With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council, and the next steps in preparing to trigger Article 50 and beginning the process of leaving the European Union.
The summit began by re-electing Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. I welcomed this because we have a close working relationship with President Tusk and recognise the strong contribution he has made in office. In the main business of the Council, we discussed the challenge of managing mass migration; the threats from organised crime and instability in the western Balkans; and the measures needed to boost Europe’s growth and competitiveness, which will remain important for us as we build a new relationship between the EU and a self-governing global Britain. In each case, we were able to show once again how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe long after we have left the European Union.
On migration, I welcomed the progress in implementing the action plan we agreed at the informal EU summit in Malta last month. This included Italy strengthening asylum processes and increasing returns, and Greece working to implement the EU-Turkey deal, where the UK is providing additional staff to support the interviewing of Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals.
At this Council, I argued that we must do more to dismantle the vile people-smuggling rings who profit from the migrants’ misery and who are subjecting many to unimaginable abuses. With co-ordinated and committed action, we can make a difference. Indeed, just last month an operation between our National Crime Agency and the Hellenic coastguard led to the arrest of 19 members of an organised immigration crime group in Greece. As I have argued before, we need a managed, controlled and truly global approach, and that is exactly what the Council agreed. We need to help to ensure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and help those countries to support the refugees so they do not have to make the perilous journey to Europe. We need a better overall approach to managing economic migration, one which recognises that all countries have the right to control their borders. Engaging our African partners in this global approach will be crucial, and this will be an important part of the discussions at the Somalia conference which the UK will be hosting in London in May.
Turning to the deteriorating situation in the western Balkans, I made clear my concerns about the risks it presents to the region and to our wider collective security. Organised criminals and terrorists are ready to exploit these vulnerabilities, and we are seeing increasingly brazen interference by Russia and others. In light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot, I called on the Council to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and to raise the visibility of the western commitment to this region.
The UK will lead the way. The Foreign Secretary will be visiting Russia in the coming weeks, where I expect him to set out our concerns about reports of Russian interference in the affairs of the Government of Montenegro. We will provide strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns in the region, and we will host the 2018 western Balkans summit. In the run-up to that summit, we will enhance our security co-operation with our western Balkans partners, including on serious and organised crime, anti-corruption and cyber-security.
More broadly, I also re-emphasised the importance that the UK places on NATO as the bedrock of our collective defence, and I urged other member states to start investing more, in line with NATO’s target, so that every country plays its full part in sharing the burden. For it is only by investing properly in our defence that we can ensure we are properly equipped to keep our people safe.
Turning to growth and competitiveness, I want us to build a new relationship with the EU, as I have said, that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market, and allow European businesses to do the same here. So a successful and competitive European market in the future will remain in our national interest. At this Council, I called for further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market.
I also welcomed the completion of the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada and pressed for an agreement with Japan in the coming months. For these agreements—[Interruption.] Yes, just wait for it. These agreements will lay the foundation for our continuing trading relationships with these countries as we leave the EU.
At the same time, we will also seize the opportunity to forge our own new trade deals and to reach out beyond the borders of Europe to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. This weekend, we announced a two-day conference with the largest ever Qatari trade delegation to visit the UK, building on the £5 billion of trade we already do with Qatar every year. We will also strengthen the unique and proud global relationships we have forged with the diverse and vibrant alliance of the Commonwealth, which we celebrated on Commonwealth day yesterday.
Finally, last night the Bill on article 50 successfully completed its passage through both Houses unchanged. It will now proceed to Royal Assent in the coming days, so we remain on track with the timetable I set out six months ago. I will return to this House before the end of this month to notify when I have formally triggered article 50 and begun the process through which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This will be a defining moment for our whole country, as we begin to forge a new relationship with Europe and a new role for ourselves in the world.
We will be a strong, self-governing global Britain with control once again over our borders and our laws. We will use this moment of opportunity to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, so that we secure both the right deal for Britain abroad and a better deal for ordinary working people at home.
The new relationship with the EU that we negotiate will work for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been working closely with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, listening to their proposals and recognising the many areas of common ground that we have, such as protecting workers’ rights and our security from crime and terrorism.
So, Mr Speaker, this is not a moment to play politics or create uncertainty and division. It is a moment to bring our country together, to honour the will of the British people and to shape for them a brighter future and a better Britain. I commend this statement to the House.