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European Council: December 2016

Volume 777: debated on Monday 19 December 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week’s European Council. Both the UK and the rest of the EU are preparing for the negotiations that will begin when we trigger Article 50 before the end of March next year but the main focus of this Council was, rightly, on how we can work together to address some of the most pressing challenges that we face. These include responding to the migration crisis, strengthening Europe’s security and helping to alleviate the suffering in Syria. As I have said, for as long as the UK is a member of the EU we will continue to play our full part. That is what this Council showed, with the UK making a significant contribution on each of these issues.

First, on migration, from the outset the UK pushed for a comprehensive approach that focuses on the root causes of migration as the best way to reduce the number of people coming to Europe. I called for more action in source and transit countries to disrupt the smuggling networks, to improve local capacity to control borders, and to support sustainable livelihoods both for people living there and for refugees. I also said that we must better distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, swiftly returning those with no right to remain and thereby sending out a deterrence message to others thinking of embarking on perilous journeys.

The Council agreed to action in all these areas, and the UK remains fully committed to playing our part. We have already provided training to the Libyan coast-guard. The Royal Navy is providing practical support in the Mediterranean and Aegean. We will also deploy 40 additional specialist staff to the Greek islands to accelerate the processing of claims, particularly from Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals, and to help return those who have no right to stay. Ultimately, we need a long-term, sustainable approach. That is the best way to retain the consent of our people to provide support and sanctuary to those most in need.

Turning to security and defence, whether it is deterring Russian aggression, countering terrorism or fighting organised crime, the UK remains firmly committed to the security of our European neighbours. That is true now and it will remain true once we have left the EU. At this Council, we welcomed the commitment from all member states to take greater responsibility for their security, to invest more resources and to develop more capabilities. That is the right approach and, as the Council made clear, it should be done in a way that complements rather than duplicates NATO. A stronger EU and a stronger NATO can be mutually reinforcing, and this should be our aim. We must never lose sight of the fact that NATO will always be the bedrock of our collective defence in Europe, and we must never allow anything to undermine it. We also agreed at the Council to renew tier 3 economic sanctions on Russia for another six months, maintaining the pressure on Russia to implement the Minsk agreements in full.

Turning to the appalling situation in Syria, we have all seen the devastating pictures on our TV screens and heard heartbreaking stories of families struggling to get to safety. At this Council, we heard directly from the Mayor of Eastern Aleppo, a brave and courageous man who has already witnessed his city brought to rubble, his neighbours murdered and children’s lives destroyed. He had one simple plea for us: to get those who have survived through years of conflict, torture and fear to safety. Together with our European partners, we must do all we can to help.

The Council was unequivocal in its condemnation of President Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran, who must bear the responsibility for the tragedy in Aleppo. They must now allow the UN to evacuate safely the innocent people of Aleppo—Syrians whom President Assad claims to represent. We have seen some progress in recent days, but a few busloads is not enough when there are thousands more who must be rescued, and we cannot have these buses attacked in the way that we have seen. On Thursday afternoon, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors to make it clear that we expect them to help. Over the weekend, the UK has been working with our international partners to secure agreement on a UN Security Council resolution that would send in UN officials to monitor the evacuation of civilians and provide unfettered humanitarian access. This has been agreed unanimously this afternoon, and we now need it to be implemented in full.

President Assad may be congratulating his regime forces on their actions in Aleppo, but we are in no doubt that this is no victory: it is a tragedy, and one that we will not forget. Last week’s Council reiterated that those responsible must be held to account. Alongside our diplomatic efforts, the UK is going to provide a further £20 million of practical support for those who are most vulnerable. This includes £10 million for trusted humanitarian partners working on the front line in some of the hardest to reach places in Syria, to help them deliver food parcels and medical supplies to those most in need, and an additional £100 million to UNICEF to help it provide life-saving aid supplies for the Syrian refugees now massing at the Jordanian border. As the mayor of Eastern Aleppo has said, it is sadly too late to save all those who have been lost, but it is not too late to save those who remain. That is what we must do now.

Turning to Brexit, I updated the Council on the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union. I explained that, two weeks ago, this House voted by a considerable majority—almost six to one—to support the Government by delivering the referendum result and invoking Article 50 before the end of March. The UK’s Supreme Court is expected to rule next month on whether the Government require parliamentary legislation in order to do this. I am clear that the Government will respect the verdict of our independent judiciary, but I am equally clear that, whichever way the judgment goes, we will meet the timetable I have set out.

At the Council, I also reaffirmed my commitment to a smooth and orderly exit. In this spirit, I made it clear to the other EU leaders that it remains my objective that we give reassurance early on in the negotiations to EU citizens who live in the UK, and UK citizens living in EU countries, that their right to stay where they have made their homes will be protected by our withdrawal. This is an issue which I would like to agree quickly but that clearly requires the agreement of the rest of the EU.

Finally, I welcomed the subsequent short discussion between the 27 other leaders on their plans for the UK’s withdrawal. It is right that the other leaders prepare for the negotiations, just as we are making our own preparations. That is in everyone’s best interests.

My aim is to cement the UK as a close partner of the EU once we have left. As I have said before, I want the deal we negotiate to reflect the kind of mature, co-operative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy: a deal that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market, and allow European businesses to do the same here; a deal that will deliver the deepest possible co-operation to ensure our national security and the security of our allies; but a deal that will mean when it comes to decisions about our national interest, such as how we control immigration, we can make these decisions for ourselves—and a deal that will mean our laws are once again made in Britain, not in Brussels. With a calm and measured approach, this Government will honour the will of the British people and secure the right deal that will make a success of Brexit for the UK, for the EU and for the world. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement. It was unusual that, following the Council meeting, there was no press statement or conference from the Prime Minister. However, can I say how much we on this side of the House appreciate those announcements being made to Parliament first, which has not always happened recently?

There were two parts to this European Council meeting. The first, as we heard from the noble Baroness, discussed the current and serious issues that affect all existing members of the EU, and we were part of those discussions. The second part was about our leaving the EU, and did not include us and was much shorter, but it is clear that considerable debate and discussion had taken place prior to the formal agreement of those proposals. I want to come on to that later, but those issues that were discussed during the full Council meeting—Syria, Cyprus, migration, security and defence, as well as economic and social development—have huge implications for the UK and for our role, whether in or out of the European institutions, in the geographical area of Europe. It would be helpful to have some further clarification on the UK’s role in those discussions.

The Council discussed recent Commission proposals to increase resilience and reduce risk in the banking and financial sector. This clearly has significant relevance for the UK. What role is the UK playing in these ongoing discussions? At a Council meeting prior to the EU referendum, we signed up to some proposals. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether that commitment remains, prior to our departure? What discussions have been had with the banking and financial sector since then and prior to this Council meeting?

Secondly, one of the areas that convinced me that our departure from the EU would not be in the national interest was policing and security. We had debates in your Lordships’ House on the then coalition Government’s proposals on opting out—and then opting back in again—on policing and criminal justice measures. I note the comments in the conclusions of the meeting. Do the Government still intend to adopt the proposals on firearms and anti-money laundering, and to implement the new passenger name recognition legislation? During discussions on this issue, was there any reference to the UK’s role following Brexit and future security initiatives? The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, will be aware of the concerns raised on this issue by Sir Julian King, our European Commissioner for Security, and Claude Moraes MEP, who chairs the Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

Paragraphs 11 to 13 of the conclusions outline the areas on which the EU needs to reach agreement on security issues early next year, and why co-operation within the EU and with NATO is needed on hybrid threats, maritime issues, cybersecurity, strategic communications and defence matters. In signing up to those conclusions, did the Prime Minister or her officials make any reference to how those commitments might be affected by Brexit, or has this not yet been considered?

As we watch the horrors of Aleppo increase daily, we all have to consider how much more those civilians can endure. It must feel to the thousands trying to flee that, having already lost their homes, their possessions and their loved ones, they are now losing hope. They are perhaps also losing faith that anyone really cares. When the Mayor of Aleppo spoke to the Council, he did so in desperate need for more help and more support. The EU is to be praised for its humanitarian support and for how it has sought to co-ordinate it, but the world has to do more. The UN decision and actions today are a welcome step forward, and I hope they lead to many more lives being saved and many more people being rescued, but what is important, as the Statement says, is implementation, not just resolutions passed or words spoken. Will the noble Baroness tell us what the Government will do to ensure implementation, and what is in place to monitor compliance, because we cannot stand more abuse of people in Aleppo? Our hearts go out to all of them.

Paragraph 27 of the Council’s conclusions states:

“The EU is considering all available options”,

with regard to Aleppo. For many in Syria and in Aleppo there are few options left. I welcome the statement in the conclusions about bringing those guilty of war crimes to justice. The EU is right to support political reconstruction, but only once a credible political transition is under way. Did the discussions focus on how to bring additional pressure to achieve this?

Finally, the last part of the meeting was just the 27 other countries discussing our exit from the EU. This was very specific in terms of the process of negotiations and in the comments by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, after the meeting. It was also very specific on the principle on which the negotiations will be based. The Minister repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement:

“I updated the Council on the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union”.

I think we would all like to be updated on the Government’s plans for leaving the EU. I appreciate that the Government have not yet been specific—or have been very unspecific—but, with commitment to invoke Article 50 by the end of March, she will understand that if we are to get the best deal and arrangements for the UK, there is some anxiety about when the Government are going to publish further information. Indeed, we could not get exact information from the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, about when that information is going to be available. The noble Baroness tried her best to be helpful, but it is difficult in these circumstances.

This becomes even more important when there appears to be confusion at the heart of government about whether we can be half in, half out of the customs union, about how long negotiations will take and about whether a transitional period for negotiation or implementation will be needed. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, huffs and puffs over there and shakes his head. However, questioning how this will be done is absolutely essential for the Government to get it right. It really cannot be the position that, every time somebody questions how it is going to be done or wants more details, there is some kind of accusation that we are not acting in the national interest. We are absolutely acting in the national interest by trying to get more information to look at. The noble Lord shakes his head. I wonder why those who were the most enthusiastic about Brexit loathe any questions about it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, will understand that this House stands ready to assist and to be helpful. She will have already seen the very helpful, excellent reports from our EU Select Committees. They are identifying issues that need to be addressed to make sure that we have effective and more detailed solutions in the national interest. Can she give an assurance to your Lordships’ House that, despite whatever legislative responsibilities we may have, full and adequate time will be provided for such discussions and debates? As a scrutiny Chamber, we want to play a responsible and helpful role in ensuring the best arrangements for the UK.

My Lords, in the spirit of Christmas, I do not intend to dwell on the Brexit-related issues raised in this Statement. It would be wholly against those core British public service values of tolerance and respect for others to inquire at this festive season about the many and various splits in the Cabinet on all the relevant Brexit issues.

The overarching question which strikes me from a perusal of the agenda of this Council relates to the importance of the subject matter. The agenda included migration, security, economic and social development in respect of young people, Cyprus, Ukraine and Syria. These are some of the biggest issues facing the continent in our time, and it is vital that they are considered—as happened—by Europe as a whole in the Council. If Britain leaves the EU, we will not be at those Council meeting discussions. Have the Government given any thought as to how our vital national interest in key foreign policy issues such as this will be addressed if we are outside the EU? How will the British voice be heard when the rest of Europe considers these huge issues?

Of the issues discussed, arguably the two most important, in the short term at least, were migration and Syria. On migration, the Council statement said:

“Member States should further intensify their efforts to accelerate relocation, in particular for unaccompanied minors, and existing resettlement schemes”.

We welcome the Statement by the Government following this up to the effect that,

“we will also deploy 40 additional specialist staff to the Greek islands to accelerate the processing of claims, particularly from Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals, and to help return those who have no right to stay”.

It says a lot about the Prime Minister that she concentrates on those we are rejecting, not those we are accepting, and that she says nothing about what is happening in terms of the Government’s commitment to accept unaccompanied minors and others from the region. Could the noble Baroness the Leader update us on the position in respect of unaccompanied minors? What is being done following the dispersal of the Calais camps to identify such people in camps elsewhere in France which hold children who we might accept and to bring them to the UK under either the Dublin or Dubs criteria? What are we doing in Greece to identify unaccompanied minors who equally might expect to come to the UK?

The Government have justified their unwillingness to accept a single adult refugee from mainland Europe on the grounds that they would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from the region over the course of this Parliament. Could the noble Baroness the Leader tell us how many have currently been accepted? The last time the Minister gave an answer at the Dispatch Box, we were accepting people at about half the rate needed to reach the 20,000 target. Has that rate increased in recent weeks, and if not, what plans do the Government have to rectify this shortfall?

On Syria, we welcome the additional £20 million expenditure. Is the Leader able to say how this fits into the overall European response and whether such figures are being matched by our principal European partners? The Prime Minister, in her Statement, referred to the meeting which the Foreign Secretary had with the Russian and Iranian ambassadors last week. What do the Government plan to do to maintain pressure on Russia and Iran to prevent any further indiscriminate violence against civilians as the evacuation of east Aleppo continues? Will the Foreign Secretary make sure that he remains in close touch not just with those two ambassadors but with other ambassadors in the region so that we can have direct and continuing input and pressure to ensure that the position in east Aleppo is resolved as smoothly—if such a word is appropriate—as possible?

Finally, the EU Council reiterated its support for the principle that,

“Those responsible for breaches of international law, some of which may amount to war crimes, must be held accountable”.

This can only happen if enough compelling evidence is collected. What steps are the Government taking, including financially, to encourage the collection of such evidence?

My Lords, first, before I answer those questions, I apologise, because I suggested that the Government had committed £100 million to UNICEF. That would be extremely generous of us, but I am afraid it is only £10 million. It is still obviously an important contribution, but I wanted to put that on record and apologise for getting the wrong figure.

As for the questions the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked me, we remain a full member of the EU with all associated rights and responsibilities. We will continue to honour our commitments while we are a member of the EU, and this extends to the areas of security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation. As part of the negotiations, we will of course discuss with the EU and other member states how best to continue that co-operation. It is vital that we do so. That is a key issue that we are concerned about.

On the issue of Syria, which both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness referred to, the Council made clear what needs to happen next in relation to Aleppo: we want to see safe evacuations from the city; full and immediate UN access to provide aid and ensure civilian protection; genuine protection for medical personnel and facilities; and respect from all the actors for international humanitarian law.

There was further discussion at the EU Council that made clear that we are continuing to consider all options available to hold countries accountable for their actions in Syria. We are of course very pleased to see the UN resolution passed today. The noble Lord asked about the other forums in which we will continue to play an international role. We will continue to do so through organisations such as the UN, NATO and others, and indeed we played an important role today in helping to ensure that that resolution was passed. Along with our allies, we will be making very sure that all parties fully comply with that resolution.

The noble Baroness asked about the publication of the Brexit plan. As we have said, we will publish it by the time we trigger Article 50. I also thank the EU committees, as she did, for their work, and I reassure her that we will ensure that ample time is provided to debate those reports in the new year, and that Parliament has a proper opportunity to scrutinise and discuss these important issues.

The noble Lord asked about the Calais camp resettlement. Since 10 October, we have transferred more than 750 unaccompanied minors to the UK, including approximately 200 children who meet the criteria for Section 67 of the Immigration Act. In the coming months, we anticipate that more eligible children will be transferred from Europe, including France, under both the Act and the Dublin regulations. I will have to write to him with more detail on the situation in Greece, as I am afraid I do not have those figures to hand.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s reassertion that we will trigger Article 50 before the end of March. That is of the first importance. I also suggest that the Leader of the Opposition, whom I greatly respect, as she knows, was talking complete nonsense when she spoke about somehow being half in the customs union and half out of it. You are either wholly in or wholly out.

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, but I was quoting Liam Fox, who suggested that at the weekend. It was not my suggestion.

I suspect that that was completely out of order.

I personally would like to see a free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union with no strings attached. However, I fear that that is unattainable; even if the EU were to agree with it at government level, the European Parliament certainly would not. However, we have nothing to fear about a World Trade Organization fallback. Is my noble friend aware that we do the bulk of our trade with the rest of the world on WTO terms, far more than we do with the EU, and that that amount of trade with the rest of the world is growing faster than our trade with the EU?

Lastly, speaking as a British citizen living in France, I urge the Government to reconsider the matter of the EU citizens legally resident here and to give an unconditional guarantee that they will stay, seize the moral high ground and not try to make them some kind of bargaining counter.

I thank my noble friend for his questions. As the Prime Minister made clear, her objective remains that we indeed give early reassurance in negotiations to EU citizens who live in the UK, and to UK citizens living in EU countries. She has made it very clear that we would like that to be discussed very early on. Our intention is clear, but we will need other European leaders to match our commitment. In terms of the negotiation itself, what we want is a strong Britain working with a strong EU. We want a deal that works both for Britain and for the EU.

My Lords, I concur, probably for the first time in my life, with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and say to the Minister that it would be bad politics and even worse ethics to try to treat citizens of the EU resident in the United Kingdom as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations, and that it would be wise to take what he called the moral high ground by making an early announcement on our intentions as far as they are concerned. In response to her updating of the Council on recent developments in the United Kingdom on Article 50, did the Prime Minister receive any information from the President of France, the Chancellor of Germany and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands about their forthcoming general elections in 2017? Did they advise her that their attention is likely to be focused on domestic issues rather than Brexit and that, consequently, it might be ill advised to notify our intention under Article 50 early in 2017, rather than some months into a year in which other countries of great significance in our negotiations will not be paying much attention?

As I said, the Prime Minister made very clear our wish in relation to EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU, and she raised that specifically during discussions. Obviously, we want to have a mature and co-operative relationship with the EU, and one would assume that that will reflect that. As I mentioned, she also made it clear that we will be triggering Article 50 before the end of March; all EU leaders are well aware of that.

My Lords, the Statement contained the usual vague statements about disrupting smugglers and traffickers. Can the noble Baroness the Leader tell us how many such people have been arrested or prosecuted in any of the relevant jurisdictions? Does she agree that Turkey is no longer a safe country to which to return refugees from either Greece or Bulgaria? Why are Turkish forces occupying a considerable part of northern Syria? Tunisia is another important country from the migration angle. Were any decisions taken by the Council to speed up productive investment to increase the number of jobs available there? Will any help be given to Tunisia to assess who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant?

As I mentioned in the Statement, we have been working hard to try to ensure that we disrupt smuggling. That is why we have been fulfilling our obligations as part of Operation Sophia to provide assistance to people in distress, respond to those in need and tackle the callous smugglers. Our Royal Navy and border forces have rescued more than 26,000 migrants.

On the noble Lord’s points about Turkey, we share concerns about the direction that Turkey has taken and are actively raising them with the Government. But, as the recent terrible terrorist attack in Istanbul has shown, Turkey is facing serious threats and we want to maintain a robust private dialogue and press Turkey to ensure that it understands the importance of its actions being measured, in line with its international obligations. I will have to write to the noble Lord on his question about Tunisia.

My Lords, the latest buzzword—or perhaps it is a buzz acronym—appears to be Smexit, which stands for the smooth and orderly Brexit which the Statement told us is the Government’s aim. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether this aim means that the Government are in fact united in wishing to see a transitional deal?

Will my noble friend confirm that the Government accept the OBR’s figure, which is that each week’s delay in leaving the European Union costs British taxpayers more than £250 million? Therefore, will she ignore those who argue that we should delay beginning the Article 50 process?

On the subject of those European citizens who are currently living in Britain, will she reject the appalling tactics by the President of the Commission who seeks to turn it into some bargaining position? As these families gather for Christmas, would it not be right for the Government to make it clear that they will be able to stay here and continue to work and make a contribution to this country? Surely that makes sense. If the Government believe that it is a bargaining position, how on earth will they be able to exercise the rejection of these people from our country, which would carry no support in any corner of this House?

I hope I have made it clear that the Prime Minister has been very clear that her objective remains wanting to give reassurance. We have made our intentions clear and we need other European leaders to match our commitment. My noble friend is absolutely right that we need to provide certainty where we can, which is why the Prime Minister has once again reiterated to our European partners that we will be triggering Article 50 before the end of March.

My Lords, I regret that I am not suffused with the Christmas spirit to the same extent as my noble friend Lord Newby. While I am totally in favour of mature and co-operative relationships, when may we expect one such from the Cabinet? There is much concern about the uncertainty caused by our decision to move towards activating Article 50, so how is that uncertainty to be removed if Members of the Cabinet are consistently at odds with each other as to what the Government’s objectives really are?

My Lords, I think I have been very clear. Our objectives are extremely clear: to deliver the best deal for the British people.

Is not the reality that there should be discussion in Cabinet about these very serious issues? What actually matters is that we come to a clear conclusion at the end of it, and I do not expect it to be rushed in five minutes, although I certainly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, said. I saw a German Minister quoted as saying that Germany would not be able to concentrate on these negotiations until after the German election, which is a singularly unhelpful thought.

Perhaps I can further reiterate on the deal that we want. We want to give companies the maximum freedom to trade with and co-operate in the European market and allow European businesses to do the same. We want to deliver the deepest possible co-operation to ensure our national security and the security of our allies. We want to ensure that we are a fully independent sovereign state and therefore able to make decisions of our own, such as how best to control immigration, and we want to make sure our laws are once again made in Britain. All members of the Cabinet agree on those issues.

Is the noble Baroness aware that war crimes of the gravest calibre are still being perpetrated against the civilian population in Syria by Russia, Iran and by the Government of Assad? Can she assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government have used their good offices to the fullest possible extent to gather evidence while it is still available and fresh so that these people can indeed be brought to justice in adequate time?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. We are deeply concerned by reports that the regime forces and their supporters are carrying out summary executions, including of women and children, and that hundreds of men have disappeared on leaving eastern Aleppo and entering regime-held areas. That is why we are very pleased that the UN Security Council has adopted a resolution today which demands full access across Syria and particularly requests that the UN monitors evacuations from eastern Aleppo. We are doing all we can to ensure that all parties fully comply with that resolution and to make sure that if crimes have been committed the perpetrators are indeed punished.

My Lords, my noble friend has said that the objective is that our laws should be made in Britain and not in Brussels. That is manifestly correct. However, does she also accept that that means that the final terms, when they are known, should be subject to parliamentary ratification in this House and in the House of Commons, and if Parliament so decides, it would be perfectly democratic to hold another referendum on the known and agreed terms?

We have been very clear that we are implementing the will of 17.4 million people in delivering a referendum and now organising our withdrawal from the EU. We will, of course, comply with all constitutional and legal obligations that apply to the deal we negotiate with the EU.