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1991 - Mr Major’s Maastricht Press Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference given at Maastricht on Wednesday 11th December 1991.


PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks to all of you for staying so late for this press conference. We have had two and a half days of intense, detailed and occasionally tough negotiation. I am very happy with the outcome, I think it is a success both for Britain and for the whole of the Community.

What we have agreed in the last couple of days is a treaty on European Union covering economic and monetary union and also political union. It marks a very significant step forward for Community cooperation, it settles the argument as to whether we should deepen or widen the Community, because we will now, as we have advocated for some time, do both of those things.

Let me turn firstly to economic and monetary union. Our main objective in the economic and monetary union treaty was to secure a legally water-tight provision so that the United Kingdom can decide whether it wants to join a single currency or not and if it does, when it should join a single currency. We have achieved that in a legally binding protocol which forms an integral part of the treaty. We have secured also strict convergence conditions before any of the Community countries can move to Stage 3. We have retained absolute control over monetary policy in Stage 2 and of course whether we move to Stage 3 at all will require a separate decision by the British government and Parliament. Those were precisely the objectives we came here to achieve in this treaty.

The text on political union preserves the separate pillared treaty structure which we have long argued for on defence, on foreign policy and on interior and justice cooperation. What that means is no Community competence in those areas and no jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice. That was a vital requirement for the United Kingdom and we have achieved it in full.

For foreign policy we have preserved unanimity in decision-making, that also was vital for us. If there are to be any implementing decisions capable of majority voting then those decisions themselves will be first identified by unanimity, again an absolute requirement when we came here.

On defence, the outcome is good for the Alliance and it is good for us. We have agreed that any new arrangements must be compatible with NATO, that defence issues should be dealt with by the Western European Union and not the Community and that the Western European Union will not be subordinated to the Union. A common defence policy will be a matter for the long term.

We have also agreed a separate Western European Union declaration annex to the treaty which further reaffirms the independent status and decision making of the Western European Union, confirms that any new arrangements will be compatible with NATO and that the Western European Union will act in conformity with the Alliance. This is absolutely the outcome that we required.

There has been a lot of concern, and not I think just in the United Kingdom, at creeping competence in the Community, the Commission using whatever articles are available to create an unjustified legal base for Community action. That has been particularly true and has caused us especial concern in the social area.

Let me say, without equivocation, that we accept that there is a social dimension to the Community. Eighteen out of the 32 measures in the social action programme have been adopted, all of them, all of them, have been implemented by the United Kingdom. What we could not accept was further extensions of Community competence, not to deal with health and safety, but to do with employer, employee relations.

I said before I came that I could not accept a text that would allow the Community to adopt measures that would drive a coach and horses through the trade union reforms we have won over the last decade which have, just to give you an illustration of their effectiveness, reduced the days lost through strikes from 29 million in 1979 to less than 2 million last year. As you will know, the social chapter has been dropped entirely.

In the social area the treaty text is completely unchanged from the existing Treaty of Rome, there are no extensions of Community competence, no additional provisions for majority voting, there is no new treaty text on social issues, The other eleven member states, who have different backgrounds and different traditions in this area, will make their own separate arrangements for extra measures which will affect only their countries and for which they only will pay.

One of the features of the negotiations has been the recognition that the Community should not just step in because it feels like it but only when there is a good reason for the Community to do so. And this is reflected in the treaty text, proposed by Britain and Germany, which implements the principle of subsidiarity, the principle in essence that the Community should only take action if and insofar as its objectives cannot be better achieved at national level. That was important to us and it has been agreed and sanctified in the treaty.

We have reduced unanimity for major areas of Community spending and in particular research and development. Now that is an important gain. At the same time we have strengthened the Community so as to help our citizens. We have improved the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of the Community.

We have given the European Parliament a new power to investigate maladministration. We have created a European Community ombudsman. We have given European citizens a right to petition the European Parliament. All of these that I have just listed were British initiatives that are now in the treaty.

We have taken measures to improve the implementation of Community measures, on which Britain’s record on implementation is one of the best. And in particular, the European Court of Justice in future will be able to impose fines on those governments which fail ‘to carry out their legal obligations.

I referred a few moments ago to deepening as well as widening. In its conclusions the Community, at our suggestion, has agreed that new membership negotiations can begin in 1992. The Commission will undertake a study of enlargement and will report back to the European Council in Lisbon next June. Enlargement will then be something for Britain to carry forward during our Presidency in the second half of next year. We look forward to doing that.

The greatest challenge to the Community is not our internal development but how the Community as a whole matches up to the dramatic events taking place all around us, particularly to the East of Europe.

We have agreed a number of statements on foreign policy issues as well. Let me draw your attention just to two of them. The first on the Soviet Union is designed to encourage peaceful and democratic development in the Soviet Union, it calls on the republics to respect the rights of minorities, to put into effect international agreements on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, to control and secure their nuclear weapons and to honour their obligations in respect of the Soviet Union’s external debt.

As many of you may know, I discussed developments in the Soviet Union with President Mitterrand and we have kept in close touch with the Americans over the last two days.

The Political Directors of Britain, France and the United States will be meeting later this week and I hope the Foreign Ministers of the three countries will meet to discuss these developments, I hope, next week.

The European Council has endorsed the demands which we, France and the United States have made to the Libyan government requiring them to abandon their support of terrorism and hand over the perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing.

So those are some of the things that have happened over the last couple of days. Tonight’s agreement of course was not just achieved in two days, it reflects a great deal of work over many months. It reflects enormous credit on Ruud Lubbers and the Dutch Presidency who have been unfailingly courteous and helpful throughout the lead-up to the negotiations and during the negotiations.

And tough though the negotiations have sometimes been, there has been a genuine spirit of give and take amongst the Member States.

I believe that the agreement that we have agreed this evening fully reflects Britain’s interests on economic and monetary union, foreign policy, defence and the future development of this Community. I shall have no hesitation in recommending it to Parliament and to the British people.

And finally, I told you when I came here that the term federal vocation would have gone by Tuesday night - it has.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (John Sargeant):

Could you confirm that the eleven countries who have agreed the protocol on the social chapter will not be able to act within the structures of the European Community and that any policies they agree together will not become part of Community law?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is correct. They will be able to use the Commission, they will be able to do that, it will, be specially funded, it will be separately funded and it will not become Community law as far as the United Kingdom is concerned.

QUESTION (Keith Rockwell, Journal of Commerce):

You mentioned that you thought that the social aspects of this treaty would result in damage to the competitiveness of Europe, I wonder if you think that the outcome of this treaty or this opting out or however we are going to phrase it here, may give Britain a let up on its competitors in terms of foreign investment and trade in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

It certainly will do us no harm. One of the prominent European figures indicated some time ago that a country that did not have these obligations would act as a magnet to investment. I do not know whether that is true or not. I can certainly say that in the United Kingdom in recent years we have had the fastest job growth since the war, 75 percent increase in the number of self-employed since 1979, 33 percent rise in the number of registered businesses.

These were developments over the last decade that I was simply not prepared to put at risk and I believe that the provisions that were there in the social chapter, for reasons that I spelt out to our Community partners, would have damaged that competitiveness and would have damaged that job creation. And it was for that reason, not only anti-communautaire spirit, that I decided that those were provisions that it was not in Britain’s interests to sign up to. We have certainly retained our competitiveness, I look forward to welcoming a great deal more of inward investment and to sustaining our competitiveness in the short and medium term.

QUESTION (John Palmer, Guardian):

As you have told us, this European Summit has embarked upon an accelerated timetable in many ways for full European Union, Britain reserves the right to remain outside. Eleven countries, we have heard tonight, have announced their intention, using the European Commission and the European Parliament and with the British Ministers abstaining in the Council of Ministers, to press ahead with social legislation. Is it the position that we have now got a two-speed Europe and you have put Britain embedded down in the slow lane?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely not. Let me take the first point which I assume was aimed at economic and monetary union. You said that we have reserved the right not to go in, but that is only half the story, John, we have also reserved the right to go in if we think it is right of the British economy at that stage, it is not a one-way option. Everybody else seems to have decided now, irrespective of the circumstances at a later stage, irrespective of their own economic development and what the world looks like, that they wish to commit themselves to that providing the convergence conditions are met.

We have a two-way option. If we think it is right, we can go in. If we think it is wrong, we can stay out. So we have surrendered nothing and we have lost nothing, the option is there for us to go in or not to go in as we choose.

Upon the second point about the social charter. The social charter is of course a misnomer because it really relates essentially to employment matters and what is important is that you actually look at what is proposed in that social charter and see what it actually means and the extent to which it would effect, badly in my judgment, upon British practices and British competitiveness.

Some people say: “But the social charter, it must be good for British workers.” I can only say to you, John, that costing British workers jobs is not good for British workers and that is why we decided not to go in it.

QUESTION:

If I could look at the issue of foreign policy, what is the current British stance on asylum seekers and refugee seekers that are going to potentially be coming in from Eastern Europe given the current instability in the Ukraine and Belorussia and Russia as well? What is your stance and how is Britain prepared to deal with the potential influx of asylum seekers and refugees?

PRIME MINISTER:

This has been discussed over recent weeks, not just of course in the discussions over the last couple of days, but has also been discussed more extensively amongst the Foreign Ministers. Now by good fortune I have the Foreign Secretary with me, so he will respond to you.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:

You will see the declaration that put was out today about the Soviet Union, that gives the general background as to how we analyse the position there. But as regards the asylum seekers and refugees, of course there is a problem right across Europe and I think we are all agreed that we hold strictly to the UN definition of a refugee, asylum-seeker, as someone who has a well founded fear of individual persecution. Those people we accept, all the countries of Europe accept, as is our duty under international law. But what we do not accept of course is the right of people to come to Europe, whether it is Britain or Germany or wherever, simply in order to better their economic position and we have legislation going through the British Parliament at the present time to deal with that.

So one of the things that has been agreed here at Maastricht is that the countries of Europe should work together more intensely on this and similar problems, not under the jurisdiction of the Community, not with the competence of the Community, but between governments. And that work I think is going to be increasingly important as the months pass.

QUESTION (Andrew Marr, Economist):

Mr Major, you have said that there has been a lot of give and take in these negotiations and you very helpfully listed for us all those areas where you have taken. Could you list for us now those areas where you have given?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am sure lots of other people will do that for you, Andrew. But let me set out some of them. There are some areas of increased competence, a good deal of it by decisions by unanimity rather than qualified majority vote and there has been an extension of a negative assent procedure.

We have also given in terms of what is in the treaty. Many of the individual matters that give greater powers to the European Parliament, and I listed them earlier in my opening remarks, were in fact British initiatives. I think what we have also done in some areas is to ensure that decisions are taken which are good for the Community, not just for the United Kingdom but for the Community as a whole. So I think we have given a great deal to these treaties and I believe dispassionate observers would acknowledge that.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley, The Times):

There have been indications that some national parliaments might not ratify the deal reached tonight if it is not agreed by the European Parliament and also there is some expectation that the European Parliament might not like the deal. If it is not ratified by various national parliaments and your 11 partners come back to you and say they need a new deal, a new arrangement on the social chapter, would you be willing to start talking about it again?

PRIME MINISTER:

I honestly do not think that problem will arise. The European Parliament will accept this deal, I have no doubt about it. I dare say in some areas the European Parliament would have liked the deal to have gone further, that is undoubtedly the case. There is no-one, no national government that sat round that table that got everything it wanted, all of them have conceded something, all of them will have some things in the treaty that they would have preferred not to have had. They have made the decision as national governments to endorse the treaty, the European Parliament finds itself in the same place, it has got a great deal that it will like, it has not got some things that it wanted, but I do not myself believe that it will fail to ratify the treaty.

QUESTION (David Marsh, FT):

Two questions about monetary union. What is the likelihood that a sufficiently large number of countries will actually reach the very tough convergence criteria to make monetary union a meaningful possibility either in 1996 or in 1999? And at what stage will you be moving to make the Bank of England independent to at least prepare yourself for the possibility of Britain opting in?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the first point, it is very speculative as to when people will actually achieve that state of convergence. The convergence conditions that people have to meet are quite tough and yet it is absolutely essential that those convergence conditions are there, otherwise there would be an economic catastrophe for Europe. I cannot make a judgment as to how rapidly those countries will get to convergence, it is certainly possible that they will not have achieved it by 1996/97, which is why the French for example, who are very enthusiastic about it, have produced the proposition of looking at it again two years later. Whether a sufficient number, a critical mass, will have reached it then is still a moot point. So that is speculative and I cannot make a judgment about that.

On your second point, the Bank of England would become independent if we went into Stage 3 and when we went into Stage 3.

QUESTION (Radio CB international):

How can it be that in this year there is carrying on a bloody civil war in Europe, people are being killed, Dubrovnik which happens to be a favourite town of mine is being destroyed, and there sit the twelve Heads of government of the European Community and nothing is being done and can anything be done and what can be done to stop it after the 83rd ceasefire?

PRIME MINISTER:

I do not think anyone has done more than the Foreign Secretary and his counterparts in Europe to try and bring it to an end. If the combatants in Yugoslavia continue fighting it is not necessarily possible for other people to stop them. But there is a wider answer to your question. Thirty years ago people might well have said: “How can you stop the Western European nations fighting against one another?” Today, such a question in Western Europe would be ludicrous, the integration and the inter-relationship between the European Community has effectively stopped conflict in Western Europe for good. One of the reasons that the decisions on enlargement are so important is that perhaps not in my political lifetime but beyond that, we can look forward to a Community that stretches right the way across the whole of Europe and that will prevent the prospects of conflict right the way across the whole of Europe. We have started a trail today that might provide the only comprehensive answer to your question in due course.

QUESTION:

Are you an optimist for the Balkans?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not for me to declare whether I am an optimist or a pessimist.