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PM Commons statement on EU reform and referendum: 22 February 2016
The Prime Minister made a statement in the House of Commons on the UK's new special status in the EU and the in-out referendum on 23 June.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the agreement reached in Brussels last week.
But first let me say a word about the migration crisis which was also discussed at the Council.
We agreed that we needed to press ahead with strengthening the EU’s external borders to ensure that non-refugees are returned promptly and back the new mission to disrupt the criminal gangs working between Greece and Turkey, who are putting so many people’s lives at risk.
And I made clear that Britain will continue to contribute in all these areas and will step up contributions.
Turning to Britain’s place in Europe, Mr Speaker, I have spent the last 9 months setting out the 4 areas where we need reform and meeting with all 27 other EU heads of state and government to reach an agreement that delivers concrete reforms in all 4 areas.
Let me take each in turn.
First, British jobs and British business depend on being able to trade with Europe on a level playing field.
So we wanted new protections for our economy to safeguard the pound, to promote our industries – including our financial services industries, to protect British taxpayers from the costs of problems in the eurozone and to ensure we have a full say over the rules of the single market, while remaining outside the eurozone.
And we got all of those things.
We have not just permanently protected the pound and our right to keep it, but ensured that we can’t be discriminated against.
Responsibility for supervising the financial stability of the UK will always remain in the hands of the Bank of England.
We have ensured that British taxpayers will never be made to bail out countries in the eurozone.
We have made sure that the eurozone cannot act as a bloc to undermine the integrity of the free trade single market.
And we have guaranteed that British business will never face any discrimination for being outside the eurozone.
So, for example, our financial services firms – our number 1 services export employing over a million people can never be forced to relocate inside the eurozone if they want to undertake complex trades in euros, just because they are based in the UK.
And these protections are not just set out in a legally-binding agreement.
All 28 member states were also clear that the treaties would be changed to incorporate the protections for the UK as an economy that is inside the EU but outside the eurozone.
We also agreed a new mechanism to enable non-eurozone countries to raise issues of concern – and we won the battle to ensure this could be triggered by 1 country alone.
Of course, Mr Speaker, none of these protections would be available if we were to leave the EU.
Second, we wanted commitments to make Europe more competitive, creating jobs and making British families more financially secure.
Again we got them.
Europe will complete the single market in key areas that will really help Britain.
In services – making it easier for thousands of UK service-based companies like IT firms to trade in Europe.
In capital – so UK start-ups can access more sources of finance for their businesses.
And in energy – allowing new suppliers into our energy market – meaning lower energy bills for families across the country.
We have secured commitments to complete trade and investment agreements with the fastest growing and most dynamic economies around the world including the USA, Japan and China as well as our Commonwealth allies India, New Zealand and Australia.
These deals could add billions of pounds and thousands of jobs to our economy every year.
And, of course they build on the deals we already have with 53 countries around the world through which Britain has benefitted from the negotiating muscle that comes from being part of the world’s largest trading bloc.
Mr Speaker, of course country after country have said to me that of course they could sign trade deals with Britain.
But they have also said that their priority would be trade deals with the EU.
By their nature these EU deals would be bigger and better.
And a deal with Britain wouldn’t even be possible until we had settled our position outside the EU.
So Mr Speaker, for those members who care about signing new trade deals outside the EU, we would be looking at years and years of delay.
Last but by no means least on competitiveness, one of the biggest frustrations for British business is the red tape and bureaucracy so we agreed there will now be targets to cut the total burden of EU regulation on business.
This builds on the progress we have already made – with the Commission already cutting the number of new initiatives by 80% and it means that the cost of EU red tape will be going down, not up.
Of course, if we were to leave the EU but ultimately achieve a deal with full access to the single market – like Norway – we would still be subject to all of the EU’s regulation when selling into Europe.
As the former Europe spokesman for the Norwegian Conservative Party Nikolai Astrup said:
If you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway in the European Economic Area.
Third, we wanted to reduce the very high level of migration from within the EU by preventing the abuse of free movement and preventing our welfare system acting as a magnet for people to come to our country.
After the hard work of the Home Secretary we have secured new powers against criminals from other countries including powers to stop them from coming here in the first place, and powers to deport them if they are already here.
We agreed longer re-entry bans for fraudsters and people who collude in sham marriages.
And an end to the frankly ridiculous situation where EU nationals can avoid British immigration rules when bringing their families from outside the EU.
Mr Speaker, this agreement broke new ground – with the European Council agreeing to reverse decisions from the European Court of Justice.
We have also secured a breakthrough agreement for Britain to reduce the unnatural draw that our benefits system exerts across Europe.
We have already made sure that EU migrants cannot claim the new unemployment benefit, Universal Credit, while looking for work.
And those coming from the EU who haven’t found work within 6 months can now be required to leave.
At this Council we agreed that EU migrants working in Britain can be prevented from sending child benefit home at UK rates.
This will apply first to new claimants – and then to existing claimants from the start of 2020.
And we also established a new emergency brake so that EU migrants will have to wait 4 years until they have full access to our benefits.
Mr Speaker, people said it was impossible to achieve real change in this area.
And that a 4-year restriction on benefits was completely out of the question.
And yet that is what we have done.
And once activated, the emergency brake will be in place for 7 years.
So if it begins next year, it will still be operating in 2024 and there will be people who won’t be getting full benefits until 2028.
Mr Speaker, all along we have said that people shouldn’t be able to come here and get access to our benefits system straightaway.
No more something for nothing.
And that is what we have achieved.
Mr Speaker, I’m sure the discussion about welfare and immigration will be intense.
But let me make this point.
No country outside the EU has agreed full access to the single market without accepting paying into the EU and accepting free movement.
In addition, these new safeguards lapse if we leave the EU.
Powers for UK Parliament
The fourth area where we wanted to make significant changes was to protect our country from further European political integration and to increase powers for our national Parliament.
Ever since we joined, Europe has been on the path to something called ‘ever closer union’.
It means a political union. We’ve never liked it. We never wanted it.
And now Britain will be permanently and legally excluded from it.
The text says that the treaties will be changed to make clear that – and I quote:
…the Treaty references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.
So Mr Speaker, as a result of this negotiation, Britain can never be part of a European superstate.
The council also agreed that ever closer union, which has been referred to in previous judgements from the European Court of Justice does not offer a legal basis for extending the scope of any provision of the treaties or of EU secondary legislation.
Mr Speaker, people used to talk about a multi-speed Europe.
Now we have a clear agreement that not only are different countries able to travel at different speeds, they are ultimately heading to different destinations too. And I would argue that is fundamental change.
We have also strengthened the role of this House and all national parliaments.
We have already passed a Referendum Act to make sure that no powers can be handed to Brussels without the explicit consent of the British people in a referendum.
Now, if Brussels comes up with legislation we don’t want, we can get together with other parliaments and block it with a red card.
And we have a new mechanism to finally enforce the principle that – as far as possible – powers should sit here in Westminster, not in Brussels.
So every year the EU now has to go through the powers they exercise and work out which are no longer needed and should be returned to nation states.
In recent years we have also seen attempts to bypass our opt-out on justice and home affairs by bringing forward legislation under a different label.
For example, attempts to interfere with the way the UK authorities handle fraud were tried under the guise of legislation on the EU budget.
The agreements at last week’s Council ensure this can never happen again.
Mr Speaker, the reforms we have secured will be legally binding in international law, and will be deposited as a treaty at the UN.
And they cannot be unpicked without the agreement of Britain and every other EU country.
And as I have said, all 28 member states were also clear that the treaties would be changed to incorporate the protections for the UK as an economy outside the eurozone – and our permanent exclusion from ever closer union.
Mr Speaker, our special status means that Britain can have the best of both worlds.
We will be in the parts of Europe that work for us, influencing the decisions that affect us, in the driving seat of the world’s biggest single market and with the ability to take action to keep our people safe.
But we will be out of the parts of Europe that do not work for us.
Out of the euro. Out of the eurozone bailouts.
Out of the passport-free, no borders Schengen area and permanently and legally protected from ever being part of an ever closer union.
Of course, there is still more to do.
I am the first to say that there are still many ways in which this organisation needs to improve – and the task of reforming Europe does not end with last week’s agreement.
But with the special status this settlement gives us, I do believe the time has come to fulfil another vital commitment this government made – and that is to hold a referendum.
So, Mr Speaker, I am today commencing the process set out under ourReferendum Act to propose that the British people decide our future in Europe through in-out referendum on Thursday 23 June.
The Foreign Secretary has laid in both Houses a report setting out the new settlement that the government has negotiated.
This fulfils the duty to publish information set out in section 6 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015.
And as the Cabinet agreed on Saturday, the government’s position will be to recommend that Britain remains in this reformed European Union.
Mr Speaker, this is a vital decision for the future of our country. And we should also be clear that it is a final decision.
An idea has been put forward that if the country votes to leave we could have a second renegotiation and perhaps another referendum.
Mr Speaker I won’t dwell on the irony that some people who want to vote to leave – apparently want to use a leave vote to remain.
But such an approach also ignores more profound points about democracy, diplomacy and legality.
This is a straight democratic decision – staying in or leaving – and no government can ignore that.
Having a second renegotiation followed by a second referendum is not on the ballot paper.
And for a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would not just be wrong, it would be undemocratic.
On the diplomacy, the idea that other European countries would be ready to start a second negotiation is for the birds. Many are under pressure for what they have already agreed.
Then there is the legality. I want to spell out this point very carefully. If the British people vote to leave there is only one way to bring that about – and that is to trigger Article 50 of the Treaties and begin the process of exit.
And the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away.
Let me be absolutely clear how this works. It triggers a 2-year time period to negotiate the arrangements for exit.
At the end of this period, if no agreement is in place then exit is automatic unless every 1 of the 27 other EU member states agrees to a delay.
And we should be clear that this process is not an invitation to re-join, it is a process for leaving.
Sadly, Mr Speaker, I have known a number of couples who have begun divorce proceedings.
But I do not know any who have begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows.
We should also be clear about what would happen if that deal to leave wasn’t done within 2 years.
Our current access to the single market would cease immediately after 2 years were up.
And our current trade agreements with 53 countries around the world would lapse.
This cannot be described as anything other than risk, uncertainty and a leap in the dark that could hurt working people in our country for years to come.
And this is not some theoretical question, this is a real decision about people’s lives.
When it comes to people’s jobs, it is simply not enough to say that it will be all right on the night and we will work it out.
And I believe that in the weeks to come we need to properly face up to the economic consequences of the choice to leave.
Mr Speaker, I believe Britain will be stronger, safer and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.
Stronger – because we can play a leading role in one of the world’s largest organisations from within, helping to make the big decisions on trade and security that determine our future.
Safer – because we can work with our European partners to fight cross-border crime and terrorism.
And better off – because British businesses will have full access to the free trade single market, bringing jobs, investment and lower prices.
Mr Speaker, there will be much debate about sovereignty – and rightly so.
To me what matters most is the power to get things done for our people, for our country, and for our future.
Leaving the EU may briefly make us feel more sovereign – but would it actually give us more power, more influence and a greater ability to get things done?
If we leave the EU, will we have the power to stop our businesses being discriminated against? No.
Will we have the power to insist that European countries share with us their border information so we know what terrorists and criminals are doing in Europe? No.
Will we have more influence over the decisions that affect the prosperity and security of British families? No.
We are a great country – and whatever choice we make we will still be great.
But I believe the choice is between being an even greater Britain inside a reformed EU or a great leap into the unknown.
The challenges facing the west today are genuinely threatening.
Putin’s aggression in the east. Islamist extremism in the south.
In my view this is no time to divide the west.
When faced with challenges to our way of life, our values and our freedoms, this is a time for strength in numbers.
And Mr Speaker, let me end by saying this.
I am not standing for re-election.
I have no other agenda than what is best for our country.
I am standing here today telling you what I think.
My responsibility as Prime Minister is to speak plainly about what I believe is right for our country.
And that is what I will do every day for the next 4 months.
And I commend this statement to the House.
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