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European Council

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 24th October 2011.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:30 pm, 24th October 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent developments in Libya and yesterday’s European Council.

Yesterday in Libya, after 42 years of tyranny and seven months of fighting, the national transitional council declared the formal liberation of their country. Everyone will have been moved by the pictures of joy and relief that we saw on our television screens last night. From Tripoli to Benghazi, from Misrata to Zawiyah, Libyans now dare to look forward, safe in the knowledge that the Gaddafi era is truly behind them.

This was Libya’s revolution, but Britain can be proud of the role that we played. Our aim throughout has been to fulfil the terms of the UN Security Council resolution, to protect civilians, and to give the Libyan people the chance to determine their own political future. With the death of Gaddafi, they now really do have that chance. The whole House will join me in paying tribute to our armed forces for the role that they have played—over 3,000 missions flown and some 2,000 strike sorties, one fifth of the total strike sorties flown by NATO. As the Chief of the Defence Staff has written this morning, it has been

“one of the most successful operations NATO has conducted in its 62-year history”.

I believe it is something the whole country can take pride in.

The decision to intervene militarily, to place our brave servicemen and women in the line of fire, is never an easy one. We were determined from the outset to conduct this campaign in the right way, and to learn the lessons of recent interventions, so we made sure the House was provided immediately with a summary of the legal advice authorising the action. We held a debate and a vote in Parliament at the earliest opportunity. We made sure that decisions were taken properly throughout the campaign, with the right people present, and in an orderly way. The National Security Council on Libya met 68 times, formulated our policy, and drove forward the military and the diplomatic campaign. We took great care to ensure that targeting decisions minimised the number of civilian casualties. I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dr Fox for his hard work on this issue.

It is a mark of the skill of RAF, British Army and other coalition pilots that the number of civilian casualties of the air attacks has been so low. The military mission is now coming to an end, and in the next few days, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector will formally be concluded. It will now be for Libyans to chart their own destiny and this country will stand ready to support them as they do so.

Many learned commentators have written about the lessons that can be learned from the past seven months. For our part, the Government are conducting a rapid exercise, while memories are still fresh, and we will publish its key findings. For my part, I am wary of drawing some grand, over-arching lesson—still less to claim that Libya offers some new template that we can apply the world over. I believe it has shown the importance of weighing each situation on its merits and thinking through carefully any decision to intervene in advance. But I hope it has also shown that this country has learned not only the lessons of Iraq, but the lessons of Bosnia too. When it is necessary, legal and right to act, we should be ready to do so.

Let me turn to yesterday’s European Council. This Council was about three things: sorting out the problems of the eurozone, promoting growth in the European Union, and ensuring that as the eurozone develops new arrangements for governance, the interests of those outside the eurozone are protected. This latter point touches directly on the debate in the House later today, and I will say a word on this later in my statement. Resolving the problems in the eurozone is the urgent and overriding priority facing not only the eurozone members, but the EU as a whole and indeed the rest of the world economy.

Britain is playing a positive role proposing the three vital steps needed to deal with the crisis: the establishment of a financial firewall big enough to contain any contagion; the credible recapitalisation of European banks; and a decisive solution to the problems in Greece. We pushed this in the letter we co-ordinated to the G20 and in the video conference between me, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama last week. We did so again at the European Council this weekend and will continue to do so on Wednesday at an extra European Council meeting.

Ultimately, however, the way to make the whole of the EU, including the eurozone, work better is to promote open markets, flexible economies and enterprise. That is an agenda that Britain has promoted, under successive Governments and successive Prime Ministers, but it is now an agenda that the European Commission is promoting, too. We have many differences with the European Commission, but the presentation made by the Commission at yesterday’s Council about economic growth was exactly what we have been pushing for, driving home the importance of creating a single market in services, opening up our energy markets and scrapping the rules and bureaucracy that make it take so long to start a new business. Both coalition parties are pushing hard for these objectives.

This may sound dry, but if we want to get Europe’s economies moving and to succeed in a competitive world, these are the steps that are absolutely necessary. These are arguments that Margaret Thatcher made to drive through the single market in the first place, and which every Prime Minister since has tried to push. If the countries of the EU were as productive as the United States, if we had the same proportion of women participating in our economy, and if we were as fast and flexible at setting up new businesses, we would have the same GDP per capita as the United States. That is an aim we should adopt.

The remainder of the Council was spent on the safeguards needed to protect the interests of all 27 members of the European Union. The Council agreed that all matters relating to the single market must remain decisions for all 27 member states and that the European Commission must

“safeguard a level playing field among all Member States including those not participating in the Euro.”

That leads me directly to the debate we will have in the House later today. Members of my party fought the last election committed to three things: stopping the passage of further powers to the EU; instituting a referendum lock to require a referendum, by law, for any such transfer of powers from this House; and bringing back powers from Brussels to Westminster. All three remain party policy. All three, in my view, are in the national interest. In 17 months in government, we have already achieved two of the three. No more powers have gone to Brussels. Indeed, the bail-out power has actually been returned and, of course, the referendum lock is in place. I remain firmly committed to achieving the third: bringing back more powers from Brussels.

The question tonight is whether to add to that by passing legislation in the next Session of this Parliament to provide for a referendum that would include a question on whether Britain should leave the EU altogether. Let me say why I continue to believe that this approach would not be right, why the timing is wrong and how Britain can now best advance our national interests in Europe.

First, it is not right because our national interest is to be in the EU, helping to determine the rules governing the single market, our biggest export market, which consumes more than 50% of our exports and drives so much investment in the UK. That is not an abstract, theoretical argument; it matters for millions of jobs and millions of families and businesses in our country. That is why successive Prime Ministers have advocated our membership of the EU.

Secondly, it is not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in/out referendum. When your neighbour’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help put out the flames, not least to stop them reaching your own house. This is not the time to argue about walking away, not just for their sakes, but for ours.

Thirdly, and crucially, there is a danger that by raising the prospect of a referendum, including an in/out option, we will miss the real opportunity to further our national interest. Fundamental questions are being asked about the future of the eurozone and, therefore, the shape of the EU itself. Opportunities to advance our national interest are clearly becoming apparent. We should focus on how to make the most of this, rather than pursuing a parliamentary process for a multiple-choice referendum. As yesterday’s Council conclusions made clear, changes to the EU treaties need the agreement of all 27 member states. Every country can wield a veto until its needs are met. I share the yearning for fundamental reform and am determined to deliver it.

To those who support today’s motion but do not actually want to leave the EU, I say this: I respect your views. We disagree not about ends, but about means. I support your aims. Like you, I want to see fundamental reform. Like you, I want to re-fashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves our nation’s interests. The time for reform is coming. That is the prize. Let us not be distracted from seizing it. I commend this statement to the House.