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1996 - Mr Major’s Joint Press Conference with Malcolm Rifkind

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint press conference with the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, held in Dublin on Saturday 5th October 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

Let me just say a word or two at the outset about the discussions we have had today. The purpose of today’s discussion was to look particularly at the Intergovernmental Conference and the progress that had been made thus far. As with any negotiation of course, the real substance of the negotiation is likely to be done pretty near the end. We agreed today that we would seek the end the negotiation in June next year under the Dutch Presidency. We have also agreed, on a suggestion that I had made some time ago, that it would be helpful to see a draft treaty, perhaps in many cases with alternatives clauses for examination, at the December meeting in Dublin.

A number of purposes of the IGC: firstly, to prepare for enlargement; secondly, to make the European Union more accessible to its citizens; thirdly perhaps to improve the efficiency of the European Union. I am bound to say for different members of the European Union that tends to mean at the moment rather different things. For some of our partners that means more majority voting, it means more powers for the European Parliament and more powers for the European institutions at the expense of national governments. Others have a different view of what it means.

Let me make this point to you. The British are good Europeans. By good Europeans I mean that our record in implementing European law, our dedication to a liberal trading policy and our leading role in European defence, in all of those ways, if we enter into a commitment, we deliver upon that commitment. But I think that “Look before you leap” is a far better watch-word for the European Union than “Leap before you look”. And I made the points this afternoon that upon many of the issues to be discussed, it is no good just simply saying what the aspiration is, and what people would like to achieve, it is necessary to examine how you would get there and what it would actually mean for the member states if you did.

I have tried to attest some of the assumptions that our partners have made. Let me perhaps give you a couple of examples. There is some suggesting amongst some of our colleagues that we should have a European Employment Charter in the Treaty. I wonder whether that is a good idea? We already have in the European Treaties a commitment to a high level of employment. But a treaty isn’t just a declaration, it is not just a declaratory document. A treaty creates rights, it creates obligations, it is justiciable before the European Court. I believe it would be cynical to write in obligations that cannot be met, and I made that point to our partners this afternoon.

The second example I will give you, there could certainly be others, but the second example I will give you is defence. We can have a European defence identity through the Western European Union and through NATO. And of course that is the only credible way in which we can use NATO defence assets to carry out European initiatives. If we made the Western European Union subordinates to the European Union - as some colleagues in Europe wish us to do - then those NATO assets would be denied to us. I must say, I want a real defence, not one on paper only. So clearly there are difficult hurdles to overcome in that aspect of the negotiations.

There are also some issues, as I indicated to colleagues this afternoon, where we shall require solutions to very serious problems. We reached an agreement to Maastricht some years ago which means that British companies are not saddled with job-destroying burdens. I shall expect our partners to stick to the letter, and to the spirit, of that agreement. And if the European Court decides against us in the Working Time Directive, I shall require treaty amendment to return the situation to what it was at the end of the Maastricht negotiation.

I made clear to our partners this afternoon that it is also necessary to resolve the very serious question of quota hopping. National fishing quotas are meant to benefit not just the fishermen who catches the particular catch, but the fishing communities of each member state. If the present treaties don’t allow us to correct the abuses that presently exist under the Common Fisheries Policy, then the treaties must be changed, and that is another subject for discussion in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

In many of these areas I expect there will be quite a lot of tough negotiation. On some of the issues we will find allies; on others, perhaps at the outset at least, we may be alone. But I shan’t hesitate to say no to the ideas that I believe are wrong for Europe as a whole or wrong for the interests of the United Kingdom.

I want to add another point if I may. There are more important matters at stake for the European Union than treaty changes. I prefer creating jobs than writing an employment chapter into the treaty that would not create jobs. I prefer real defence to defence on paper. I prefer practical cooperation on drugs and crime, not a theoretical arguments about Community competence. I know Community competence is a very fascinating subject for the cognoscenti, but competitiveness is a much better one for those people who don’t have jobs and would like to have jobs.

When we had finished the discussions, and they were very much preliminary discussions, on the Intergovernmental Conference, we spent time, both over lunch and later in the afternoon, on the Middle East peace process and the Foreign Ministers spent some discussing that as well. The important issue essentially is that we continue to offer support to the Middle East peace process, vital we encourage people to negotiate, vital we ensure that nothing we can say can be seen as boxing people in corners and making it more difficult for them to try and reach an agreement with one another.

I also took the opportunity of being here to have a brief discussion with John Bruton about the Northern Ireland peace process. We reviewed the position that we have currently reached in the Belfast talks. Both of us believe that progress is not remotely as rapid as we would have liked and we would like all parties to redouble their efforts in the talks. We clearly need to discuss the question of decommissioning further. We are certain that progress in the decommissioning talks should be made on the basis of Senator Mitchell’s report. We are agreed about that. We will of course keep in very close contact. Today wasn’t the day for making decisions, it was just an occasion to review the present state of play in those negotiations.

So those are the matters we have touched upon today and the Foreign Secretary and I will happily answer any further questions you may have about any of those matters.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (Hugh Pym, ITN):

Prime Minister, did you register your disapproval of Dr Hansch’s remarks in his speech in Cork, and remarks after that that he made in a debate last night?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I did. Yes I did. I told him his remarks were offensive, and I think he knows that. I suggested in particular that it was apparent some members of the European Parliament, senior members, senior representatives of the European Parliament, clearly did not understand what British policy was. He took the point very clearly that I was talking about him and not other people. I think the points I made to him had some impact.

QUESTION:

Are there specific areas that you would like the Irish Presidency to deal with in the coming months that have not been addressed to date?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:

I think it has been rather a good Presidency. Having the Presidency of the European Union is not the most attractive job in the world, it is trying to reconcile 15 different competing interests across a whole range of subjects. I think they have done rather well. They assembled an agenda for today. I think there were mixed feelings about whether there was any practical purpose in having today, but the Irish had no choice but to proceed today.

That was a decision that was taken some time ago, and they have done so. They are working extremely hard to produce a draft treaty, albeit with alternatives for December, and that is a pretty massive job and I think they are doing it pretty well. So I have no criticism at all to make of the Irish Presidency. I think they are doing well and I am sure they will continue to do well.

QUESTION (Hosni Imam, Kuwait News Agency, London):

I wonder if you could put some gloss on the decisions you have taken on the Middle East, particularly about sending an envoy to the region?

PRIME MINISTER:

This was discussed both amongst Foreign Ministers and amongst Heads of Government. If I could make a general point about that first. Progress in the Middle East talks will be made between President Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu, or it won’t be made. Let us not believe that the European Union, or indeed anybody else, is going to determine that progress. What will happen is that Dick Spring, representing the European Union Foreign Ministers, will be going, probably on Monday I think and will meet Mr Netanyahu and also meet Mr Arafat to express the European Union’s concerns, and of course to offer any assistance that we can perhaps provide. But essentially we can do a little more than continue to assist in material matters, as we do very much with the Palestinian authority, quite a lot of cash from countries within the European Union and the European Union collectively, and quite a lot of important relationships with Israel through the Cooperation Agreement. So I think we are in a position to apply some pressure, but we ought not to let anyone misunderstand how much we can do. We can apply pressure but it is the Israelis and it is the Palestinians that will determine whether progress is going to be made or not. The Foreign Secretary may want to add something about his talks?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:

No, I have nothing to add to that, Prime Minister.

QUESTION.

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

He is going on holiday.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:

That is Dick Spring. Dick Spring will be going on behalf of the European Union.

PRIME MINISTER:

And he is probably going on Monday, as I said.

QUESTION (Polish News Agency):

Both Chancellor Kohl and President Chirac said that enlargement to Eastern Europe would happen by the year 2000. Would you consider this date unrealistic and in what context was enlargement discussed during today’s talks?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the first point, you will recall it was the United Kingdom and Germany who were the foremost advocates of enlargement to the East. I passionately believe that the most important thing that the European Union ought to be doing at the moment is not institutional change, which often takes so much time, but enlargement to the East. We have an historic opportunity in this generation of politicians to extend the European Union to the East, which I think has great security advantages and will have great advantages in removing the economic Iron Curtain that has also been set right across the middle of Europe. So I am very much in favour of that and we were one of the great advocates of Poland and the other Central and Eastern European countries coming in, and we still are. I would add we are also more enthusiastic to open European trade borders to the Central and East European nations than most of our colleagues as well.

Can it be done by the year 2000? If it can, no-one would be more pleased than us. It is an ambitious target but it is not a target that would be delayed as a result of any policy inhibition on the part of the British government, we would welcome it.

As to the context of enlargement, enlargement is going to involve institutional change and it was in that context predominantly that it was discussed.

QUESTION (RTE News):

On Anglo-Irish matters, you had a brief discussion with the Taoiseach, but in essence the peace process in Northern Ireland is dead in the water. For three and a half months nothing has been achieved at the Stormont buildings, how are you going to put new life back into the process between you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t agree with your assessment, with respect. I am something of a veteran over the past four years of being told that the peace process is dead. I have been told that on many occasions. But I don’t believe it. The peace process does often take two steps forward and one step back. If often gets into a phase where suddenly everyone is very optimistic because quite a lot suddenly seems to be being achieved and then suddenly it grinds to a halt while each of the respective negotiators goes back to their grass roots, assembles views, assembles feelings, and decides how they can move forward. We have been in a frustrating stop period for some time, it has got bogged down, I think that is absolutely true. But I don’t think, because it has been bogged down for a period, that one should assume that it is dead.

And the reason I don’t believe you should assume that is not because there are not difficulties about, self-evidently there are, it would be foolish to deny that there were not difficulties. But the overwhelming wish, the overwhelming will, of the people in Northern Ireland, is to push the politicians further into making an agreement. And I think that is very important.

The process was dealt a very savage blow indeed when the IRA returned to violence, there can be no conceivable doubt about that, not just because they had returned to violence, but because it fractured any embryonic belief that existed amongst any Unionists that they ever were serious about giving up on violence. So we must judge them on their actions. I hope we are going to get another ceasefire. There is no sign of it. We occasionally get talk of it from Sinn Fein/IRA circles, but that is all thus far it has turned out to be.

But the peace process itself will continue and there will be set-backs. I have no doubt on future occasions people will say to me this is dead. But for so long as I can push it forward I will continue to try and do so and I believe that would be John Bruton’s view as well.

QUESTION (Spanish News Agency:)

When you say that you are not happy with the quota fishing system, because it does not benefit the community, do you mean that it is necessary to change the treaty, do you mean that it is necessary to change the distribution within the treaty, do you mean that it is necessary to change the distribution with the quota, or you are completely against the system of quotas?

PRIME MINISTER:

We discussed quotas in a different context at one stage in terms of asylum, so I wasn’t quite sure which element you were talking about. As far as quota hopping is concerned, the principal problem is this. When the Common Fisheries Policy was first determined, there were quotas determined for each national country. And the expectation was that the fish would be caught by the national fishermen, and then docked in the national ports, and create the growing employment for the fishing communities that results from the fish going back to its own domestic port. What has happened subsequently, with quota-hopping, is that national quotas have been purchased by another nation and that has had a very severe impact upon the fishing industry ashore, and upon fishing communities. And what I have said to my colleagues is that that was not what we intended when we agreed the Common Fisheries Policy and it has very severe effects on particular parts of Europe, and particularly particular parts of the United Kingdom, and it is no longer tolerable for the system to continue as it is.

So we have tabled a Protocol to change the circumstances on quota-hopping and we will be looking at that, and other issues, to see what can be done to ensure that the original intention of the treaty becomes the current operation of the treaty.

QUESTION (Tom Burrows, Market News):

Although it was not on the official agenda, was in any shape or form EMU discussed; and secondly, was the EU’s trading relations with other blocs discussed, for example in the context of the work the Foreign Secretary has been doing on improving trade relations with [indistinct] and North America?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. On the second point, no, trading blocs were not discussed on this occasion. They are very important, but they just weren’t on the agenda today. As far as EMU was concerned, it wasn’t discussed. If I might say, it was mentioned but not discussed. People made passing references to it, I made passing references to it, but it wasn’t a subject of discussion. I hope that is not thought to be an odd difference to draw, but that is actually what happened, some people said we must go ahead with it; other people pointed out the timetable was at risk; other people said there are difficulties that haven’t yet been confronted. But that was all that was said, not discussed.

QUESTION (John Palmer, Guardian):

In common with a limited number of other senior Privy Councillors, you have received a letter from the Editor of the Guardian containing prima facie evidence alleging a government cover-up in reaction to the recent corruption scandals which are being investigated. What is your reaction to the evidence that you have been presented with and can you give a clear and unqualified assurance that no member of the government has been involved in any such cover-up or has in any sense misled the House of Commons?

PRIME MINISTER:

For some time the Guardian and other people have been running the most extraordinarily suggestive stories. Let me say to you absolutely clear that I am determined that the House of Commons investigates properly and fully the allegations that have been made. I might perhaps remind you that, against the opposition of many people, I was the person who set up the Nolan Committee. Many people didn’t like that, but I was determined that Parliament should be clean and above suspicion and I established the Nolan Committee. Sir Gordon Downey sprang out of the Nolan Report. I asked Sir Gordon Downey, I was not asked by Sir Gordon Downey, I said to Sir Gordon Downey that he might have all the documentation that he requires to carry out the inquiry that he needs to carry out.

And I went further. I said he can also see all the documentation that was provided for the court case that did not take place, so that he - Sir Gordon - can satisfy himself he has every document that he needs to carry out his investigation. When he has investigated, he will report to the appropriate Commons Committee on members’ interests. I have no doubt they will follow their previous practice of publishing his report, and that is what I would expect them to do. What I am not going to do is to respond to a whole series of individual allegations, upon which a particular spin may be put, until this investigation is completed.

I have made sure that the investigation has full cooperation, I am sure the investigation will be comprehensive, I have no doubt it will be properly considered by the appropriate House of Commons committee and I have no doubt the report, at their instigation, will then be published. And I would think that people, since they have such a comprehensive report, might wait for that report before they make comments or publish articles that may mislead and encourage other people to misunderstand.