European Council — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 19th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 6:04 pm, 19th October 2015

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week’s European Council. The main focus of the Council was on migration, but there were also important discussions on Syria and on the UK’s renegotiation. Let me take each in turn.

The European Union is under massive pressure over the migration issue. The numbers arriving remain immense. Some countries have attempted to maintain and police external borders; others have waved migrants through. Eight thousand people are arriving in Germany every day. The Schengen zone response is to establish hotspots in the countries where most are arriving so that they can be properly processed, and then have a mechanism for distributing migrants across the EU. This is what most of the Council’s discussions and debates were about.

Of course, the UK does not take part in Schengen. We have maintained our borders while others have taken them down, and we are not participating in the quota system for migrants who have arrived in Europe. Instead, we are taking 20,000 Syrian refugees straight from the camps. We think this is the right approach.

I will turn to some of the specifics of how the EU is planning to help ease this crisis. First, on aid to the affected area, Britain was praised for its contribution to the World Food Programme, where we have provided $220 million out of the $275 million shortfall needed to close the funding gap for the rest of the year. The Commission President made a particular point that the rest of the Council members should do more and follow Britain’s lead on this point. It is still the case that the United Kingdom has spent more on aid for Syrian refugees than any other EU country—indeed, more than any other country in the world save the United States of America.

Secondly, the EU agreed in outline a new joint action plan with Turkey. This includes potential additional financial support to help with the huge volume of refugees—more than 2 million in Turkey—and assistance with strengthening its ability to prevent illegal migration to the EU. While the terms of the EU’s assistance remain to be finalised, any visa liberalisation agreed under the action plan will not, of course, apply to the UK. We will continue to make our own decisions on visas for Turkish nationals.

Thirdly, we agreed more action to stop criminal gangs putting people’s lives at risk in the Mediterranean. The EU’s naval operation is now moving to a new phase, in which we can board ships and arrest people smugglers. Britain played a leading role in securing the United Nations Security Council resolution that was required to make this possible. The Royal Navy ships HMS “Richmond” and HMS “Enterprise” will help deliver the operation.

Fourthly, obviously the most important thing is to deal with the causes of the crisis, in particular the war in Syria. The Council condemned the ongoing brutality of ISIL. When it comes to Assad, the conclusions are equally clear:

“There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership”.

I presented to the Council the facts about Russia’s intervention, with eight out of 10 Russian air strikes hitting non-ISIL targets. The Council expressed deep concern over Russia’s actions, especially attacks on the moderate opposition, including the Free Syrian Army. Our view remains the same: we want a Syria without ISIL or Assad.

Ahead of the Council I convened a meeting with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. We agreed the importance of a renewed diplomatic effort to revive the political process and to reach a lasting settlement in Syria. We agreed that, together with our US allies, we must seek to persuade Russia to target ISIL, not the moderate opposition.

The three of us also discussed the situation in Ukraine. We welcomed recent progress and agreed the need to maintain the pressure of sanctions on Russia until the Minsk agreement has been fully implemented.

Turning to the UK’s renegotiation, I have set out the four things we need to achieve. The first is on sovereignty and subsidiarity, where Britain must not be part of an “ever closer union” and where we want a greater role for national Parliaments.

Secondly, we must ensure the EU adds to our competitiveness rather than detracting from it by signing new trade deals, cutting regulation and completing the single market. We have already made considerable progress. There has been an 80% reduction in new legislative proposals under the new European Commission and we have reached important agreements on a capital markets union, liberalising services and completing the digital single market. Last week, the Commission published a new trade strategy that reflects the agenda that Britain has been championing for years, including vital trade deals with America, China and Japan, but more needs to be done in this area.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that the EU works for those outside the single currency, protects the integrity of the single market and makes sure that we face neither discrimination nor additional costs from the integration of the eurozone.

Fourthly, on social security, free movement and immigration, we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.

As I have said before, those are the four key areas where Britain needs fundamental changes, and there is a clear process to secure them. The Referendum Bill has now passed through this House and is making its way through the other place. I have met with the other 27 leaders, the Commission President, the President of the European Parliament and the President of the European Council, and will continue to do so. Technical talks have been taking place in Brussels since July to inform our analysis of the legal options for reform. There will now be a process of negotiation with all 28 member states leading up to the December European Council. As I said last week, I will be writing to the President of the European Council in early November to set out the changes we want to see.

Throughout all this, what matters to me most is Britain’s national security and Britain’s economic security. I am interested in promoting our prosperity and our influence. We have already made some important achievements. We cut the EU budget for the first time ever. We took Britain out of the eurozone bailout mechanisms—the first ever return of powers from Brussels to Westminster—and we vetoed a new treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests. Through our opt-out from justice and home affairs matters, we have achieved the largest repatriation of powers to Britain since we joined the EU. We have pursued a bold, pro-business agenda, cutting red tape, promoting free trade and extending the single market to new sectors.

I want Britain to have the best of both worlds. Already, we have ensured that British people can travel freely around Europe, but have at the same time maintained our own border controls. We have kept our own currency while having complete access to the single market. I believe we can succeed in this renegotiation and achieve the reform that Britain and Europe need. When we have done so, we will put the decision to the British people in the referendum that only we promised and that only this Conservative majority Government can deliver. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.