Mr Speaker, before I turn to the European Council, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed in the appalling terrorist attack at Trèbes on Friday.
The House will also want to pay tribute to the extraordinary actions of Lt-Col Arnaud Beltrame who, unarmed, took the place of a hostage and gave his own life to save the lives of others. Son sacrifice et son courage ne seront jamais oubliés.
Mr Speaker, just last week we marked the first anniversary of the attack on Westminster and remembered the humbling bravery of PC Keith Palmer.
It is through the actions of people like PC Palmer and Lt-Col Beltrame, that we confront the very worst of humanity with the very best.
And through the actions of us all – together in this Parliament and in solidarity with our allies in France – we show that our democracy will never be silenced and our way of life will always prevail.
Mr Speaker, turning to the Council, we discussed confronting Russias threat to the rules-based order. We agreed our response to Americas import tariffs on steel and aluminium, and we also discussed Turkey and the Western Balkans, as well as economic issues including the appropriate means of taxing digital companies.
All of these are issues on which the UK will continue to play a leading role in our future partnership with the EU after we have left. And this Council also took important steps towards building that future partnership.
First, on Russia, we are shortly to debate the threat that Russia poses to our national security – and I will set this out in detail then.
But at this Council, I shared the basis for our assessment that Russia was responsible for the reckless and brazen attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury – and the exposure of many others to potential harm.
All EU leaders agreed and as a result the Council conclusions were changed to state that the Council “…agrees with the United Kingdom governments assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no alternative plausible explanation.”
Mr Speaker, this was the first offensive use of a nerve agent on European soil since the foundation of the EU and NATO.
It is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and – as an unlawful use of force – a clear breach of the UN Charter.
It is part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behaviour – but also represents a new and dangerous phase in Russias hostile activity against Europe and our shared values and interests.
So I argued that there should be a reappraisal of how our collective efforts can best tackle the challenge that Russia poses following President Putins re-election.
And in my discussions with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, as well as other leaders, we agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russias actions – not just out of solidarity with the UK but recognising the threat posed to the national security of all EU countries.
So the Council agreed immediate actions including withdrawing the EUs ambassador from Moscow.
And today 18 countries have announced their intention to expel more than 100 Russian intelligence officers from their countries.
This includes 15 EU Member States as well as the US, Canada, and the Ukraine.
And this is the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.
I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident.
And together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russias continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values.
European nations will also act to strengthen their resilience to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related risks as well as bolstering their capabilities to deal with hybrid threats.
We also agreed that we would review progress in June, with Foreign Ministers being tasked to report back ahead of the next Council.
Mr Speaker, the challenge of Russia is one that will endure for years to come.
As I have made clear before, we have no disagreement with the Russian people who have achieved so much through their countrys great history.
Indeed, our thoughts are with them today in the aftermath of the awful shopping centre fire in Kemerovo in Siberia.
But President Putins regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond.
And as a sovereign European democracy, the United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and with NATO to face down these threats together.
US steel tariffs
Turning to the United States decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminium, the Council was clear that these measures cannot be justified on national security grounds, and that sector-wide protection in the US is an inappropriate remedy for the real problems of overcapacity.
My Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade travelled to Washington last week to argue for an EU-wide exemption.
So we welcome the temporary exemption that has now been given to the European Union, but we must work hard to ensure this becomes permanent.
At the same time we will continue to support preparations in the EU to defend our industry in a proportionate manner, in compliance with WTO rules.
Turning to Brexit, last week the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union reached agreement with the European Commission negotiating team on large parts of the draft Withdrawal Agreement.
This includes the reciprocal agreement on citizens rights, the financial settlement, aspects of issues relating to Northern Ireland such as the Common Travel Area, and crucially the detailed terms of a time-limited Implementation Period running to the end of December 2020.
I am today placing copies of the draft agreement in the House libraries and I want to thank the Secretary of State and our negotiating team for all their work in getting us to this point.
The Council welcomed the agreement reached – including the time that the Implementation Period will provide for governments, businesses and citizens on both sides to prepare for the new relationship we want to build.
As I set out in my speech in Florence, it is not in our national interest to ask businesses to undertake two sets of changes.
So it follows that during the Implementation Period they should continue to trade on current terms.
Whilst I recognise that not everyone will welcome continuation of current trading terms for another 21 months, such an Implementation Period has been widely welcomed by British business because it is necessary if we are to minimise uncertainty and deliver a smooth and successful Brexit.
For all of us, the most important issue must be focussing on negotiating the right future relationship that will endure for years to come.
And we are determined to use the Implementation Period to prepare properly for that future relationship – which is why it is essential that we have clarity about the terms of that relationship when we ask the House to agree the Implementation Period and the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement in the autumn.
Mr Speaker, there are of course some key questions that remain to be resolved on the Withdrawal Agreement – including the governance of the Agreement, and how our commitments to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should be turned into legal text.
As I have made clear, we remain committed to the agreement we reached in December in its entirety.
This includes a commitment to agree operational legal text for the “backstop option” set out in the Joint Report – although it remains my firm belief that we can and will find the best solutions for Northern Ireland as part of the overall future relationship between the UK and the EU.
I have explained that the specific European Commission proposals for that backstop were unacceptable because they were not in line with Belfast Agreement and threatened the break-up of the UKs internal market. And as such they were not a fair reflection of the Joint Report.
But there are many issues on which we can agree with the Commission and we are committed to working intensively to resolve those which remain outstanding.
So I welcome that we are beginning a dedicated set of talks today with the European Commission – and where appropriate the Irish Government – so that we can work together to agree the best way to fulfil the commitments we have made.
We have also been working closely with the Government of Gibraltar to ensure that Gibraltar is covered by our EU negotiations on withdrawal, the Implementation Period and future relationship.
I am pleased that the draft Agreement published jointly last week correctly applies to Gibraltar, but we will continue to engage closely with the Government of Gibraltar and our European partners to resolve the particular challenges our EU withdrawal poses for Gibraltar and for Spain.
Mr Speaker, following my speeches in Munich and at the Mansion House setting out the future security and economic partnerships we want to develop, the Council also agreed guidelines for the next stage of the negotiations on this future relationship which must rightly now be our focus.
While there are of course some clear differences between our initial positions, the guidelines are a useful starting point for the negotiations that will now get underway.
And I welcome the Council restating the EUs determination to “have as close as possible a partnership with the UK” and its desire for a “balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” free trade agreement.
For I believe there is now an opportunity to create a new dynamic in these negotiations.
The agreements our negotiators have reached on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Implementation Period are proof that with political will – and with a spirit of co-operation and a spirit of opportunity for the future – we can find answers to difficult issues together.
And we must continue to do so.
For whether people voted leave or remain, many are frankly tired of the old arguments and the attempts to refight the referendum over the past year.
With a year to go, people are coming back together and looking forward.
They want us to get on with it. And that is what we are going to do.
And I commend this Statement to the House.