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1996 - Mr Major’s Press Conference in Dublin

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference held in Dublin on Saturday 14th December 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

Let me just say a few words at the outset. The Chancellor and I had a press conference yesterday so I won’t traipse over the ground we covered then, though you may wish to raise some of those matters in questions later.

I am not sure whether you have yet got the conclusions of the Council, but when you do have them you will see that they are shorter than usual. I think that is thoroughly welcome, we have been seeking that for some time, and I think it also reflects the professionalism of the Irish Presidency. I think it has been a very good Presidency, I don’t say that just for the sake of form, it has been an extremely good Presidency and if I may say so, John Bruton has chaired the last couple of days with great skill.

When you get the conclusions you will find attached to them are also the conclusions of the ECOFIN report on Economic and Monetary Union, including the stability pact. And the conclusions refer to the requirement for sustainable and durable convergence, and self-evidently that is necessary.

If EMU goes ahead, it will be in our interest - in or out - that it is based on sound finances and that the Euro money is stable. The stability pact is not a substitute for the right economic conditions, but it is a way of ensuring that once the right economic conditions are obtained, that they are sustained for the future.

As far as the economic conditions are concerned, self-evidently they are essential for a successful Economic and Monetary Union. And equally importantly, only those member states which genuinely have the right economic conditions, and genuinely can sustain the right economic conditions, should safely join the Euro system.

Our own position of course is fully covered by the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty. And the ECOFIN report and the regulations to which they refer involve no new policy obligations on the United Kingdom.

The conclusions of the last couple of days reaffirm the intentions to take decisions on the Intergovernmental Conference by next June. They do that, but they do not pre-empt what any of those conclusions might be. We have long argued that the best way to make the European union flourish is not to keep pulling it up by its roots to see if it should be re-planted, but to build on what already exists, and we think the scope for action is already there and that is self-evident from the discussions in the last day or so.

One area I think where that is particularly true is in the fight against terrorism and crime, and the ideas we have put forward are contained in the conclusions. We are keen to develop the role of Europol, working side by side with the national responsibilities which of course have primary responsibility. That of course can only truly happen when all the Member States have ratified the Europol Convention. We have done so, we were the first to do so, and the conclusions invite other members to follow suit as soon as possible.

One other point I think worth mentioning. The programme which we initiated some time ago of less legislation, but better legislation, is also taken a stage further in the conclusions. This year there will have been only a dozen legislative proposals from the Commission. They have also withdrawn a further 50 proposals which have now become obsolete for one reason or another, and they have extended the process of consultation with 8 Green Papers so far this year. That I think is a welcome development in the way the legislation is produced.

In the discussion on employment, I circulated a paper on the British employment experience and many of you may have spotted a speech by M Juppe recently in which he acknowledged the success in the United Kingdom in generating jobs and growth, and that approach is reflected in the declaration that you will see on employment.

Finally, I would just like to draw your attention to the conclusions on Hong Kong which the Foreign Secretary discussed at dinner with his colleagues last evening, and I discussed over a separate dinner as well. There was very strong support from our partners for a peaceful transition and the continuation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and democratic traditions. And the Commission will now be preparing an initiative to intensify the links that the European union has with Hong Kong.

So I think that covers the points that I didn’t cover yesterday, though I am perfectly content for you to return to those matters if you wish to ask any questions on them.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION:

You set out before this conference to defend the British veto. If you look at the conclusions, can you point to anything in that and say yes, I have held back [indistinct] Community in view of the passage that seems to think that there will have to be a strict capacity for action in relation to visas, asylum and immigration?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I think we are talking about inter-governmentally there, not taking any centralised support. There has been no suggestion that the veto would be changed, it has not been a subject for discussion. What we have had has been the basis of the debates that will take place in the next six months, and it may well be that case that in the next six months some countries will wish to move exclusively to qualified majority voting, and by definition remove the veto. I suspect that will be one of the matters that they will raise in negotiation in the months that lie ahead. But our position is very clear cut on that. We are not proposing to surrender the veto and the veto can only be surrendered if there is total agreement, unanimity, consensus upon actually doing so, and our partners know there will not be such a consensus.

QUESTION:

The Dutch Presidency has been talking, as the incoming Presidency, of its priorities for the negotiations. Foremost among them is their desire to see the communautairisation of the Schengen Agreement on border controls, something that the government has been opposed to. If the Dutch Presidency offer the United Kingdom an opt-out from the consequences of the communautairisation of the Schengen Agreement, would you reconsider your veto on that question?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will consider very carefully any proposal put to me during the Intergovernmental Conference, but I certainly don’t wish, with respect, to negotiate them here on this occasion. What is self-evident is that our border controls are not going to be changed, not just because we are being stubborn and difficult, but we have a wholly different tradition to most of our continental partners and different circumstances. We have a common land border with the Republic of Ireland, and that has existed a good deal longer than Schengen, and is at least as open, if not more open, than any of their borders. But the rest of our partners have a continuous land mass in Europe; we don’t, we are an island, we have different circumstances. They have a long tradition and acceptance of identity cards, of police papers being readily produced, that we don’t have in the United Kingdom. So our borders are of especial importance to us because they are our mechanism for protection against abuse of immigration and protection against crime. So that is not something we are likely to alter. If people are putting ideas to us about how they may proceed in certain circumstances, without involving the United Kingdom, then it would be very ungracious of me not to examine them. But I would like to see them and examine them very carefully before I reached a conclusion on them.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley):

If I could take you back to the section of the draft conclusion that Elinor was referring to, when it talks about strengthened capacity for action. “In relation to asylum, immigration, crossing external borders, drugs, crime, terrorism, the Union must be given the means to act effectively in these areas”. Given all that you have been saying, surely you object to that particular passage. Did you make any effort to get that struck out?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, we didn’t, because we didn’t need to. The circumstance in which that is being discussed is determining the intergovernmental nature of the work that will be done through Europol and other matters, and we are very keen to work with Europol. Working with Europol is not a problem. We have been one of the foremost advocates of doing so and for a very sound reason. Many of the problems of crime that afflict Northern Europe, including the United Kingdom, are international. The advantages of working together are clear. What is not proposed there is that there would be Union responsibility subordinating national responsibility. To read it that way is to misunderstand the context of the discussions and the purpose of the conclusions.

QUESTION (Adam Boulton, SKY News):

Yesterday, you were kind enough to give us your views on the chances of a single currency happening on time. The other delegations, as you know, have expressed different opinions about that. Can I now ask each one of you three what you think the chances of Britain being in that first wave are?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes you can certainly ask. Next question.

QUESTION (Paddy Smith, The Irish Times):

Prime Minister, given your praise for the Irish presidency, can I take it then that you would support the proposition that small countries can handle the presidency and that the presidency system should remain?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the Irish have handled the presidency excellently; the documentation they produced was of a very high order and the quality of chairmanship that John Bruton has shown - I haven’t attended the Foreign Affairs Council or the ECOFIN Council so my colleagues can speak for themselves - has been absolutely excellent. I have no complaints whatever about the Irish Presidency, I think it has done a first-class job. I don’t know whether Ken and Malcolm want to add anything to that.

CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER:

It is no discourtesy to anybody else but my experience of the Irish presidency is that it has been as well-conducted as any presidency I can remember, it has been done very well indeed.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:

The question as to whether there should be some reform of the presidency doesn’t just arise from the small size of the some of the applicant countries, it also arises from the fact that there could be as many as 25 member states and whether it is wise to have a presidency for six months run by just one country.

PRIME MINISTER:

The other point that goes with that is whether there is some reform needed of the Troika and I think self-evidently there is going to be some reform of the Troika for reasons that scarcely need spelling out.

QUESTION (The Economist):

Prime Minister, under your Prime Ministership, when Britain was in the ERM the British budget swung from a surplus to a deficit that approached 7 per cent of GDP at its highest point. Since you support the stability pact, do you think that this sort of irresponsible behaviour should have been punished by a fine of around 3.5 billion pounds?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, nor would it have been because if you read the stability pact carefully you will see in areas of substantial recession - I think above 2 per cent, the Chancellor will confirm - those circumstances would not apply, neither are the fines now automatic, the German proposal for automaticity of fines did not receive the approval of colleagues and, as you know, it has been changed so we certainly would not have been subjected to that fine and if you look at what happened during that period, you would see that that applied to countries right across western Europe in perhaps the worst recession we have known, you will also have seen the improvement since in the United Kingdom economy.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, now the stability pact has been agreed, the French and Germans are going to start talking more about who should enforce it and they are talking about setting up a form of economic government for Europe informally. How do you feel about Britain being excluded from that?

CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER:

We are not! Firstly, the enforcement - as you put it - of the Stability Council will be enforcement by the ECOFIN Council at this stage and once you go into the single currency it will be the finance ministers of those countries which are in membership who will enforce discipline on each other and nobody has proposed any change to that.

There have been in the past some people canvassing the idea of an informal council comprising the ministers of the members states meeting in some way, not using the institutions of the Community but informally between sessions, in order to have an overall oversight of how the single monetary union is going. That has not been mentioned once in Dublin, it hasn’t been raised and the last time it was raised it didn’t get a very forthcoming response from most people at ECOFIN so if you have met the odd Frenchmen or the odd German describing it in the terms that you have described, I think they are a million miles away from any discussion that has taken place at any meeting I have ever attended.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, there would appear to be some significant differences between yourself and the Taoiseach on the time frame for the entry of Sinn Fein into the peace talks. Could you comment on that and what message would you have for Mr Adams and Sinn Fein/IRA from this Dublin summit?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know that the message to them would especially be from the Dublin summit because this hasn’t been a matter for discussion at the Dublin summit, but I think my message to Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness is very clear-cut. Everybody wishes to see a ceasefire, they wish to see a genuine ceasefire, they wish to see a ceasefire that will last and if Sinn Fein will deliver a genuine ceasefire that will last and enable us and the other participants in the talks to be confident that it will last, then the door to Sinn Fein entering the constitutional talks is open. The only people closing the door in Sinn Fein’s face are Sinn Fein and the IRA themselves. I would welcome inclusive talks but there cannot be inclusive talks with semtex and a gun hidden under the table. Nobody is going to accept that. Once that fear is removed, the talks are open for them.

QUESTION (Simon Walters, The Express):

Prime Minister, why do you think there is so much more hostility towards the single currency in Britain than there seems to be in other European countries and could I ask you the question that you so uncharacteristically ducked a few minutes ago? What are our chances of being in the first wave?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the first point, I am not so sure - although the debate is fiercer in the United Kingdom - that public opinion is necessarily more hostile in the United Kingdom. I slightly argue against myself, I don’t very often agree very much with opinion polls, but insofar as you can draw anything from them, you will find in some other countries the disagreement with the concept of a single currency is stronger than it has been shown to be in the United Kingdom.

That is not true, of course, about the severity of the debate about a single currency which has been much more severe in the United Kingdom and I think that probably springs from several reasons: we have a much more adversarial political tradition than most of our European partners and the debate on the details and the impact of a single currency has been established for much longer in the United Kingdom than in other countries. The matters that we were openly debating over the last three or four years as far as a single currency is concerned have only just begun to be debated in the same sort of fashion in the countries of many of our European partners. Perhaps another difference is that there tends, if I may put it this way, to be a political class in some of our European partners’ countries and the political class has a broadly collective view that so far as one can see is not necessarily shared by the electors that they represent. Those are the three or four principal reasons why it seems to be so different in the United Kingdom.

As far as the other part of your question is concerned in which you say so kindly I uncharacteristically ducked, well far be it from me to disappoint you twice but I shall uncharacteristically duck it yet again for precisely the reason we have set out in the past - we will wait and see what the circumstances are. We have an option to join or an option not to join and will make our decision upon the facts of the matter when we see the circumstances.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you have been praising the Irish presidency but can I ask you a serious question? An Irish official last week, after the London summit - I am talking about Northern Ireland now - said that basically you weren’t engaged at that London summit and basically what they are saying in football parlance is that you really have your eye off the ball of Northern Ireland now because of your situation at Westminster and as I said, the quote was from the Irish official that you weren’t engaged in London.

PRIME MINISTER:

I find that extraordinary. I have been pretty intensively engaged in the Northern Ireland issue for the last five years and I am not going to become disattached from it. If I wasn’t engaged, we had two-and-a-half hours of pretty intensive discussion on the question of Northern Ireland and I have just indicated in the last few moments yet again exactly what the British Government’s position is. We could scarcely be more engaged and I don’t think any British Government has been as engaged and working as closely with the other constitutional parties and the Irish government as the British Government has in recent years and that remains the circumstance.

I cannot imagine who could said what you have just reported but I will reflect upon it might have been! [Laughter].

QUESTION (Elinor Goodman, Channel 4):

Could I just ask you to sum up what you think you have achieved at this summit?

PRIME MINISTER:

The question of the summit was to determine effectively the ground rules for the negotiations over the next six months. What I wanted was the Irish text unaltered so that none of the decisions that lie ahead were prejudiced by decisions by the heads of government reached upon a brief conversation rather than detailed negotiation and that is what we have achieved.

The Irish text, which sets out everybody’s options, remains the basis for negotiation. The debate and discussion over the past two days have not closed down any of the options and it has left open for proper debate and discussion all the issues that we wish to bring forward at the intergovernmental conference and has not foreclosed favourably on any of the issues to which we are antagonistic so we have set the ground rules for the debate over the next six months on the outcome of the intergovernmental conference and that is what we sought to do.

QUESTION:

Those could be your last words at a summit, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

I very much doubt it and I will look forward to welcoming you, if you are still in the job, in June!