With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on progress with our renegotiation. The House has now had the chance to study the documents published by the European Council yesterday. I believe that this is an important milestone in the process of reform, renegotiation and referendum that we set out in our manifesto, and which this Government are delivering. We have now legislated for that referendum and we are holding that renegotiation.
Let me set out the problems that we are trying to fix and the progress we have made. First, we do not want to have our country bound up in an ever closer political union in Europe. We are a proud and independent nation, with proud, independent, democratic institutions that have served us well over the centuries. For us, Europe is about working together to advance our shared prosperity and security; it is not about being sucked into some kind of European superstate—not now, not ever.
The draft texts set out in full the special status accorded to the UK and clearly carves us out of further political integration. They actually go further to make it clear that EU countries do not even have to aim for a common destination. This is a formal recognition of the flexible Europe that Britain has long been arguing for.
In keeping Britain out of ever closer union, I also wanted to strengthen the role of this House and all national Parliaments, so we now have a proposal in the texts that if Brussels comes up with legislation that we do not want, we can get together with other Parliaments and block it with a red card.
We have also proposed a new mechanism to finally enforce the principle of subsidiarity—a principle dear to this House—which states that, as far as possible, powers should sit here in this Parliament, not in Brussels. So every year the European Union has got to go through the powers they exercise and work out which are no longer needed and should be returned to nation states.
Secondly, I said that we wanted to make Europe more competitive and deal with the rule-making and the bureaucracy that can cost jobs here in Britain and, indeed, across the European Union. We asked for commitments on all the areas central to European competitiveness. We want international trade deals signed, the single market completed and regulation stripped back. All of these things are covered in the draft texts. There is a new proposal for specific targets to reduce the burdens on business in key sectors. This will particularly help small and medium-sized businesses. There is a new mechanism to drive these targets through and cut the level of red tape year on year.
Thirdly, we are absolutely clear that Britain is going to keep the pound—in my view, forever. But we need to be just as clear that we can keep the pound in a European Union that will be fair to our currency. Put simply, the EU must not become a euro-only club; if it does, it would not be a club for us. So we called for a series of principles to protect the single market for Britain. We said there must be no discrimination against the pound, no disadvantage for businesses that use our currency, wherever they are located in the EU, and no option for Britain ever again to be forced to bail out eurozone countries. All of these principles are reflected in the draft text, which is legally binding. And again there is a mechanism. Britain has the ability to act to uphold these principles and protect our interests.
We should be clear: British jobs depend on being able to trade on a level playing field within the European single market, whether in financial services or cars or anything else. So this plan, if agreed, will provide the strongest possible protection for Britain from discrimination and unfair rules and practices. For instance, never again could the EU try its so-called location policy—that the settling of complex trades in euros must only take place in eurozone countries. These principles would outlaw that sort of proposal. Now, these are protections we could not have if Britain were outside the European Union.
Fourthly, we want to deal with the pressures of immigration, which have become too great. Of course, we need to do more to control migration from outside the European Union. We are doing that, and we will be announcing more measures on that front, but we need to control migration from within the EU too. The draft texts represent the strongest package we have ever had on tackling the abuse of free movement and closing down the back-door routes to Britain. It includes greater freedoms for Britain to act against fraud and prevent those who pose a genuine and serious threat from coming to this country. It includes a new law to overturn a decision by the European Court which has allowed thousands of illegal migrants to marry other EU nationals and acquire the right to stay in our country. It has been a source of perpetual frustration that we cannot impose our own immigration rules on third-country nationals coming from the European Union, but now, after the hard work of the Home Secretary, we have a proposal to put that right.
There are also new proposals to reduce the pull factor that our benefits system exerts across Europe by allowing instant access to welfare from the day someone arrives. People said that Europe would not even recognise that we had this problem, but the text explicitly recognises that welfare systems can act as an unnatural draw to come to this country.
Our manifesto set out four objectives to solve this problem; I mentioned these at Prime Minister’s questions. We had already delivered on two of them within months of the general election. Already, EU migrants will no longer be able to claim universal credit—the new unemployment benefit—while looking for work. And if those coming from the EU have not found work within six months, they can now be required to leave.
In these texts, we have secured proposals for the other two areas. If someone comes from another country in Europe, leaving their family at home, they will have their child benefit paid at the local rate, not at the generous British rate. And crucially, we have made progress on reducing the draw of our generous in-work benefits. People said that it would be impossible to end the idea of something for nothing and that a four-year restriction on benefits was completely out of the question, but that is now what is in the text—an emergency brake that will mean people coming to Britain from within the EU will have to wait four years until they have full access to our benefits. The European Commission has said very clearly that Britain qualifies already to use this mechanism, so, with the necessary legislation, we would be able to implement it shortly after the referendum.
Finally, let me be absolutely clear about the legal status of these changes that are now on offer. People said we would never get something that was legally binding—but this plan, if agreed, will be exactly that. These changes will be binding in international law, and will be deposited at the UN. They cannot be changed without the unanimous agreement of every EU country—and that includes Britain. So when I said I wanted change that is legally binding and irreversible, that is what I have got. And, in key areas, treaty change is envisaged in these documents.
I believe we are making real progress in all four areas—but the process is far from over. There are details that are still to be pinned down and intense negotiations to try and agree the deal with 27 other countries. It will require hard work, determination and patience to see it through. But I do believe that with these draft texts, and with all the work that we have done with our European partners, Britain is getting closer to the decision point. It is, of course, right that this House should debate these issues in detail. So in addition to this statement, and of course a statement following the Council later this month, the Government will also make time for a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House.
As we approach this choice, let me be clear about two things. First, I am not arguing, and I will never argue, that Britain could not survive outside the European Union. We are the fifth largest economy in the world and the biggest defence player in Europe, with one of the most of extensive and influential diplomatic networks on the planet. The question is not could Britain succeed outside the European Union; it is how will we be most successful? How will Britain be most prosperous? How will we create the most jobs? How will we have the most influence on the rules that shape the global economy and affect us? How we will be most secure? I have always said that the best answers to those questions can be found within a reformed European Union. But let me say again that if we cannot secure these changes, I rule nothing out.
Secondly, even if we secured these changes, you will never hear me say that this organisation is now fixed—far from it. There will be many things that remain to be reformed, and Britain would continue to lead the way. We would continue to make sure that Europe works for the countries of Europe, for the businesses of Europe, for the peoples of Europe and, crucially, for the British people who want to work, have security, get on, and make the most of their lives.
So if we stay, Britain will be in there keeping a lid on the budget, protecting our rebate, stripping away unnecessary regulation and seeing through the commitments we have secured in this renegotiation, ensuring that Britain truly can have the best of both worlds: in the parts of Europe that work for us, and out of those that do not; in the single market; free to travel around Europe; and part of an organisation where co-operation on security and trade can make Britain and its partners safer and more prosperous, but with guarantees that we will never be part of the euro, never be part of Schengen, never be part of a European army, never be forced to bail out the eurozone with our taxpayers’ money, and never be part of a European superstate.
That is the prize on offer—a clear path that can lead to a fresh settlement for Britain in a reformed European Union: a settlement that will offer the best future for jobs, security and strength for our country; a settlement which, as our manifesto promised nearly a year ago, will offer families in our country security at every stage of their lives. That is what we are fighting for, and I commend this statement to the House.