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1996 - Mr Major’s Press Conference in Turin

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference, held in Turin on Friday 29th March 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

I should first apologise for the absence of the Foreign Secretary, but he has gone to the start proper of the intergovernmental conference.

The discussions that we have had today have really been the tale of two topics: firstly, the intergovernmental conference, the agenda and the way in which it will develop; and secondly the current problems that exist as far as beef is concerned. Let me take those two issues separately and tell you what has been happening and the view that the United Kingdom government has taken.

I will start, if I may, with the intergovernmental conference. I am very pleased at the outcome of the discussions that we have had today, and in particular the fact that we have agreed a non-prejudicial agenda that gives Britain a free hand to pursue her objectives of developing Europe as a partnership of nations.

I think it is clear that the mandate that has been set is one that is satisfactory to all nations and will enable us to pursue the objectives set out in the white paper that we published just a few days ago.

If I can pick out some of the elements from the agenda. Quite a lot of support, notably from Germany, on the subject of subsidiarity. We need also to look at the role of national parliaments, the working of the European Court of Justice and the re-weighting of qualified majority voting. I made it clear again this morning that Britain sees no case whatsoever for any extension of qualified majority voting. I very much welcome an agenda that sets these discussions in the IGC in the context of the challenges the European Union faces.

I also made it clear this morning that as we look at the future development of Europe, we are going to have to tackle the situation that has arisen under which social measures are effectively brought in by the back door using the health and safety article of the Treaty, Article 118A. If Europe is to develop in a spirit of trust and cooperation, I think we have to act in good faith and it has long been our position that we believe that particular treaty head has not been used in the way it was originally intended. We agreed that health and safety provision in 1985 on the understanding that it would deal with matters of genuine health and safety affecting workers. What we have seen, most recently of course in the opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court on the interpretation of the working directive, we don't agree with the remarks of the Advocate General, we don't think that article should be a basis for action on working conditions that go beyond health and safety. That was not our understanding when we signed the article, it wasn't our understanding when I reached the agreement on the Social Protocol at the Maastricht Treaty.

So I made it clear this morning that this is a matter that we will have to turn to afresh in the intergovernmental conference. I reached agreements at Maastricht, and we reached agreements on the health and safety article before, that must not be undermined and must be kept in good faith. And I think it will be extremely difficult if we are unable to reach agreement on that in the intergovernmental conference. I indicated this morning that I would be looking in the IGC for changes to Article 118A so that it reflects our earlier understanding of its limited scope. And the reality is that if old agreements are to be re-interpreted, it is difficult to see how we can reach new agreements in good faith. But I think it was overall a very constructive exchange of views this morning.

Both this morning and over luncheon we spent some time discussing the current problems in the beef industry. I set out this morning, and again over lunch, why some of the actions over the last week perhaps have made the problem worse. But we spent most of the time looking at the problem as it is today and how we actually deal with the problem for the future. We have already taken a number of steps to protect consumers and support the market.

I should emphasise at the outset that the scientific advice that we have is that beef is safe, safe for us, safe for other people, safe to eat. That is the view of the scientists. But the collective hysteria that we have seen over the last few days has raised a great question-mark in the minds of consumers of beef. And the principal issue that we now have to address is how to restore confidence in the mind of consumers rather than the specific action on health, for I repeat we believe that British beef is safe.

I think, and said to colleagues, that we need now to do three things. Firstly bring about the conditions in which the ban on British beef exports can be lifted, and lifted speedily. The United Kingdom has been meeting today, the Agriculture Minister has been meeting in Brussels today to try and identify with the Commission a package of measures that would enable the Commission to recommend lifting the ban.

I would hope, if agreement is to be reached, and some progress has been made today, talks will continue and I anticipate an agriculture meeting on Monday. Providing agreement can be reached I would hope partners would feel able to accept the Commission's recommendations. And if that is the case, I hope colleagues will give appropriate guidance to their Agriculture Ministers when they meet on Monday. But I emphasise, the talks are proceeding, they are not yet concluded, they are likely to continue over the weekend, it is likely to move into an Agriculture meeting on Monday.

The second question we must address is the specific problem of the beef market, the beef market across Europe and the beef market in the United Kingdom. There was a universal recognition amongst our European partners today that this is not just a United Kingdom problem. This is a problem for the beef market across Europe. Consumption of beef has dropped in the United Kingdom, it has dropped here in Italy, it has dropped in France, it has dropped in countries right across the European Union. So we all have a collective communal interest in restoring confidence to the beef market, and also restoring the confidence of third markets to European beef as well as British beef. And that was the universal view of the colleagues that I have had discussions with today.

We have agreed that we need to look at the language of reassurance. I think everyone recognised that panic measures merely breed more panic. The scientific facts speak for themselves. British beef is safe, European beef is safe, and safe for the consumer on any normal definition of that term. And might say, for those people concerned about British beef, the Meat Hygiene Organisation that has responsibility for monitoring that have their own officers, in some cases more than one officer, in each and every slaughterhouse across the United Kingdom. And every slaughtered carcass is examined by someone from the Meat Hygiene Office, and I made that point very clearly to my colleagues this morning.

The last few days have left quite deep scars of course in the beef industry, quite deep scars in the United Kingdom and problems in other countries as well. Healing them is going to take some time, but I think we have made a good start today and I anticipate that my colleagues will have had something to say about that at their own press conferences.

In the discussion we had after luncheon, I was extremely reassured by the attitude taken by our European partners. There was support, without any qualification, from across the board amongst our European colleagues, support not just in a general sense but an indication that there would be support where necessary in a financial sense as well for the costs that will be incurred in dealing with this problem.

There was a recognition that communal action is necessary to restore confidence and I think all colleagues took on board the fact that as soon as we have agreed a package it will be crucial to restore confidence, not just in the United Kingdom, but across Europe, that that confidence is sufficient to lift the ban that was placed on British beef earlier this week.

So I think we have had some very constructive and worthwhile discussions today. I am grateful to my colleagues for the way in which they entered into those discussions, and I think we have set a good basis for carrying those talks forward over the weekend and into Monday.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (Michael Brunson, ITN):

Prime Minister, we understood that Mr. Santer was suggesting that as soon as the Veterinary Committee has looked at and approved your measures then they would be prepared to lift the ban. Is that your understanding, that all they will really need to lift the ban is to be certain that you are taking the sort of measures which are acceptable to the rest of the Community?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is what the President of the Commission would like to see, I think you have interpreted his views correctly but of course, the Scientific Committee is composed of vets from the national countries and they will presumably have to make a recommendation to the Commission for the Commission to lift their ban so I very much hope that can happen speedily but I think we must wait and see what the attitude of the Veterinary Committee is. I believe there would be no justification for keeping the ban once we have reached agreement on a package that is acceptable to our European partners; I very much hope that will prove to be the case.

QUESTION (John Kampfner, Financial Times):

Prime Minister, you have criticised the speed with which the ban was imposed and you have spoken of collective hysteria. Do you believe there was any broader political motive in the minds of certain people, certain countries, certain institutions in the speed with which they imposed the ban?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't make that criticism. The reality is that the ban has an impact across Europe as well as here. One of our European partners made the point over lunch that his country had beef in a ship waiting off-shore that they wouldn't take on-shore - not British beef but beef from another European country - so the reality is that the ban has impacted upon the confidence in beef not just from the United Kingdom but right the way across Europe and I think that point is recognised as a European problem and that is why everyone has a direct interest in dealing with it speedily and comprehensively and showing that Europe has confidence in Europe's beef so that the rest of the world can have confidence in Europe's beef as well.

QUESTION (John Palmer, The Guardian):

Prime Minister, I wonder whether you were in a position to indicate, in however general terms, to your colleagues the scale of the costs which could be involved in these measures that have been prepared over a number of years and whether in your opinion, roughly speaking, a 50-50 distribution of those costs is the ball park of the discussions that are taking place and whether the whole affair hasn't led you to think again about the merits of the Common Agricultural Policy bearing in mind only a few weeks ago the Government was saying that the Committee didn't need so much money for the beef intervention fund.

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I don't think it has changed our general view on other matters and neither is it going to change the negotiating position of the United Kingdom or other countries in the inter-governmental conference. There are quite separate matters: there are questions of policy which are matters of principle between the member states and they will continue as they were before and here we have an emergency that has existed across Europe in other guises in the past; a number of countries - Belgium, Germany - mentioned the earlier problems there had been with swine fever and the extent to which the European Union accepted a communal responsibility and that is what our partners have indicated they will do on this occasion.

As to the scale of the problem, I don't propose to put figures to it at this particular meeting. I do have a broad indication of figures, the President of the Commission indicated he did too and chose not to give them at the moment. I think we need to do a little more work upon that so I don't propose to give you any particular figures.

As to the division of costs, of course the costs arise in different ways. Some things arise under European Union programmes and in that case part of the cost will be met by the European Union, part of it by the United Kingdom, part of it gets docked out of the United Kingdom rebate, there is a clear-cut and well-established mechanism and there are other areas that are for national cost and some where the European will share the cost. It is not possible at this stage to put a proportion to it.

QUESTION (Reuters):

Prime Minister, do you still believe some of the costs could have been avoided if they hadn't tried to put the ban on so rapidly and do you think there have been any lessons learned by your European partners about how this was handled?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think our European partners were responding to a collective hysteria that broke out across Europe; they will express their own views. They will have seen the general views expressed for their public in their own countries and they have expressed some views about that; no doubt they will do that in their own particular press conferences and I will leave it for them to make their own points.

The fundamental point that is clear and is immensely distressing for the beef industry right the way across Europe - never mind just the UK - is that the view of the scientists was, is and remains that beef is safe, by any normal recognition of the expression beef is safe and yet because of the alarmism that spread across Europe, the people who are the consumers of beef lost confidence in the fact that beef is safe. The fact that that happened we can all look back to last week and attribute the blame in different directions but at this moment perhaps it is not particularly productive to do so. We could all look back and do that, so can you; you all know where to place your own version of the blame but the fact that this got out of control has now created a crisis that need not have been anywhere as large as it has become. There was a problem, it was a problem that I think could have been overcome with rational and sound judgement and appropriate measures - it spiralled out of control. I think all of us have lessons to learn about that when look at beef or health scares of any sort in the future whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

One of the points made by more than one of my colleagues in discussion was that this particular health scare arose over British beef. Tomorrow's health scare or next year's health scare might arise in another European country and I hope all of us will learn lessons over how to try and damp down unnecessary hysteria.

The first point always must be a secure position on public health. Nobody can deny making public matters that relate to public health, that is proper and we did that but I think we must try and see how we can avoid this collective hysteria in future.

QUESTION (George Jones, Daily Telegraph):

Prime Minister, is the slaughter of the elderly animals which you have now decided will not be allowed to go into the food chain under active consideration and be part of the package which is considered by the Agricultural Ministers on Monday?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are looking at a range of issues at the moment in Brussels. Those talks are going on, George, as we speak so I don't want to give out more information on them but there is a range of issues under discussion including that.

QUESTION (Sarah Holmes, The Independent):

Prime Minister, do you hold out any hope that the ban might be lifted as early as Monday or at least early next week?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't tell you the answer to that, I don't know the answer to that. That will be a matter that will be decided after the agricultural meeting no doubt by the Standing Veterinary Committee who will make their own recommendations; it would certainly be my hope that it would be lifted speedily.

At this stage, we have several ingredients to deal with before we get there: firstly, we need to reach an agreement with the Commission; secondly, that needs to be acceptable to the member states; thirdly, we need the Agriculture Committee meeting and then we need to see what the Standing Veterinary Committee have to say but I do think it is in the interests of everyone to make sure that we reach a circumstance in which this ban can be lifted speedily because nobody should be under the misapprehension that this ban just ring-fences a problem in British beef - that is not the case. Whilst this ban remains, it is going to be seen by the whole of the world outside Europe as a problem for European beef and I think to that extent everyone has an interest in this problem being solved speedily so whether Monday or not I can't tell you, as soon as possible I certainly hope so.