Informal European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 6th February 2017.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:36 pm, 6th February 2017

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.