are outside the EU, a deal that is ambitious and bold for Britain.

I updated the European Council on our position on Brexit. I have said that we will invoke article 50 no later than the end of March next year, and that as part of the withdrawal process, we will put before Parliament a great repeal Bill which will remove from the statute book once and for all the European Communities Act. The legislation that gives direct effect to all EU law in Britain will no longer apply from the date upon which we formally leave the European Union, and the authority of EU law in Britain will end.

The Government will give Parliament the opportunity to discuss our approach to leaving the European Union. In addition to regular updates from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my own statements following Council meetings, and the deliberations of the new Committee on Exiting the European Union, the Government will make time available for a series of general debates on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. These will take place before and after the Christmas recess, and I expect will include debate on the high-level principles that the Government will pursue in the negotiations.

Members on all sides will recognise that the Government must not show their hand in detail as we enter these negotiations, but it is important that Members have this opportunity to speak on the issues that matter to their constituents as we make our preparations to leave the EU. Although we have not yet formally started the Brexit negotiations, I made it clear at last week’s European Council that my aim is to cement Britain as a close partner of the EU once we have left. 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 British companies the maximum freedom to trade with, and operate within, the European market, and allow European businesses to do the same here; a deal that will deliver the deepest possible co-operation to ensure our national security and the security of our allies; a deal that is in Britain’s interests and the interests of all our European partners. But it will also be a deal that means we are a fully independent, sovereign nation, able to do what sovereign nations do, which means we will, for example, be free to decide for ourselves how we control immigration. It will mean our laws are made not in Brussels but here in this Parliament, and that the judges interpreting those laws will sit not in Luxembourg but in courts right here in Britain.

The negotiations will take time. There will be difficult moments ahead, and as I have said before, it will require patience and some give and take. But I firmly believe that if we approach this in a constructive spirit, we can ensure a smooth departure. We can build a powerful new relationship that works both for the UK and for the countries of the EU, and we can secure the deal that is right for the British people, whose instruction it is our duty to deliver. I commend this statement to the House.

Jeremy Corbyn

I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of the statement she has just given us.

Funnily enough, I, too, was in Brussels last Thursday, meeting socialist leaders and their counterparts. [Interruption.] I have to say I was given a little longer to speak than the five minutes the Prime Minister had at the dinner that evening, and I had it at a more reasonable time of the day.


Emily Thornberry

And listened to.


Jeremy Corbyn

Indeed, I was listened to very carefully by all those around the table.

I made it clear to the other leaders that Britain should continue to be a full and active member of the European Union until negotiations on our exit are complete. I think the Prime Minister was trying to send the same message, but the manner in which she conveyed it was rather different, as she seemed not to be trying to build the consensus that is necessary or to shape a future relationship with the European Union that is beneficial to everybody. She had a very different approach.

The message that came to me loud and clear from European leaders last week was that the tone taken by this Tory Government since their Tory party conference earlier this month has damaged our global reputation and lost us a lot of good will, not just in Europe but around the world. Although the Prime Minister’s words may have appeased the hard-line voices behind her, the approach she and her party have taken has only spread anger and resentment all across Europe. I do not believe that we will get the best deal for this country by using threats, by hectoring or by lecturing the European Union. For these negotiations to succeed, the Government need to adopt a slightly more grown-up approach. For negotiations to succeed, Britain needs a plan. What is clear to everybody—European leaders, non-governmental organisations and business—is that, quite clearly, the Government do not have one.

Can the Prime Minister tell the House if any progress has been made since the Council meeting last week? Is she willing to tell us whether access to the single market is a red line for her Government or not? She has made it clear that she wants to end freedom of movement, but she has not been clear to business about what will be in its place, causing uncertainty for business and for the many EU nationals who reside in this country and make such a great contribution to our economy. Can she tell us if her Government are supporting moves by senior Conservatives to amend the great repeal Bill by adding a sunset clause, allowing Ministers to strip away EU laws on workers’ rights and environmental protection in the years that succeed the exit from the European Union? Can she also tell us how the Government plan to make up the shortfall in funding to the regions resulting from the loss of structural funding to vital capital programmes all over this country?

One week, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will say one thing; the next week, the Chancellor will say another. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister says very little, other than, “Brexit means Brexit” and “We will not provide a running commentary.” The rest of the world looks on and concludes that Britain has not got a clue. The truth is that this is not a soft Brexit, or even a hard Brexit; it is simply a chaotic Brexit.

With all that uncertainty and all those mixed messages, confidence in the economy falls day by day and the British people become more worried about their future. Two weeks ago, the Treasury said that leaving the single market would lead to a £66 billion loss to the economy. The trade deficit is widening and the value of the pound has already fallen by 18%, resulting in industries, including the auto industry, delaying vital investment decisions and the banking sector looking to relocate. That indecision and poor economic management is starting to hit our economy severely, weakening our hand as we walk into the most important negotiations for many generations.

We on the Labour Benches respect the referendum result and accept that Britain must leave the European Union. We also understand that this will be a monumental exercise, with the decisions made now affecting the lives of British people for years to come. The Prime Minister appeared to make some sort of concession about parliamentary scrutiny. In her reply, I would be grateful if she would explain the exact nature of the debates that will take place each side of the Christmas recess.

We as an Opposition will not just stand by and let this Government choose the terms of Brexit unopposed. It is our duty to scrutinise and to make sure that this Government have a Brexit plan for this country, not just for the Eurosceptics sitting behind the Prime Minister. We will continue to push for this Parliament to have a very full say in the matter, whatever happens in the debates around the time of the Christmas recess.

Today the French authorities begin the formal closure of the Calais camp, and I would like to take this opportunity to welcome those children who have already arrived in this country, as well as others who have family connections. The camp—I have seen it for myself—has become a hellish place where a few of the world’s most vulnerable people have come to try to survive and to call it their home. Yet it remains unclear what process and timetable the Government are working under to bring refugee children who are entitled, under international law and the Dubs II amendment, to refuge in the UK.

I reiterate the urgency in the letter that I sent last week to the Prime Minister, asking her to intervene personally on behalf of our country and to be open and accommodating to those children. I am grateful for the reply that I received an hour ago, but will the Prime Minister be more precise about the timetable for allowing children and others who have family connections to come to this country, and will she ensure that Britain does not evade its responsibility to help those who have suffered from the biggest global displacement since the end of world war two? The displacement is primarily caused by atrocities in Syria, and we utterly and totally condemn indiscriminate bombing. The only solution in Syria is a political one.

These issues are the ones that future generations will look back on when it comes to defining this political generation. If we continue to approach the challenges that we face in a divisive and aggressive manner, they will only grow larger. If, instead, we work together—in this House and with our European partners and the rest of the world—to help those desperate people all around the globe, we may quickly find that the large problems that we face today will appear smaller than we first thought.


The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his response to my statement that he had been over in Brussels last Thursday, meeting various socialist leaders who listened to him. I suppose that, from his point of view, it is good to know that somebody is listening to him.

May I address the last two issues to which the right hon. Gentleman referred? As I said in my statement, and as he knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement on Calais and our response to the issue of unaccompanied minors, bringing children to the United Kingdom and the details involved. All I will say now is that we have been working very carefully, for a considerable time, with the French Government, not only to improve matters in relation to Calais, but to ensure that we abide by our requirements, under the Dublin regulations, to bring to the UK children —unaccompanied minors—who have family links here. That process has speeded up. We have put in extra resources from the Home Office and we have seen more children brought here. We have also adopted a scheme to bring 3,000 vulnerable children from the region—the middle east and north Africa—to the United Kingdom, working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are putting in place the Dubs amendment —the Immigration Act 2016 proposals—which require us first to negotiate and discuss with local authorities their ability to receive children in the United Kingdom. The overriding aim of everyone in the House should be to ensure that it is the best interests of the children who are being looked at and dealt with. It is no help for those children if we cannot properly provide for them when they come to the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman did not discuss the wider migration crisis, other than to make a reference in which he said it was mainly due to Syrian refugees. What we have seen in the migration crisis is large numbers of people moving, not from Syria but mainly from parts of Africa, which is why the United Kingdom has consistently argued for more work upstream to stop the numbers of people coming through and to ensure that people have opportunities in source and transit countries, rather than requiring to come here to the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman made a reference to the indiscriminate bombing in Aleppo. I assume that he was referring to Russian action as well as to Syrian regime action. It was important that the UK put that matter on the table for the agenda of the European Council, which made the agreements that it did.

Coming on to Brexit arrangements, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the tone since the Conservative party conference. I have to tell him that when I was in the European Council last week a number of European leaders commended the speech that I gave at the conference, including one or two socialist leaders who may have talked to him.

The right hon. Gentleman says that we do not have a plan. We have a plan, which is not to set out at every stage of the negotiations the details of those negotiations, because that would be the best way to ensure that we did not get the best deal for the UK. He talked about free movement, and I notice that at the weekend the shadow Foreign Secretary once again refused to say what the Labour party’s position on free movement was and whether it would bring an end to it.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about indecision. I have to say to the Leader of the Opposition that he could not decide whether we should be in or out of the European Union, and he could not decide when we should invoke article 50. The only thing we know about his position is that he would have unfettered immigration into this country—the very thing that the British people have told us they do not want. Unlike him, the Conservative party is listening to the British people.