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EU Council

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the European Council meeting that took place before Christmas. The Council focused on three issues: migration, terrorism and the UK’s renegotiation. I will take each in turn.

First, on migration, even in winter there are still many migrants coming to Europe, with over 3,000 arriving via the eastern Mediterranean route each day. Of course, Britain is not part of the Schengen open border arrangements, and we are not going to be joining; we have our own border controls, and they apply to everyone attempting to enter the UK and every day help to keep us safe. Let me repeat: these controls apply to all, including EU citizens. We have stopped nearly 95,000 people at our borders since 2010, including almost 6,000 EU nationals. These people were not allowed to come in.

What Schengen countries are now trying to put in place is a pale imitation of what we already have. What they do, of course, is a matter for them, but it is in our interests to help our European partners secure their external borders. So we have provided more technical expertise to the European Asylum Support Office than any other European country, including practical assistance to help with the registering and fingerprinting of migrants when they arrive in countries such as Greece and Italy. We have focused on the root causes—not just the consequences—of the migration crisis. That is why we continue to play a leading role in the efforts of the international Syria support group to end the conflict in Syria through a political process and why we have backed the agreement reached recently in Morocco that should pave the way for a new united, national government in Libya. We have deployed HMS Enterprise to go after the people traffickers in the Mediterranean and have provided £1.12 billion in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian conflict—by far the largest commitment of any European country and second only to America. In addition, the donor conference I am hosting next month with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations will help further by raising significant new funding to help refugees in the region this year.

The Council focused on implementing the previously agreed measures on refugee resettlement. In Britain, we said we would resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees during this Parliament, taking them directly from the camps, and I can tell the House that, exactly as we promised, over 1,000 Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon were resettled here in time for Christmas. These people are now in homes, their children are starting this new year in our schools and they can look forward to building a new life here in Britain.

Many in the House have called for us to take more refugees or to take part in the EU relocation and resettlement schemes. The reality is that we have already done significantly more than most of our EU partners in this regard. The House might be interested to hear the figures: by the time of the December Council, only 208 refugees had been relocated within the EU out of the 160,000 agreed, and in all other member states put together, according to the most recent statistics, just 483 refugees had been resettled from outside the EU under the EU’s voluntary resettlement scheme. The point is clear: we said what we would do, and we got on and did it.

Turning to terrorism, the latest appalling video from Daesh is a reminder of its brutality and barbarism. It is desperate stuff from an organisation that hates us not for what we do, but for what we are—a democratic multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation built on tolerance, democracy and respect for human rights. Britain will never be cowed by terror. We will stand up and defend our values and our way of life, and with patience and persistence, we will defeat these extremists and eradicate this evil organisation.

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the British servicemen and women who have spent this Christmas and new year away from their families. In the last month, RAF aircraft have conducted 82 strikes in Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks, the priority of the international coalition has been supporting the Iraqi security forces’ successful recapture of Ramadi, to which our airstrikes made an important contribution. They have also helped Kurdish forces to repel major Daesh counter-attacks in northern Iraq. In Syria, there have been 11 RAF strike missions, 10 against Daesh-controlled oil infrastructure and one against Daesh terrorists near Raqqa. We continue to fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, providing vital support to our other coalition partners.

As for the discussion at the Council, we now have a clear agreement on rules to share passenger name records. This is a vital breakthrough, but we still need to go further, so the Council agreed to take forward urgent proposals on more systematic data sharing, on stepping up our co-operation on aviation security and on working together to do even more to starve Daesh of money and resources, choking off the oil and clamping down on firearms and explosives to stop them getting into the hands of terrorists. We also agreed to do more across Europe to counter the extremist propaganda and the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism that is the root cause of the terrorism that we face. The threat from Daesh is a threat to us all, and we must stand together to defeat it.

Turning to the UK renegotiation. I have set out the four areas where Britain is seeking significant and far-reaching reforms: on sovereignty and subsidiarity, where Britain must not be part of an “ever-closer union” and where we want a greater role for national Parliaments; on competitiveness, where the EU must add to our competitiveness, rather than detract from it, by signing new trade deals, cutting regulation and completing the single market; on fairness for countries inside and outside the eurozone, where the EU must protect the integrity of the single market and ensure there is no disadvantage, discrimination or additional costs for a country like Britain, which is not in the euro and which in my view is never going to join the euro; and on migration, where we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.

This is the first time a country has tried to renegotiate its membership of the EU from a standing start. Many doubted it was even possible, but at this Council we had an entire session focused on this issue, lasting several hours, and with almost every European leader contributing. I am happy to go into detail on what was an extensive discussion, but the key points were these. There was strong support for Britain to stay in the EU. European leaders began their remarks by saying not that Britain is better off in Europe, but that Europe would be better off with Britain staying in it. All wanted to reach an agreement that would address the concerns we have raised. There was extensive discussion of all four areas, and difficulties were raised with all four of them. The most difficult issues were around free movement and welfare.

There was, however, a great deal of good will. At the end of the discussion, the Council agreed—and I quote directly from the conclusions—that we would

“work closely together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all the four areas”.

I think it significant that the conclusions talk about solutions, not compromises, and I made it clear that these solutions would require changes that were legally binding and irreversible. So while each of these areas will require hard work, I believe that there is now a pathway to an agreement.

Later this week, I am continuing my efforts to secure that agreement with further discussions in Germany and Hungary, and I hope we can reach a full agreement when the Council meets again next month. What matters is getting the substance right, not the speed of the deal. If we can see this through and secure these changes, we will succeed in fundamentally changing the UK’s relationship with the EU, finally addressing the concerns that the British people have over our membership. If we cannot do that, as I have said before, I rule nothing out.

My intention is that, at the conclusion of the renegotiation, the Government should reach a clear recommendation, and then the referendum will be held. It is the nature of a referendum that it is the people, not the politicians, who decide, and as I indicated before Christmas, there will be a clear Government position, but it will be open to individual Ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the Government. Ultimately, it will be for the British people to decide this country’s future by voting in or out of a reformed European Union in the referendum that only we promised and that only a Conservative majority Government were able to deliver. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, a copy of which I received a short time ago. I wish you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister and the House a very happy new year. I hope that the Prime Minister will not misinterpret that greeting in any way whatever and will take it in the spirit in which it is meant—[Interruption.] Thank you.

Last month, I travelled to Brussels to meet European leaders, including Prime Ministers, to discuss the issues our Prime Minister has raised today. I learnt a lot at that meeting. I learnt that the Prime Minister has botched his negotiations with European leaders. I also learnt that many of our European colleagues have an intuitive understanding of British politics—they know that the Prime Minister has asked for help so that he can win a referendum he never wanted to hold.

Does the Prime Minister now accept that his attempts to bludgeon leaders into accepting his flawed reforms have failed and that he has come back with very little? Can he really be surprised at his failure, when he has not worked with his negotiating partners in Europe, and failed even to turn up when asked for help on the European refugee crisis? To deliver change, you need patient, effective diplomacy and you need to make friends. [Interruption.] Indeed we all value our friends. But the Prime Minister is not interested in that; he is more interested in his own party. He is playing politics, rather than putting forward the interests of the people of this country.

Can the Prime Minister now explain whether his Government will have a view on the choice facing the people of this country in the referendum, and how will that be reached and expressed? What has he had to say to Lord Heseltine, who said Britain would become

“a laughing stock across the world”

if the Prime Minister made the announcement he has today? Leaders across Europe can see that the Prime Minister’s demands are a bluff, a fig leaf for Conservative party politics. Does he accept that his bluff has now been called?

The Prime Minister said that he wanted to secure more for national parliaments in the EU. It is now clear that he has achieved nothing of any substance on that point. Does he also accept, as experts have warned, that his proposals for reforming migrant benefits are not only likely to be ineffective in reducing any inward migration, but are discriminatory and unfair and likely to be legally challenged? Can he confirm that he has now abandoned those plans altogether? Can he also confirm once and for all that he has dropped his utterly disgraceful plans to weaken what is already weak workers’ protection in this country when compared with the workers’ protection offered in other European countries?

Essentially, the Prime Minister’s proposals are a distraction. The real issue is about delivering a better, more cohesive, more democratic and progressive Europe that promotes security and protection for workers, and delivers investment and a productive economy to support jobs and sustainable growth. That is why in the upcoming referendum we will fight to ensure those things are delivered in the European Union as part of a progressive reform agenda.

I would like to ask the Prime Minister something more about the refugee crisis, and what he is doing to help in this growing humanitarian crisis. First, I want to put on record my thanks to the Royal Navy and all other service personnel working in the Mediterranean trying to save lives. They have done a great job and they have saved a very large number of people who were desperate to cross the Mediterranean and find a place of safety. What funding is Britain offering to assist in the collective effort to deal with the refugee crisis across Europe? There is a very serious crisis in many countries on the borders of Europe, and we also face the present situation in Calais.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that Britain is fully part of, and signed up to, the negotiated political peace process to try to bring about a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, and is he in a position to update us on anything to do with that?

Does the Prime Minister agree that we now need a pan-European humanitarian relief programme, co- ordinated by the United Nations, to assess the status of all refugees and provide proper refugee support? The Government are simply not going far enough to help those in need. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to accepting at least 20,000 refugees over the next two years, rather than the next five? Will he support calls for Britain to take in 3,000 vulnerable and unaccompanied children who are currently in a quite desperate situation?

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that by isolating Britain from Europe, he is making it more difficult for us to work as partners on all these issues, and that once again he is putting the politics of his own party above the national interest? Will he join me in seeking a more progressive union across Europe which will deliver welfare and security to our workers and our economy, rather than the agenda that he has put before us today?

Let me wish the right hon. Gentleman—along with you, Mr Speaker—a very happy new year. Let me also apologise for interrupting what is clearly the longest reshuffle in history. We could have watched the entire run of “Star Wars” movies, but we still do not know who has been seduced to the dark side. There is absolutely no sign of a rebel alliance emerging either: I can see that.

The right hon. Gentleman had the temerity to say that this was a referendum that I did not want. This is a referendum that I put to the British people in a manifesto. It is odd to hear such talk from the right hon. Gentleman, who has a shadow Foreign Secretary whom he does not want.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. Let me now answer them. He asked whether the Government would make a clear recommendation. Yes, we will: I said that very clearly in my statement. He asked whether the national Parliament measures were still in place. Yes, they are, and they received a warm reception from a number of other European countries. He asked about welfare benefits. Our four-year proposal remains on the table. I have said that I am very happy to look at alternatives, but I will not take my proposal off the table until I see something equally effective being put forward.

I would just note that at the last election, it was Labour policy to ask people coming to this country to live and work here for several years before claiming benefits. [Interruption.] Labour Members can all call out about what a great policy it was, but it has now been abandoned by their leader. Never mind how many Eagles we end up with; I think we have all worked out that they have an albatross at the head of their party. [Laughter.]

The right hon. Gentleman asked about refugees. I think he was right to praise the Royal Navy for the work that it does. As for funding, let me make it very clear that we believe the EU can do more, but the EU has a generous budget to which we are a significant contributor. In all our conversations we asked the EU to use its existing budget, knowing that countries like Britain have made huge contributions, outside the EU budget, to the excellent United Nations programmes. If only other EU countries were as generous to those programmes as we have been, we would ease the Syrian refugee crisis by a huge amount. As I said in my statement, we have contributed £1.12 billion.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we were signed up to the Syrian peace process. Yes, we are. We have been one of the leading players behind that process. There was a good meeting in New York in December, but more meetings will be needed to bring about the ceasefires and the political discussions that are necessary. I will keep the House updated on that, as will the Foreign Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would take more migrants. I think that the 20,000 resettlement is the right number. I stress again that we have gone ahead and delivered what we said we would, which is in stark contrast to many other promises made by other countries. He asked about the issue of the 3,000 orphans. I said in the Syria debate that we would look seriously at that issue, but there are problems. Of course we can think about helping, but we must be careful to ensure that we are not removing people from their wider families. We need to look carefully at those who have tragically lost parents.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman claimed that somehow we were isolated in Europe, when we are leading the debate on Syria, leading the debate on Libya and leading the debate on security, and I have to say that, after his visit to Brussels, when other Prime Ministers and Presidents were not asking about terrorism or migration or indeed the British negotiation, another question on their lips was, “What on earth has happened to the British Labour party?”

Does the Prime Minister remain confident that he will obtain a full British opt-out from the ever-closer union commitment, which until recently—in recent years—has been the principal demand of Eurosceptics, who claim to see a threat to the future independence of this country if we stay in the EU? Now that some of our right hon. and hon. Friends are taking an unaccustomed interest in benefit rules, will he confirm that his proposal on the table for a four-year limitation is stimulating a discussion with other countries anxious to take away unnecessary draws to their countries of other EU nationals, to find a solution so that we have coming here only people who will work legally in a way that benefits the British economy?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes two very powerful points. First, the ever-closer union does matter, not purely as a symbolic issue, but because it does get used as an interpretation by the European Court and has been one of the things that people feel has driven something of a ratchet in terms of EU law, so it is vital that we are fully carved out of that. He is right as well about benefits. Of course this is a controversial issue in Europe, but other countries share our concerns. Indeed, some of the countries that people are leaving are also concerned about the potential hollowing out of their countries as so many young people in their 20s and 30s leave. My point is simple: Britain has benefited hugely from migration and we should continue to support migration and free movement, but the extra artificial draw that our in-work benefit systems can bring badly needs to be addressed.

It is our first day back in Parliament so this is our first opportunity to say that our hearts go out to all around the country who are suffering from the recent and ongoing flooding. In particular we think of the families who have lost loved ones, and who have endured damage to their homes and their businesses, and we should put on record our appreciation for the response of the emergency services and of neighbours, friends and total strangers who have been making a difference.

The biggest European challenge in 2016 is not the negotiations of the Prime Minister and his position on Cabinet splits, which have been described by Swedish statesman Carl Bildt as “more than bizarre”; the biggest issue for our continent is the refugee crisis, the instability in the middle east and the threat of terrorism. Three EU member states have immigration opt-outs: the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. But both Ireland and Denmark are part of the EU refugee programme, while the UK has stood aside. Given the overwhelmingly warm welcome and positive humanitarian response in the UK to Syrians fleeing conflict, will the Prime Minister reconsider that position? At least, will he follow the advice of the Select Committee on International Development and help more refugee children, just as the UK did with Jewish children in the past through the Kindertransport?

On the instability in the middle east, how is the Prime Minister going to step up diplomatic support for the Vienna process and help secure a ceasefire in Syria? Does he understand the growing concern about the worrying confrontation involving Saudi Arabia and Iran? Is it not time, however, to do more than just condemn those who behead, crucify and shoot those they disagree with? Is it not time for concrete action by the UK Government?

On European reform, it is an open secret that three of the four demands of the Prime Minister are so limited that they are almost universally uncontentious. On EU citizens working in the UK, why do we not hear more from the Government about their positive contribution to our communities, public services and the private sector, and the massive tax bonus the UK receives from EU taxpayers living in the UK? Will the Prime Minister confirm that this positive EU bonus massively outweighs any abuses of in-work benefits?

Will the Prime Minister finally—because he has had many opportunities to do this—give a guarantee that if Scotland votes to remain within the EU, it will stay within it? [Interruption.] The public at home will hear the groans from the Conservative Benches; the people of Scotland want to know if they will be taken out of the EU against their will. Will the Prime Minister give that guarantee today—he has failed to do it thus far?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s last point, Scotland had a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the former Scottish First Minister, now the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), and I signed the Edinburgh agreement, which said that both sides had to respect the outcome of that referendum. That is the only answer that the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) needs.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the emergency services and the Army for the incredible work they have done during the recent floods. Our hearts go out to all those who have had homes, businesses and shops flooded. Let us also pay tribute to the amazing spirit of the British people who have come together at Christmastime and made huge sacrifices to help to each other. It is remarkable what those communities have done.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question on the EU refugee programme, we believe that our resettlement programme is better run by ourselves. We have done it well and quickly, and we have brought more people into Britain from Syria than other countries have been able to resettle. We are also able to carry out our own safeguarding checks on those people. I have already answered the question on the 3,000 orphan children, which we are looking at again.

The point that the right hon. Gentleman made about three of the four things we are asking for being uncontentious is simply not true. I encourage him to spend more time talking to European colleagues about just how difficult these things are to achieve. On the issue of the Vienna process, we have a clear view that we condemn and do not support the death penalty wherever it takes place, Saudi Arabia included. On the Vienna process, we have to find a way of trying to get Iran and Saudi Arabia into the room at the same time to negotiate what will happen in a Syrian transition. We have to be clear that that is our greatest priority. Dealing with the Syrian crisis, which is the source of so much of the terror that we face and the source of the migration crisis that is facing Europe, has to be top of mine.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the focus on the success or failure of his renegotiation risks diverting attention from issues of much greater substance, including the implication for Britain’s role in the world of the decision to stay or leave, and the costs and benefits to the UK of being part of a free EU labour market, given that the introduction of the living wage will dwarf the effect of any benefit entitlements as a draw for people to come to the United Kingdom?

Once this negotiation is complete, people will have to ask the big question about whether Britain is better off inside or outside a reformed European Union. The question will also be about whether we will be safer and more prosperous. I believe that this renegotiation will make a difference on competitiveness, on sovereignty, on the euro and on the issue of migration. People will also be asking the bigger question about whole of the position of Britain in Europe, and what the Government and I are doing is making sure that the choice people face is not between the status quo and leaving altogether but between an important amendment to the status quo and leaving altogether. It is right that we get that right.

Before Christmas, I met 11 and 12-year-olds who were living in the “jungle” in Calais. They are of a similar age to my children and those of the Prime Minister, but they are alone and separated from their parents. They are vulnerable to exploitation and prostitution, as well as to the cold, to bronchitis and to scabies. The longer the Prime Minister looks at this proposal to help 3,000 children, the more of them will simply disappear. The proposal has cross-party support, and I urge him to agree today to work with Save the Children on a plan for Britain to help 3,000 unaccompanied children from across Europe. Just agree to the principle today!

We are going to consider this in a very proper way, as I said during the Syria debate, because there are different views among the non-governmental organisations about whether this is the right approach to take. I have said this at the Dispatch Box before. On the question of the people at Calais, we are clear that we will do everything we can to help the French with border security and with helping to process people who are in France, but at the end of the day, people do not have the right to try to break into Britain against our rules. Those people in Calais should be properly processed and dealt with by the French.

My right hon. Friend has just stated that his package would “require changes” that are “legally binding and irreversible”. As there is no treaty change on offer, on what grounds can he legitimately and honestly contend that an international agreement registered at the UN would be legally binding and irreversible, and that voters—this is what matters—could absolutely rely on it when they cast their votes? Will this be a cast-iron guarantee?

There have been occasions when countries have voted in referendums, or indeed when we have voted in this House on treaty proposals, before they are adopted and implemented by every other country. What I have said is that we need changes that are legally binding and irreversible, and those are the changes I seek.

This referendum is the Government’s policy, and the country will decide whether we stay in the European Union or leave the European Union. What I am doing is giving the country the very best choice there can be—by a vital amendment to the status quo—but in the end it will be Britain’s choice.

Did the Council discuss how free societies with free media should react to terrorist propaganda? The latest Daesh atrocity video seems to feature a well-known British extremist and a brainwashed child. Does the Prime Minister agree that although the broadcast media seem to have handled this material with appropriate restraint, some of the press, in the pictorial coverage, has been playing into the hands of the terrorist propagandists?

First, on what my right hon. Friend says about what Britain is doing in the EU to counter terrorist propaganda, we have taken the expertise that we have built up here and are sharing that with other European countries as we set up some new organisations. It is very important to win this battle of ideas—in some ways it is a battle of ideas, as we faced in the cold war. I am not sure I go all the way with him on what he said about “either television or newspapers”. As he said, television media have been responsible. I do not think it would be right to have some sort of blanket ban on showing any parts of these videos. Indeed, showing a part of these videos and just how ghastly and brutal this organisation is, for instance in the way it is using children, reminds everybody, not least those who might be tempted by this radical organisation, of just what a sick organisation it is. On the whole, the media have been fairly responsible about this, and I think it is much better to have that form of self-restraint than anything else.

The Prime Minister said in his statement that in relation to euro and non-euro countries he was looking for “no disadvantage, discrimination or additional costs”. That is a pretty low bar for ambition. Should he not be looking for equality and parity between euro countries and non-euro countries?

I think if we have non-discrimination, no disadvantage and no costs, that gives us the parity that we seek. I take people who do not think this is important back to the summer, when eurozone countries looked at using a European fund, to which we were a contributor, to help bail out Greece. To people who think this stuff does not matter, I say it absolutely does matter. It is vital, in order to protect the interests of taxpayers in euro-out countries, that we have these principles clearly written down and implemented.

What treaty and other changes does the United Kingdom need so that the Prime Minister can implement his extremely popular policy of cutting migration by more than two thirds?

What we need to do is address migration from both within the European Union and from outside it; if we look at the figures, we see that at the moment about half is coming from each. I do not want us to get out of the idea of free movement—British citizens benefit from being able to go to live, work and retire in other European countries—but we should be doing something about the artificial draw that our benefits system provides. That is now widely recognised in Europe. As for migration from outside the EU, which is more under our control, we need to take further steps and the Home Secretary has set them out.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the nation must “not be part of an ‘ever-closer union”. At some point shortly he will agree the date for the people to vote on this issue. What guarantee can he give that if they were to accept his promise that we would never, ever be part of a closer union in Europe, subsequent to that vote Europe would not undermine it and eventually agree to a closer union that he has promised we would not be part of?

That is a very good question. What I am seeking is a legally binding and irreversible change that carves Britain out of an ever-closer union. The way that I explain it to my European colleagues is that we do not all want the same destination. There are some countries in Europe that do seek an ever-closer union, but Britain is not one of them. We want to be there for trade and for co-operation. There are many areas where we do share our resources, ideas and even sometimes our sovereignty to get things done, but we do not want to be part of an ever-closer union, and that should be clearly set out, legally binding and irreversible.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend on that point. However, the European Court has never defined “ever-closer union” but it has made reference to it 55 times in judgments since 1999. Legally, how would Britain be exempted from the concept of ever-closer union unless we were exempted from all such judgments—either those that might be made in future or those historic in nature?

Clearly, if we have a legally binding and irreversible approach that says that Britain is not part of an ever-closer union then the courts cannot use ever-closer union to provide a ratchet against Britain in future court judgments. It is an important matter. I accept that it is a symbol, but symbols matter in politics. Our politics is full of symbols. A symbol of being outside this ever-closer union speaks to the British belief that we joined a common market and not a political union, but, as I have set out, it does also have a practical application.

Given that the Daesh terrorist apparently responsible for the latest disgusting video and the cold-blooded murders in Syria jumped bail in Britain, does the Prime Minister regret his decision to scrap Labour’s control orders?

The experts say that the terrorism prevention and investigation measures as amended are every bit as powerful as the control orders that they replace. We must remember that those control orders were, increasingly, knocked down in court decision after court decision. If Members listen to the experts in the security services or the police, they will hear that they are content with the approach that we have.

Given that the Prime Minister has optimistically shared with us his hope that he can reach full agreement when the Council meets at the end of the month, will he also share with us the dates he is considering for this referendum? I think that we would all like to know that.

I would love to fill in my right hon. Friend’s diary. Indeed, I would love to fill in my own diary, so that I know when all these things are happening. I cannot guarantee that we will reach agreement in February. The Council agreed that we would try to reach agreement on all four issues in February; so that is the aim. If that is possible, I am keen to get on and hold a referendum. We should not do it precipitately. I have looked at precedents. I note that when Labour held a referendum in 1975, there was only a month between the completion of the legislation and the referendum, which was not enough time. When we had the referendum on the alternative vote in the previous Government that I led, the period was less than three months, which was also not enough. We should be looking for a period longer than that, but, believe me, by the time we get to the end of the referendum campaign, everyone will have had enough of the subject.

The Prime Minister made only one very brief mention of the principle of free movement in his original statement. Does that mean that he has completely abandoned any negotiations on free movement, or is the subject still on the table? If it is still on the table, what changes is he looking for?

Let me be clear: I support the principle of free movement whereby people in the European Union can travel to different countries, live and work in those countries and retire in those countries if they can support themselves. We have problems with two areas. One is the abuse whereby people have used the free movement legislation to bring criminals to the United Kingdom and the other is where they take part in immigration practices that are against our rules. Those abuses need to be dealt with. As I have said, our welfare system has provided an unnatural draw to the UK and we need to further control immigration inside the EU by addressing that problem.

Before people cavil too much, let us pause for a moment to remember that it is only because this Prime Minister is in place, backed by all of us, that we got this referendum at all. When my right hon. Friend was having discussions with his colleagues, was there any recognition of the fact that if any of us turned up in Warsaw, we would not be entitled to benefits for years because Poland has a contributory system, and the EU is about free movement of workers, not benefit seekers? Has there been any discussion in Government of our moving to a contributory system in order to resolve this issue?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the reasons that the problem of the draw of our welfare system arises is that unlike many other European countries we have a system to which there is immediate access. People who go to live in some other European countries would have to pay in and contribute for many years before getting their benefits. I am open to all sorts of suggestions, including the one that my hon. Friend made. We need to achieve something that cuts the draw of migrants to Britain through the welfare changes that I have set out.

The Prime Minister referred to terrorism in his statement—terrorism in the middle east. It is all too easy to forget about the terrorist campaign in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Today is the 40th anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre in which 10 Protestants were murdered because of their religion. The only survivor was shot 18 times and left for dead alongside his lifeless colleagues. What steps has the Prime Minister taken to ensure that people responsible cannot cross borders, as was the case 40 years ago, when those responsible fled across the border into the Republic of Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that there are many victims of terrorism and families who have lost loved ones to terrorism in our own country. Even today there is still a terrorist campaign in part of our United Kingdom, and we should take a moment to pay tribute to the police and the security services who work round the clock to try to stop that happening. With reference to his question, it is important that whatever our borders are or wherever they are, we are able to police them effectively to stop criminals and terrorists crossing them.

The Conservative party manifesto said:

“We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.”

Although I am clear that in the referendum I will vote to leave the European Union, many of my constituents are waiting to see the outcome of the renegotiation. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could explain whether we are still insisting on that idea, or is it now simply a basis for negotiation?

No. I very much stand by what we put in our manifesto. The four issues that we are renegotiating were clearly set out there and we need to deliver in each of those four areas.

The Prime Minister is right to give his Ministers a free vote, as Harold Wilson did in 1975, but does he realise that underpinning everything in the referendum is trust? How will the British people trust anything that he brings back, dealing with a European Union that they do not trust and with institutions that they do not trust, if we do not have a proper and fully worked out treaty change?

I think people can see that this is a process in which they can trust. We promised a referendum; we have legislated for a referendum. We promised a renegotiation; that renegotiation is well on course. This is all from a Government who said they would cut the EU budget—nobody believed us, but we did; who said we would veto a treaty if necessary—nobody believed us, but we did; and who said we would bring back the largest number of powers since Britain joined the EU which, with the Justice and Home Affairs opt-out, we did. This is a Government who have a track record, but in the end it will be for the British people to make their decision about where our future is most secure.

The Prime Minister laid great stress on the fight against terrorism and it is, sadly, clear that forces that hate our democracy are establishing themselves in a larger number of countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ability of democratic countries to use the European Union to take measures that allow them to co-operate on a daily basis in the fight against terrorism is a key contribution to keeping British citizens and Britain’s streets as safe as they could be?

My right hon. Friend is right. In many of the debates about Europe that we have had in the past 10 or even 20 years, much of the focus has been on economic questions. When this debate comes, a lot of it will rightly focus on security questions. Although there are still many imperfections in the way border controls and the exchange of information work, there is no doubt that we will benefit hugely from the passenger name record legislation that is coming through: it does not just tell us which passengers are coming to our country but where they bought their ticket, which credit card they used and where they are from. This is vital information which, combined with the Schengen Information System information, will help us to stop terrorists getting into our country. Of course, arguments can be made on both sides, but I think the security argument will be crucial in determining what is the right future for Britain.

Many of those who argue for us to leave the European Union suggest that we could continue to be part of the single market without having to abide by any of the obligations that go with it. Does the Prime Minister know of any non-EU states that enjoy free trade with the single market but are not part of the free movement that goes with it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Look, my argument will in no way be that Britain could not succeed outside the European Union, because of course we could; we are a great country, the world’s fifth largest economy and a great trading power. The argument will be about whether we would be more prosperous and more secure inside or outside a reformed EU. To answer his question directly—I answered this when I went to Iceland—countries such as Iceland and Norway have to obey all the rules of the single market, including on the free movement of people, but without having any say on what those rules are. In Norway it has been described as democracy by fax, because the instructions come through from Brussels, and they pay more per head to the EU than we do. It will be for the campaign responsible to make the arguments about what life would be like outside the EU, and this is a crucial question that it will have to answer.

Grassroots Out, or GO, was launched yesterday. Politicians from different political parties are working together at grassroots level to campaign on coming out of the European Union. Given the Prime Minister’s announcement that Ministers will be free to campaign to leave, I assume that they are now free to join GO; and given that he is still saying that there are significant difficulties and that he might eventually decide to recommend not staying in the EU, will he consider joining GO at some time in the future?

I will look carefully at what happens when you “pass go”! I believe that we are getting closer to an agreement on Britain’s renegotiation, and at that point—not before—although the Government will have a clear recommendation, Ministers will be able to campaign in a personal capacity on a different side, as I have said. But that needs to happen after the negotiation has taken place. I think that Members on both sides of the House, and indeed members of the public and businesses and others, want to know what the renegotiation amounts to. We need to have a proper debate about what we bring back, and then people will be able to make up their minds. In the end, it will not be any of us who decides the outcome; it will be the people who put us here.

It is not only Save the Children but UNICEF and others, including the International Development Committee, that are urging the Prime Minister to give a positive and decisive response on the issue of unaccompanied children. Does he recognise that the over 26,000 unaccompanied children who came to Europe last year came not just from Syria but from other places of conflict, and some of them already have relatives in the UK? Does he not think that he would be in a stronger position at the donor conference he is co-hosting next month if he had already made a clear decision?

I think that we will be in a strong position at the donor conference because we have done more than any other country, save the United States, in terms of the funding we have given to the refugee crisis, and because, having made the 20,000 pledge, we are in the process of implementing it in very good order. I said that I would look closely at the issue of orphans. The point I have made many times is that there are different views among some NGOs about how best to handle the issue. I want to ensure that what we do is genuinely helpful for the people we are trying to assist. We know—because we can vet them and look at them—that the families we are taking out of the refugee camps are better off here, and they are the sorts of people who are most vulnerable and whom we can help the most.

Of course the referendum will revolve around the political advantages and economic strengths that continued membership of the European Union will bring, but, in terms of his renegotiation, does the Prime Minister agree with me that the second basket, competitiveness, will actually depend on our membership of the single market and on the European Union’s ability to create free trade opportunities across the globe?

My hon. Friend is making an important point. If we were not in the single market, we would not be able to argue for the trade deals that the single market signs or the completion of the single market in services, energy, digital and elsewhere. The calculation that people will have to make is whether we are better off in the single market, making a financial contribution towards it but having a say over its rules and its future, or whether we are better off outside, without that say but with some sort of negotiation about access. That goes to the heart of the economic pros and cons of in or out, and that is the argument that needs to take place.

The Prime Minister clearly believes that he can negotiate a good deal with our European partners and it is pretty clear that he does not want to be the British Prime Minister who takes us out of the EU. Why, therefore, has he suspended collective responsibility? Why is it not possible for him to persuade his own Ministers of his position on an issue that is so vital to our national interest?

The entire Government are signed up to having a successful renegotiation and holding a referendum. Everybody backs that plan, and the plan is being put into place, but clearly there are people who have long-standing views about the European issue. As I signalled very clearly before Christmas, it has never been my intention to strong-arm people into voting for a position they do not agree with, so I think this is the right approach. As I said, it does not effectively come into practice until a deal is done because we do not yet know what the Government’s recommendation will be or when the deal will be done. I hope it will be February, but it could take considerably longer. When you are negotiating with 27 other countries, all sorts of things can happen, but on this day of all days, to have talk from the Labour party about party unity is a bit on the rich side.

The Prime Minister has for many years rightly berated the Labour party for giving up our rebate and getting nothing in return. If his negotiations are so meaningful, why did he not ask for our rebate to be reinstated or for a cut in our contribution to the EU budget? Is it because he does not think that we should have our rebate back any more, or because he just asked for what he knew would be agreed to so that he could claim some bogus negotiating triumph at the end of it?

I hope my hon. Friend had an enjoyable Christmas and new year; he seems to have started in a slightly churlish manner.

I would make the point that we negotiated a cut in the EU budget, not just for one year but across the seven years of what is known as the EU financial perspective—in plain language, the EU budget year on year on year. We also protected what remains of our rebate, which is still immensely powerful and saves British taxpayers a huge amount of money.

If anybody thinks that what I am asking for is somehow easy or simple, they can come and sit around that table with 27 other leaders and see that actually that is not the case. I am not claiming elder statesmanship—I think I have now been to 42 European Councils because we have had so many of these things—but I would say that what I am arguing for is at the outside edge of what we can achieve.

Prime Minister, on the question of European funding, hundreds of my constituents in Radcliffe have had a terrible Christmas due to the flooding that has devastated so many people’s homes and businesses in Greater Manchester and across the north of England. Bury and other councils have to pick up the infrastructure costs. The European solidarity fund exists to help in such circumstances. It would be unforgivable to put Tory party management and posturing on Europe ahead of the national interest. When are the Government going to apply for the European solidarity fund money?

First of all, I send the hon. Gentleman’s constituents my sympathy for the flooding that they suffered. Let me say that we will do everything we can, including through the Bellwin scheme, to make sure that his council is fully reimbursed for all the emergency measures that it had to take. We will also make sure that we put in place the flood prevention measures and investment that are coming down the track.

I have looked very carefully at the question of EU funding; we looked at it previously in 2013. It takes a very long time to get hold of any money and it is very uncertain whether you get it. Indeed, you end up paying for it in many ways as well. I think it is quicker and better to give people the help they need from our own resources.

Beyond the talks that my right hon. Friend is co-hosting next month, what other discussions are his Government and the other European Union Governments having with functioning Governments around the Mediterranean to inhibit terrorists who disguise themselves as refugees from Asia, the middle east and Africa?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. It is why a defence co-operation operation is being undertaken in the Mediterranean, in which Britain is playing a very leading part with HMS Enterprise, which is exactly to go after the people smugglers. In time, when there is a proper Government in Libya, we need an agreement with that country that we can stop boats, and indeed turn back boats, when we think that these people should be properly dealt with in Libya—as I say, we need to break the link between their getting in a boat and settlement in Europe. We are working with all the Governments available, but crucially we need a Government in Libya with which we can deal.

May I commend the Prime Minister for, on this day of all days, demonstrating to the Leader of the Opposition that he is not the only one leading a hopelessly divided Cabinet? Does he think that a majority of his Cabinet colleagues will be joining him in the “remain in Europe” campaign?

The entire Government are behind the strategy of holding a renegotiation and having a referendum, and we have discussed repeatedly what the issues are that need to be renegotiated. What I think is so interesting across the Opposition side of the House of Commons is that there is not one single thing they want to renegotiate. They are not asking for any welfare changes, they are not asking for ever closer union changes, they are not asking for competitiveness changes—all they want to do is come here and carp and cavil at someone who is getting the job done.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to end the imposition of ever closer union, if that can be achieved in a binding way for the long-term future, but my constituents want to know what is being reversed. What is happening to the ever closer union that we have been subjected to for the past 40 years, and what powers are coming back to this Parliament?

We have just achieved the biggest return of powers since Britain joined the European Union, which is the opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs, where 100 measures came back to Britain. We have seen exactly the same, and we will see more, with regard to the eurozone, where we want to make absolutely sure that we suffer no disadvantage, we cannot be involved in bail-out schemes, and the British position is protected. That is a return of power. Look at what we are trying to achieve on deregulation, where we are saying that we need deregulation targets and cuts in regulation—that is about powers coming back to Britain. If you look at what we are saying about a subsidiarity test where every year the European Council should be asking, “Are these powers and these areas of powers still necessary, and can they be returned?, “you see that the whole aim of this renegotiation is to say, “Yes, we are part of a European Union that is reformed and that can achieve greater prosperity and greater security for Britain, but we are doing it as a proud nation state with institutions that serve the people who put us here.”

The recent elections in Portugal and Spain have seen a surge in support for left-wing Eurosceptic parties and have seen right-wing EU-supportive parties losing their grip on power. Has the Prime Minister detected levels of concern among his fellow EU leaders about these developments?

We are all democracies, so we accept the results in each other’s elections. I am happy to say that here, a Government who took difficult decisions over the economy and the deficit actually achieved a higher share of the vote at the election than they did at the previous one; there are benefits from spelling these things out. I am committed to working with the new Portuguese Prime Minister. We will see what emerges in Spain. I work very closely with Prime Minister Rajoy, who did a very good job for his country in difficult circumstances. These election results show how we need reform in Europe. We need the competitiveness, we need the jobs, and we need the ability to compete against the rest of the world so that we can create jobs and wealth as we are doing here in Britain.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is neither unfair nor inappropriately discriminatory to place restrictions on those who come here from other member states? This is evidenced by the fact that the original EEC treaty granted a right to residence but only to those who came to pursue an economic activity.

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. One of the problems that has emerged is that the legal changes that have been made have defined free movement in a more and more generous way. It used to be the case that it was free movement to go and take a job for which you had applied, whereas today, I think I am right in saying, 60% of those who come to Britain are job applicants—they do not have a job when they come. This is another reason we need to address the welfare issue, because those people will be particularly affected by changes to in-work welfare, and we will not have that unnatural draw to Britain. Many people who come to Britain work hard and contribute and all the rest of it, but we need to make sure that our arrangements reduce the unnatural pull of migration to Britain, as my hon. and learned Friend set out.

The Prime Minister has said that the EU referendum will reflect the choice of the British people, but if the choice of the British people does not reflect the choice of the Prime Minister, will he resign?

This is the choice of the British people. Our aim is to set forward a choice for the British people that they want. They can choose either to stay in a reformed European Union or to leave the European Union. Come what may, I will continue to lead the Government in the way I have.

May I salute my right hon. Friend’s decision to allow Ministers to exercise their freedom of choice on this very important matter? Does he accept that that is a sign not of his personal weakness, but of his personal strength, because he believes that we in this party can have a sensible debate about a fundamental issue of serious importance to the British people? He has just said that the negotiations may come to fruition next month. If they do, when would he envisage the referendum taking place?

I make it a policy not to answer questions beginning with “If”, even if they are put as charmingly as they are by my hon. Friend. If we can achieve a result in February, I do not think we should delay the referendum. I think we should get on and hold the referendum. As I have said, it should not be done in any unnatural haste. It needs to have a proper number of months for people to consider all the arguments, and that is exactly what will happen.

The common agricultural policy puts up the price of food for people in this country and is an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. Why did the Prime Minister not try to renegotiate the CAP?

If we look at the facts of the CAP, we will see that the days of the great wine lakes and butter mountains have by and large gone, and I do not think it is possible to argue in the same way as it was in the past that it adds hugely to families’ bills. That is not what is happening. There has been quite significant reform. There has also been some fairly significant reform to the common fisheries policy. Of course, our deregulation targets and subsidiarity tests apply in all those areas.

May I invite my right hon. Friend to make a list of the European laws and European Court rulings he believes depend primarily on the “ever closer union” phrase in the treaties?

I am very happy to come back to my hon. Friend. I do not have the list on me, as it were—I do not carry it around to remind me. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) said that the phrase had been cited in 55 different actions. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is one of the people who in the past said how important it was to get out of ever closer union. I say to colleagues who are considering the issue that it has been raised time and again by people like me, who are concerned about the ratchet of the European Union and who want to get this renegotiation right. If we can deliver it, let us all link arms and celebrate it.

The Prime Minister has heard a call from first the Labour party, then the Scottish National party, then the Social Democratic and Labour party and now the Liberal Democrats for the Government to act on the question of the 3,000 unaccompanied and vulnerable children. [Interruption.] I hope that the Prime Minister’s colleagues will listen rather than laugh. The Prime Minister has said that he is considering the matter. Would he like to tell the House at what point he is going to finish that consideration, because those children are vulnerable now?

I absolutely understand the weight of argument behind the proposal. We are looking at it. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman an exact timeframe, but it is not going to take ages to consider the issue. I repeat again that, while there are, of course, very important issues in favour of taking the action he puts forward, we need to consider all of the issues, including those people who, yes, are tragically orphaned, but who have broader and wider family around them where they are currently.

As the RAF seeks to destroy Daesh in Syria and Iraq, does the Prime Minister agree that our commitment to the 2% NATO target for the defence budget improves our ability to strike those who threaten Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it not only provides the resources that the RAF, our Navy and our Army need, but sends a massive signal about Britain’s place in the world and Britain’s intention to play a full role in safeguarding our world. I think that it has been recognised by our allies and, indeed, our enemies as such.

However the Prime Minister wishes to characterise ever closer union, is it not the case that most people accept that the European Union is moving in the direction of a union of European states, rather than a united states of Europe?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important argument, but I think there are forces going in both directions. On the good side, the widening of the European Union to include the Baltic states, the Nordic countries and the Balkan states has been a great advance for the British agenda, and the fact that we are focusing Europe on doing trade deals with the fastest growing parts of the world, rather than looking inwards, is a great advance in the agenda.

However, there are still proposals for more federalistic approaches and Britain has successively carved itself out of those things. If Europe wants a border force to help police its external borders, that is a matter for them and is not something we will take part in. If the eurozone wants to pass a series of laws to have a fiscal union or mutual debt obligations, that is a matter for it. It is fine, as long as we are not involved. What I aim to get through the renegotiation is the best of both worlds for Britain—in Europe where it is to our benefit, but not involved in those things that involve the wrong passage of sovereignty from this place to others.

The Prime Minister tells us that other EU Heads of Government say that the EU needs Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does that not show the strength of our negotiating position? They need our money and our economic strength. Therefore, has not the time come for him to screw his courage to the sticking point and say to Chancellor Merkel—that great beadle of Berlin—when he next sees her, “Please, we want some more”?

I will bear that in mind when I see Chancellor Merkel in the snows of Bavaria on Wednesday evening. Of course we have negotiating capital. We have a strong position because we make such a huge contribution to the organisation, but I believe that what I have set out is the right approach for our country.

At the recent meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, huge concern was expressed by parliamentary colleagues from right across the British Isles about this country’s possible exit from the European Union. What, if any, work is being done to look at the specific impacts on Northern Ireland and on the Republic—our closest and oldest neighbour—if the referendum is lost?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. One of the strongest voices of support for the British renegotiation was the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who made a brilliant speech at the European Council, for which I will forever be very grateful. The Republic of Ireland wants Britain to stay in the European Union, because all sorts of difficult issues would arise in respect of the border and other things if we were outside it. Of course, the Republic of Ireland sees Britain as a strong voice in Europe for many of the things it believes in. Look, we have to get this deal right, and then we need to bring all the arguments to bear on both sides of the case. I think that what is said by those in the Republic and in Northern Ireland will make a big difference.

On security, one thing that safeguards the United Kingdom against terrorism, although it is not fool proof, is the lack of access to small arms and light weapons, in particular semi-automatic rifles. I therefore commend the Prime Minister in his efforts at the Council meeting to ensure that more work is done across Europe, including with the western Balkan countries, to stop the smuggling of illegal weapons from the Balkans into Europe.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this issue. I raised it personally at the European Council in respect of not just small arms, but semi-automatic weapons. More action is being taken in Europe, but some countries, particularly some of the Nordic countries, have an issue because of the way in which their citizens defence forces are set up. We need to go through all those problems to check that we can do more. Stopping the arms coming from the Balkans is absolutely key.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] And to you all.

Britain is taking great leadership in environmental policy in Europe and beyond. Will the Prime Minister use the Paris COP 21 conference to press the EU to ensure that imperatives on climate change from that conference are fully integrated into the US-EU free trade agreement, so that companies do not fine Governments when they pass legislation to meet stronger emissions targets?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will ensure that it is properly dealt with. The main thing we must do now is implement those things that were agreed at the COP and that need action in either the UK or the EU, but I do not see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership providing any particular problems on that front.

EU migrants can claim up to £700 a month in tax credits, which is almost double the amount to which they are entitled in Germany. Following a recent court ruling, Germany has decided to change its laws so that EU migrants will not be able to claim such welfare before they contribute. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that news suggests that similar reform is highly possible in this country, and will he say what impact it will deliver?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. Britain’s requirement on these welfare changes has stimulated something of a debate in Europe. I do not want to speak for the German Chancellor, but Germany is trying to deal with this issue at the same time as us. It has a more contributory system, but none the less it has some of the same issues. I am convinced that we can come to a good answer, and countries across the north of Europe understand how much that needs to be done.

Given that the ballot paper in the European referendum makes no mention of the Prime Minister’s renegotiations, will he answer the simple question that voters will have to answer: should the United Kingdom, in principle, remain in the European Union or leave the European Union?

The right thing to do is to wait for the renegotiation and see whether we want to remain in the EU as amended, or leave the EU. The whole point is to give people a better choice. Many people said to me before the last election, “I don’t want the false choice of staying in an organisation that needs reform or leaving it altogether. Give me a better choice.” That was the most popular policy not just in England, but in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and that is why we are putting it in place.

Given the critical economic impact on this country of whether we leave or remain in the EU, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to push for a fair settlement regarding discrimination and access to the single market for those countries that choose to have the best of both worlds by remaining in the EU, but outside the straitjacket of the European single currency?

That is absolutely key to our negotiating aims, and a country that is a member of the single market but not of the single currency should not suffer disadvantage. As I said, a number of occasions—whether calls to bail-out eurozone countries, or the location policy that euro-clearing houses can be put only in eurozone countries—have shown just how important this issue is, and that is why it is so vital to the renegotiation.

Being part of the single European market is obviously vital to the British economy. Will the Prime Minister therefore prepare and publish a report before the referendum to show the impact on the British economy if we were to withdraw from the European Union?

I certainly believe that documents need to be published, and I think that the other place insisted in some amendments on what sorts of document need to be published. Within those documents they will set out what the renegotiation has accomplished and what are the benefits and disbenefits. I will be careful what I say to the hon. Gentleman because this is what was decided in the other place and I think accepted by us, so perhaps I can drop him a line about it.

My right hon. Friend rightly told the House about the discussions on aviation security and passenger data sharing, which are important. Were there also discussions on the equally important issue of people who work at airports, not simply background checks but day-to-day checks when they turn up for work?

We did not go into that level of detail, but clearly the aim now is to have far greater collaboration and co-operation on airport security. One of the things that the Sharm el-Sheikh airline attack demonstrated is that, while we all believe we have made big advances in airport security, we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to keep asking: how could a terrorist get within the confines of an airport and do harm? The work is being carried out on that basis.

The Polish Foreign Minister is reported as saying that Poland will support the Prime Minister on in-work welfare benefits if he will back its demands for a NATO base. Has the Prime Minister or any of his officials had discussions on this with their Polish counterparts?

I do not think a NATO base has been discussed. Certainly, we support the idea that more NATO forces should be properly deployed in eastern European and Baltic countries in order to demonstrate that NATO absolutely stands by its obligations. As President Obama put it, when the Russians look over various borders or into other European countries, he wants them to see not just Latvian, Lithuanian or Polish soldiers but French, British and German soldiers as well.

After the latest European Council meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “It is important for British citizens that we find a solution, and the more satisfying the solution the more who will be convinced that Europe can put forward solutions.” The tone is encouraging, but does my right hon. Friend agree the crux now is converting mood music into substance?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think there is good will towards Britain. As I said, many of the contributions to this debate were not just about Britain benefiting from being in Europe but about Europe benefiting from having Britain in it. People do not want us to leave, but we have to turn the good will into action. That is what the February or any subsequent Councils will be all about.

I wish the Prime Minister well in his renegotiations. I shall be campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU whether he is successful or not. He should not oversell the difference it will make to Britain whether he is successful or not. It means a lot to those of us who will be campaigning to stay in the EU that we will be able to do so on the basis of an honest and transparent case. It is therefore difficult for him to say that the changes he is campaigning for are irreversible. He knows as well as anyone that a future Prime Minister, Government or Parliament can change the terms in which we are in. Will he withdraw the allegation that the things he is campaigning for now are irreversible?

What I am looking for are changes that are legally binding and irreversible. Should a future British Prime Minister and the 27 other Prime Ministers and Presidents around the table decide to take Europe in a totally different direction, then that would be very concerning. But, and it is a big but, we should remember that we passed through this House the referendum lock. If any future Labour Prime Minister—or any other Prime Minister—tried to give away powers that we either have or get back there would be another referendum, so I do not think we have to worry about that.

In the shadow Foreign Secretary’s well-received speech in the Syria debate, he quoted Karwan Tahir, from the Kurdistan Regional Government, on the strategic importance of UK forces joining air strikes against Daesh inside Syria. Will the Prime Minister confirm that RAF airstrikes now taking place inside Syria are helping to repel counter-attacks against Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq?

I can confirm that. As was set out in that debate, if we believe in shrinking and eventually eradicating Daesh, that has to be done on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. In the period since the vote, most of the action has been concentrated in Iraq because of the retaking of Ramadi, but the fact that we can pursue people across that border and the fact that we have been able to take action specifically against the oil wealth Daesh has built up, is beginning to make a difference.

In the Prime Minister’s remarks, he described one of his four pillars, that regarding in-work benefits, as his four-year proposal. He has heard one of his colleagues on the Back Benches cite the Conservative manifesto. As far as his negotiations are concerned, will he explain to the House what has been the difference between a four-year proposal and a four-year demand?

The UK has put its proposals on the table in each of the four areas, and of course, in the area of migration, the four-year proposal is not our only proposal: we have talked about child benefit, benefit abuse, criminality and our migration rules. I have said that my four-year proposal remains on the table unless or until something equally good is put in its place. I am happy to listen to other suggestions, but people need to know that this is crucial to getting the right deal.

If, as seems increasingly likely, Switzerland successfully negotiates restrictions on the freedom of movement, will my right hon. Friend’s position change as a result? Is what is good for Switzerland good for Britain?

As my hon. Friend might imagine, I am watching closely the Swiss attempts to renegotiate its position since the referendum. The difficulty of its position is that the EU is saying to Switzerland, “Yes, we’re happy to talk to you about free movement of people, but everything else is up for grabs”—there is no guarantee of Swiss access to any part of the single market without agreement in this area. That is worth thinking about carefully in terms of the relationship between a country—particularly a small country outside the EU—and the rest of the EU.

Given the lack of progress and detail in the Prime Minister’s renegotiation wish list and considering he has asked for other ideas today, will he support my party’s call for greater influence for the devolved Governments within the EU’s decision-making structures as a way of increasing democracy and accountability?

We have made a lot of advances in recent years in making sure that devolved views are clearly taken into account before Council meetings, and we continue to do that.

As well as our armed forces, will the Prime Minister also pay tribute to British police officers, such as the chief constable of Leicestershire police, Simon Cole, who, as he knows, is the lead on the National Police Chiefs Council’s Prevent strategy to counter radicalisation and who works hard, along with other police officers, to protect us all from terrorists?

As my hon. Friend says, this is a good moment to pay tribute to the police. They worked incredibly hard over the Christmas period, not just with the flooding but on counter-terrorism, working with our security services. Given the heightened concern following the Paris attacks, now is a good moment to pay tribute to what they do.

May I take the Prime Minister back to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? I cannot believe he thinks that the 3,000 children wanting to come to this country are trying to break in—

That is what the Prime Minister said. I will give him the chance to put the record straight, but it is not acceptable to say that the disagreement among non-governmental organisations about how to help these children is an argument for doing nothing. We are asking for an in-principle commitment to help 3,000 children. Will he give that?

Let me be clear—I hope I did not mislead the House in any way—the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said she had been to Calais and seen the state of the “jungle” camp, and I was just making the point that we will do everything we can to help the French deal with the people there, but that, in the end, the people in the Calais camp do not have a right to come to the UK and, under international rules, should be claiming asylum in the first safe country they reach.

Of course, we will carefully consider the issue of unaccompanied children. We are taking people from the Syrian camps—that is the 20,000—including many very vulnerable people and families, and we are looking at the 3,000 in good faith, but as I have said many times, there are issues to be worked through. I am glad, however, to have had the opportunity to separate those two issues.

I commend the Prime Minister for his statement. Will he confirm that UK personnel will not take part in any external border Schengen area patrols? Would that not go against the principle of moving away from ever closer union?

We are not a Schengen country, so there is no prospect of us being part of a European external border force. Our external border is well delineated and well protected, but we should obviously look at what more we can do. Should we, however, stop other European countries if they want to get together and do more at their external border? No, I do not think we should. Frankly, we want to see a better-protected European border. Whether or not we would co-operate, work with or help some future force, I do not know, but it could be properly looked at. At the moment, even though we are not in Schengen, we have more people working on the European Asylum Support Office than any other European country. In the end, we recognise that protecting Europe’s external border is in our interest. Again, I think we can have the best of both worlds: we can keep our border controls and keep out of Schengen, while encouraging other European countries to do more on their external border and providing help where appropriate and necessary, but make sure that we maintain our own sovereignty in this vital regard.

In his earlier replies to my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), the Prime Minister made it clear to the people of Scotland, and presumably to the people of Wales and Northern Ireland too, that a consequence of being part of the United Kingdom is that we have to put up with the possibility of our people voting to stay in the European Union yet being dragged out of it if a majority of people in England vote to leave. This is how the Prime Minister has started 2016, but for most of 2014 the Prime Minister was telling us that being part of the United Kingdom was the only way to guarantee our membership of the EU. Will he tell us how it is possible to reconcile those two directly contradictory views?

Very easily. If Scotland had voted to leave the United Kingdom, which the people of Scotland wisely rejected, they would have been in a very long queue to get back into the EU. Having met the Spanish Prime Minister several times, I am not sure that there are many circumstances in which the Spanish would ever let an independent Scotland back into the European Union. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question. The answer to the second is that we had a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom and the hon. Gentleman’s party vowed to abide by the decision taken—for one United Kingdom.

Does it not remain the case that by focusing our efforts in the region and by helping in those areas, we can help 20 people for every one person we bring to Britain? Is that not the most effective way for the British people to help those who find themselves in such difficult situations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures speak for themselves. We said we would take 20,000 people from the camps, do 1,000 by Christmas and get on with it. Thanks to the excellent work of the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, we have fulfilled our pledge. If we look at the resettlement and relocation schemes that the EU spent a lot of time discussing, so far they have not amounted to as many as the 1,000 people that we have helped. I am sure that they will over time, but my point is that Britain is a country that prides itself on signing agreements, implementing them and doing the things that are set out in those agreements. That is exactly what we have done with Syrian refugees.

Has the Prime Minister discussed his renegotiation efforts with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and does he recognise the growing anxiety of Gibraltarians at the prospect of British exit from the European Union—not least the prospect that a currently impartial Commission and other member states might take sides in future deliberations between Britain and Spain?

I have not discussed the issue recently with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, with whom I am on very good terms. But of course people in Gibraltar will have a vote.

Returning to the subject of Syrian refugees, I was fortunate to meet in the week before Christmas a Syrian family that had resettled in my constituency. It was obvious from talking to the parents how grateful they were. Watching the tears well up in the eyes of their little girl, who was the same age as my own daughter, was a reminder of what a harrowing experience they had been through. One thousand by Christmas was a big ask, but we did it. The fact that the British Red Cross, a caseworker and interpreter were with these people provided an example and a reminder for me that bringing them here properly and under the right terms, so that they have the services they need, means that we have done this the right way round.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. That is the right way of doing it. We have to keep on now and ensure that we deliver the 20,000 that we promised. I pay tribute to the local authorities that have offered housing and support. The model we have is the right one.

This afternoon the Prime Minister has talked about the national security angle being a compelling reason to stay in the EU. Can he therefore explain how it will work if the Home Secretary decides to campaign to leave the EU?

I have set out the position, which is that we will make a recommendation following the conclusion of the renegotiation. The Government will have a position. I have set out what I want that position to be but I have to conclude my renegotiation successfully first. In that circumstance, a Cabinet that has repeatedly discussed this issue and gone through the areas of renegotiation will come to a clear position, but of course Ministers who have long-standing, strong views on this who want to campaign in a personal capacity will be able to do so. That is the sensible, mature and right thing to do. Obviously, that will come into force once we have completed the renegotiation, and I look forward to that moment.

As chair of the all-party group on Denmark, I noted with interest that in the recent referendum the Danish people voted against moves to amend its opt-outs on justice and home affairs, due largely to concerns about migration. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that result was discussed at the Council? Does he agree that that result underlines the importance of the EU responding positively to his reform agenda and ensuring that it has better controls over its own borders?

My hon. Friend is right. Europe has to address individual concerns of individual countries. That is exactly what it is doing with respect to Britain. The Danish Government took the approach of holding that referendum. That is a matter for Denmark. Now that the people in Denmark have decided, I hope that everyone can be creative and helpful in trying to ensure that Denmark can benefit from the security that is available through institutions such as Europol, which I am sure it wants to go on co-operating and working with. We will have to find a way of making that happen.

The UK helped to draft the UN refugee conventions after the second world war, when we promised that never again would refugees be left out in the cold. The first body of a child to be washed up in 2016 was washed up this weekend on Greek shores. Refugee charities have written to the Prime Minister and said that the commitment is

“too slow, too low and too narrow.”

Will he show leadership and promise to extend support to refugees, including working with EU partners to establish safe and legal ways to reach the EU and travel across it?

I have just replied to that powerful letter and made a number of the points we have discussed today, including that we made our promise of 20,000 and are delivering on that, which stands in contrast with the schemes that are not yet up and running in the way ours is. One of the key points about the UN rules is that people should claim asylum and refugee status in the first safe country that they reach. It is important that we try to reinforce that in the work we do.

I welcome what the Prime Minister has said about the Commission’s proposals on firearms. Some of the measures are to be welcomed, but some are causing great concern among re-enactment and living history groups across the UK. Can he assure me that he will look carefully at the details of those proposals to ensure that there are no unintended consequences?

Like my hon. Friend, I have had some letters as a constituency MP from people who are enthusiasts for re-enactments. We need to look carefully at this matter. There has been a problem with replica guns that get converted into guns that can actually kill people, so we have to be careful, while showing sympathy to those who have replicas or things such as that, to ensure that they are not a genuine danger.

Just before Christmas, there were reports in the media that some tens of thousands of blank EU passports had been stolen. If that is true, it has great consequences for our security, immigration and everything else. Is it true? If it is, what are we doing about it?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the controversial decision to grant asylum to Abdul Rahman Haroun, the man who infamously broke into and ran through the channel tunnel, sends completely the wrong signal, and risks seriously undermining public confidence in the EU and our own border controls?

Such decisions are made independently, according to the asylum rules. However, let us be absolutely clear about the fact that we should do everything we can to secure the tunnel and make sure that it is not possible for people to access our country by breaking into it.

NATO strategy and priorities must not be conflated with the EU renegotiation. Will the Prime Minister give us a categorical assurance that none of the discussions with the Polish Government will include giving them a permanent NATO base in Poland as part of securing their support for this agreement?

No one has talked about a base of the kind that my hon. Friend describes. However, I strongly believe that, as part of the NATO strategy that has already been agreed, we should be contributing to the high-readiness forces. I strongly support that. I believe that we should be taking part in the Baltic air policing mission, for example, and that we should be ensuring that British soldiers exercise on Polish soil, as they do. If there are proposals to do more of those things, I for one will welcome them.

Does the Prime Minister agree that there is nothing progressive or noble about handing over more and more powers to unelected, unaccountable overseas bodies? Does he agree with my constituents that the principle of ever closer union is important because it sets out a clear direction of intent?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why, as I have said, Britain’s engagement on Europe is not half-hearted. When it comes to the single market, we are its greatest champions. When it comes to sanctions against Putin’s Russia because of what has happened in Ukraine, we are the ones in the vanguard. When it comes to wanting to sign deals with the fastest-growing parts of the world, we are the ones making the argument. However, we have never believed in ever closer union or in a political superstate. That is not what we want.

I want to give the British people a very clear choice. We can be in Europe for the trade and the co-operation and the security that we require, but we do not want to be part of some federalising project. I think that while we are out of the euro and out of Schengen, and not having to be part of those supranational things, we will get a good deal.