I attended the European Council meeting in Brussels on 19 and 20 December. Discussion focused on defence; economic and monetary union; and EU enlargement and association agreements. The opening session was addressed by the Secretary-General of NATO.
Protecting our national security is our first priority. At this European Council, the United Kingdom was clear that when it comes to defence issues and decisions about national armed forces, policy must be driven by nations themselves, on a voluntary basis, according to individual priorities and needs; not by the EU institutions.
For the UK, this means that NATO has been, and will continue to be, the foundation of our national defence. We are pleased to be hosting the 2014 NATO summit—the first time such a summit has been hosted in the UK since 1990.
It is of course also right for European neighbours to co-operate on defence issues and in this respect I am proud that the UK is always in the vanguard when our European allies are in need of practical help, including supporting French efforts in Mali and the Central African Republic and co-ordination of the EU’s counter-piracy operation off the horn of Africa.
I made these points at the Council and the agreed conclusions make it clear that there will be no EU ownership of defence assets and no EU headquarters. I removed references to Europe’s armed forces, to a European pooled acquisition mechanism and to EU assets and fleets and made it clear that equipment such as drones and air-to-air refuelling tankers are to be owned and operated by the member states. The conclusions of the European Council are clear that nations, not the EU institutions, are in the driving seat of defence and must remain there.
Economic and Monetary Union
The Council also held important discussions on the future of the eurozone and measures to strengthen economic and monetary union. Britain is not in the eurozone and will not be joining the euro, but it is in our interest for those that are to have a strong and stable single currency. We therefore support efforts to achieve that as long as the UK’s interests are protected. My priority at this Council was to ensure that, just as the UK is out of the EU eurozone bailout mechanism, so there can be no financial liability for the UK from banking union or from any future euro area mechanism of loans or guarantees for eurozone countries. This is reflected in the conclusions which make clear there will be no financial obligations on countries not participating in these areas. The conclusions also reiterate the importance of making the EU more competitive, completing the single market and cutting red tape for business.
Leaders also agreed to build on the UK’s G8 agenda with an explicit commitment to agree further measures on tax transparency as swiftly as possible.
Enlargement and Association Agreements
The UK has long supported enlargement as one of the EU’s greatest strengths. The prospect of EU membership has proved a huge driver for peace, prosperity and progress across our continent. But the EU of today is very different to the European Community of 50 years ago and it was never envisaged that the accession of new countries would trigger mass population movements across our continent.
So I made it clear that when future countries join the EU we must look again at the transitional arrangements for the free movement of workers, and my preference to look at options such as much longer transitional periods and new benchmarks that would need to be met. I also made the case for returning the principle of free movement to a more sensible basis and making it clear that it should never be a completely unqualified right but should be what the EU first envisaged—the free movement of workers, not of those after the best benefit deal. This is not just the view of the UK. At the recent meeting of Interior Ministers, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands all made it clear that we need to find a better approach to tackle free movement abuse. In this spirit, we can now look forward to continuing these discussions in the coming year and ensuring that future enlargements proceed in a way that regains the trust and the support of our peoples.
Copies of the Council conclusions are available in the Libraries of both Houses.