The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Press Conference in Rome – 8 November 1991

Below is Mr Major’s press conference, held in Rome on Friday 8th November 1991.


I think in the last couple of days we have seen a very successful conference indeed, we have seen one that has successfully completed the work that was set in hand in London just over a year ago and there are a number of points to which I would particularly like to draw your attention.

We have agreed the reorganisation of our forces which will now be more flexible and more mobile. And there has been complete agreement amongst the allies that we will need to maintain effective nuclear as well as conventional forces, but of course at lower levels than previously. For example, our theatre nuclear weapons will be cut by around 80 percent.

We have also been able to endorse the role of the Alliance’s new reaction forces and again I suspect you were aware that Britain will command the new rapid reaction corps.

We have also reaffirmed NATO’s position as the essential forum for consultation among the allies and the forum for agreement on policy bearing on the security and defence commitments of all its members, and we regard that as very important.

The Alliance has always been an organisation designed to defend the peace but its role is changing, Now we are increasingly seeing an Alliance that is promoting the peace as well. As you will have seen from the declaration, we have agreed to set up a North Atlantic Cooperation Council to conduct a continuing dialogue with the countries of Eastern Europe and at Britain’s suggestion its first meeting will be at Foreign Minister level in December and I think it has now been agreed that that will be in Brussels.

That is a remarkable achievement. Two years ago many of the countries of Eastern Europe were calling for both the Warsaw Pact and for NATO to be dismantled. The Warsaw Pact has now disappeared but the countries of Eastern Europe have come to see the valuable role NATO can play in seeking to underpin their democracy.

But I think the important point is this. We are not just talking to each other, it will go a good deal further than that. We shall be offering education and training, advice on the conversion of defence industries and encouragement to Eastern European countries to join with us in the West in halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

We have also had an interesting discussion of events in the Soviet Union. l think it is self-evident to everyone in this room that the Soviet Union is changing very rapidly and very unpredictably as well. The problem of food shortages this winter is one we are well aware of. We discussed that collectively and I discussed it bilaterally with President Bush yesterday as well. I have also been in touch with the President of the European Commission over the last two days.

Within the G7 countries we have been coordinating an international effort to provide food aid, effectively targeted to the areas that we believe will most need it. There is an urgent need to get food aid on its way. Within the European Community we have already agreed aid worth nearly 2.5 billion dollars. But the problems of the Soviet Union of, course go a good deal wider than simply food aid and we have to try and help them to achieve democracy with stability, that is we believe what they are seeking for themselves and to the extent that we can help with that we believe that we should.

Economically, our ability to help the republics of the Soviet Union must depend on their willingness to shoulder their share of the burden of Soviet debt and politically we must encourage them to ratify and apply the main arms control treaties agreed by the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union must also stop wasting its scarce resources on vast military programmes inherited from the past and far beyond its present needs. It makes no sense economically and would be very dangerous politically for the republics to seek to build up their own forces. These issues will be one of our central preoccupations over the immediate months ahead.

The Alliance’s new strategic concept and the declaration reflect the view expressed by all of us that Europe should be doing more for its own defence and both the texts also reflect agreement that we should not be talking about transatlantic defence and European defence as though they were alternatives. Defence activities within the framework of political union will to doubt develop over time but it must be compatible with what we are doing in NATO.

And there are three important principles in the declaration and in the strategic concept to which I would particularly draw your attention. Firstly, NATO should remain the forum for decisions on matters involving the defence of the Alliance. Secondly, as we create new European capabilities there should be no duplication of NATO’s military structures for the defence of western Europe, that is what is meant by the reference to operational coherence and strategic unity in the documents published today. And thirdly, the Western European Union should be reinforced as a means of strengthening the European pillar of the Alliance and we should make sure that all allies are properly involved in decisions that may involve their security.

That reflects our view that the Western European Union, although politically very close to the Union and its foreign and security policy, should remain autonomous, subordinate neither to the union nor to NATO.

The Foreign Ministers also met this morning to discuss Yugoslavia and on that occasion they heard a fairly sombre report from Lord Carrington. On the political front the Serbians remain unwilling to make good use of Lord Carrington’s peace conference and the proposals that we have made. On the military front there is now new and serious fighting, this time in Zagreb itself.

Our judgment is that the outside world must now find new ways of bringing the leaders and the forces to their senses. For that reason the European Community has decided today to dismantle its links with Yugoslavia. We shall in particular suspend the trade and cooperation agreement which will have a serious effect on Yugoslav exports to the Community. And these are new measures, not old measures revisited.

The three Community members of the Security Council have agreed they will press at the United Nations for an oil embargo, it would bear more heavily on the Serbs and the Yugoslav National Army, the largely Serbian Yugoslav Army. We shall also look for positive measures to alleviate the effect of sanctions on those parties which cooperate with, the peace efforts.

Lord Carrington in the future will of course continue his efforts, but the peace conference needs clear signs that all the parties to the peace conference are ready to work seriously for peace if that conference is to proceed.

That was the substance of the agreement amongst the Foreign Ministers this morning and that was endorsed subsequently by the Heads of Government.



QUESTION (Nik Gowing, Channel 4 News):

Prime Minister, what kind of benchmark on defence issues has been created by the text reference to the WEU in advance of your discussions before Maastricht?


There was complete agreement about the essential primacy of NATO at the discussions, that we have had over the last 2 days, there was no dissent on that point from anyone at all, neither was there any suggestions from any part of the conference that there should be any other command structure or operational structure other than that which exists through the Western European Union and through NATO. There is a general agreement that the Western European Union should be built up as the European arm of NATO, that is entirely acceptable. That is what was agreed and nothing further was agreed, there was no suggestion of subordination of the Western European Union to the European Community.

QUESTION (Jim Hoglan, Washington Post):

You have just said that there is an urgent need to get food aid on its way to the Soviet Union, can you tell us whether the delay in doing that, the remaining obstacle in doing that, has to do with the inability of the Western powers to organise that aid or the problems of knowing who to give it to in the Soviet Union?


The primary concern is knowing precisely where the food aid is going to have to go and determining how to get it there. The Community has agreed something over 2.25 billion pounds worth of food aid, there has been an offer from other sources as well. There is a need to coordinate that, it would be rather silly of the Western powers collectively to deliver the wrong sort of aid at the wrong time to the wrong place in the Soviet Union. So there is a need for a good deal of coordination and that coordination is at present in hand, how rapidly it will be concluded I cannot say, but I would certainly hope that we would be able to make those facilities available to the Soviets well before Christmas.

QUESTION (Graham Leech, BBC):

Following Nik Gowing’s question, the declaration does refer to the reinforcement of the role of the WEU as the defence component which would suggest a leaning towards the Franco-German ideas rather than the Anglo-Italian ideas?


With respect, I think it suggests precisely the opposite. The idea of building up the Western European Union is one that arouses no difficulty amongst any of the European partners in the Alliance, there is agreement that it is right for Europe to bear a proportionately larger share of the transatlantic NATO burden – that is generally agreed.

The point at issue really is what the nature of the Western European Union subsequently will be and what its links will be both with NATO and with the European Community. There has been no suggestion in the discussions that we have had over the past two days, and nothing in the declarations, to suggest that the independence of the European Community and of NATO should change insofar as the western European Union is concerned and we believe on the basis of that that it is a helpful text.




It means that Europe is going to build up its own share of the Alliance through the Western European Union, but the Western European Union remains wholly a part of NATO and will be operational within NATO.

QUESTION (Adam Boulton, Sky TV):

If there is general agreement on the primacy of NATO why didn’t the Alliance take the opportunity to affirm it in so many words and what prospect do you see for NATO operating as an out of area military policeman?


There is no question that NATO is the prime method of our defence, it is a matter which is accepted without any need for it actually to be stated. I think one exchange during the meeting is perhaps more illustrative than the text. President Bush said at one stage during the meeting: “if it is actually the wish of the Europeans that the Americans should not continue as at present they have and that NATO ought not to continue as it has, then perhaps they should say so.” The Europeans responded to that by saying precisely the reverse, there is a very strong support for NATO operating as it does now and that was not Contradicted by anyone in the conference we have had over the past two days.

QUESTION (Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph):

Chancellor Kohl is said to have invited or be about to invite the Presidents of Slovenia and Croatia to Bonn very shortly to discuss the conditions for German recognition of their two republics and Prime Minister Martens of Belgium has said that he doesn’t think Germany will wait much more than beyond the end of this month before recognising them on its own. Is that something you would welcome and what will you be saying to Chancellor Kohl when you meet him in the course of the next few days?

My other question is about this WEU business. How far could you accept orders, mandates, suggestions being passed down from the European Council to the WEU? If it is not going to be subordinate, what relationship will it have with the EC?


The Western European Union is not technically part of NATO – I think I should make that clear – but it will serve to strengthen the Alliance. We do see an organic link, a relationship, between the Western European Union and NATO and the European Community. There is very substantial common membership in it but we do not see it as being subordinate to the European Council and taking orders from the European Council or having its own policies agreed collectively within the European Council and Britain will not accept that. That is not a matter of dispute. We will not accept that and no-one has argued for that over the past two days.

On the earlier point about Croatia, I am not going to comment on what Chancellor Kohl may or may not do at some stage in the future. I will no doubt have the opportunity of discussing this and other matters with him when I see him on Sunday and I am looking forward to that but I think that recognition is a little way down the road.

The Foreign Secretary was involved in the discussions this morning; he may want to add something.


We discussed the extent to which we should continue to act together in this matter and everybody agreed we must so I don’t think there is any question of individual EC member states acting on recognition by themselves. If you look at the Declaration that we put out it said in this respect they recall that the prospect of recognition of the independence of those republics wishing it can only be envisaged in the framework of an overall settlement that includes adequate guarantees for the protection of human rights and the rights of national or ethnic groups, i.e. there is a good deal of work still to be done.

QUESTION (David Osborne, The Independent):

To return to the European Defence Identity and the WEU, just as you are doing so here, President Mitterrand a few minutes ago expressed his complete satisfaction with the text and said he could ask for no more. Has anything happened here that makes you more confident that the differences between yourselves and the French in particular on this can be settled in time for Maastricht so that the defence question will not be an obstacle at Maastricht.

On the Declaration of the Soviet Union, President Mitterrand said that he voted against it because he felt that parts of it made NATO look as if it were a preaching monk to the Soviet Union. Perhaps you could comment on his dissension on that point?


I am sorry the French were isolated on that point but that is a matter for President Mitterrand, not me.

On the earlier question of the Western European Union and NATO, I am encouraged by the discussion over the past couple of days and encouraged particularly because of the huge common ground there was about the role of NATO, the central and prime importance of NATO – that was not, I repeat again, questioned by anybody; it was endorsed by everybody and on the basis of that, it seems to me unlikely that anybody is going to take action that would seek to undermine NATO’s position either in the short or the medium term so I think the whole of the discussion that we have had over the past few days has been very encouraging about the future of NATO, people’s allegiance to NATO and the prospect of the Western Europeans building up the Western European Union as the European pillar of the NATO Alliance.

QUESTION (Hella Pick, The Guardian):

If I could follow up on what you have just been saying – indeed everybody else – what a wonderful achievement NATO is able to record here, if you put this in the context of the Soviet crisis, do you think that NATO or indeed anyone in the West is really able to respond to the challenge that is coming from here and in particular, how do you envisage crisis management and the maintenance of peace and stability that has been outlined in these Declarations?

In your capacity as Chairman of the G7, do you intend to offer any more substantial aid now to the Soviet Union beyond the emergency food aid which you have mentioned? On the position of the G7, do you feel able to proceed with any massive injection of capital and other forms of aid to the Soviet Union for economic restructuring or do you think all this is now being halted by their inability to meet their present debt obligations and the uncertainties in the Soviet Union?


The latter points are under continuing discussion with G7 Deputies and elsewhere but when we are quite clear what the situation is, we will be able to make a decision. I am afraid if you have in mind help in the nature of balance of payments help or debt help, which I suspect you did have, I think substantial decisions on that are still some way away.

On food aid, there is no doubt in principle about our willingness to assist and I set out earlier the fact that I believe we will need to have some of that aid in place this side of Christmas and it may be that what we would have in place would be the stand-by credits rather than the physical delivery of food but there is a great deal of information that we still need before we can be entirely clear what is required and where.

As to the future role of NATO and whether it can play a role, I think there are several things that suggest that it can and there are helpful signs. One of them, of course, is the extent to which the Eastern European states now support the retention of NATO, are very keen to have a relationship with NATO and the discussions that will take place in the newly-formed Cooperation Council. They will begin, as I indicated earlier, at Foreign Minister level. Quite how they will continue after that is not entirely clear but I suspect they will continue at ambassadorial level; that is the most likely outcome and it does mean that we will have a continuing relationship with the Eastern European nations and will be able to deal with matters on a regular basis and hopefully iron out difficulties before they become international sores. That is the intention so the role of NATO is changing to the extent that it is seeking to promote peace rather than simply defend ourselves if our own security is threatened.

QUESTION (Mark Laity, BBC):

Relating to that, do you see the Cooperation Council ever ultimately leading to some form of associate membership, security guarantee or full membership for nations and relating to that, yesterday you were quite in favour of an expanded out-of-area role for NATO and a proposal which was included in the communique at one point is not there so was there a problem over getting any out-of-area commitment?


On the subject of associate membership, I think it is a little early to say. I certainly would not rule that out in the long term but I think it is self-evident there are a clear number of difficulties with that in the short term and I don’t envisage that as being a short-term option but I certainly think the developing relationship is attractive, is necessary and will prove effective.

On the out-of-area role, I was casting my mind forward to future roles for NATO; it wasn’t a matter that was under substantive discussion this weekend so it was neither agreed nor disagreed.

QUESTION (Robert Morton, Financial Times):

Prime Minister, on the WEU you said that Britain doesn’t see this organisation as being subordinate to the European Community institutions nor taking orders from them. At the same, you said there will be some link with the European Community. What sort of link are you thinking of exactly?


When I said it wasn’t subordinate, I was referring of course particularly to some of the aspects in the Franco-German text some time ago which held out the prospect that the Western European Union would be subordinate to the European Council. That is not acceptable to us and we have made that clear but there are going to be, I trust, what are called “organic links”. The European Council can give guidelines, it can set out what it thinks and it has a very substantial common membership with the Western European Union but operationally the Western European Union cannot be subordinate to the European Council – that is the core point of substance upon which we feel most strongly.

QUESTION (Peter Jenkins, The Independent):

Following up what you said a moment ago, would you agree that the enlargement of NATO to the East is now effectively on the long-term agenda and if not, could you state precisely what the short-term difficulties that you mentioned a moment ago – associate membership and so on – precisely what they are?


Let me just take the question in the larger sense first:

I have argued in the past for the desirability of the European Community itself also making it clear that when Eastern European countries are economically ready we should admit them into the European Community. The structure of Europe is changing. It follows, I think inexorably as night follows day, that if I think it is proper in the medium-term for the Eastern European nations to join the European Community, I would not object to the Eastern European nations also joining in the defence establishment for the security of the West – NATO – but I think it is some time away.

The sensitivity, of course, that exists at the moment is that if NATO were to readily accept entry into NATO of some of the Eastern European countries, I think that might well have an unsettling effect on other Eastern European nations, not least the Soviet republics, and I don’t think that is wise at the moment but I do think we should have this ongoing dialogue and as the years unfold no doubt other opportunities will present themselves.

QUESTION (Ian Davidson, Financial Times):

At the London NATO Summit, the Declaration referred to nuclear weapons which were described as “weapons of last resort”. In the new Strategic Concept, those words do not appear. Could you tell me whether there was any discussion in particular of the nature and role of nuclear weapons?


No, there was not. The concept of the use of nuclear weapons I think remains as it was before except that of course the volume – the quantity – of nuclear weapons has been substantially reduced in Europe by around 80 percent but it was not a matter of substantial discussion over the last few days.

QUESTION (Michael Evans, The Times):

Just wrapping up the WEU thing, apart from the point that you have already made very clearly about the WEU and its subordination or non-subordination, can you think or two or three other precise points which you will be making on this particular issue at Maastricht from which you will need satisfaction from the Germans, the French and others?


Yes, I can but if you mean am I going to outline them now, I am afraid no, I am not. I am in the midst of a round of discussions on European matters with our European colleagues. Over the period that I have been here, I have had discussions with Prime Minister Lubbers and a number of other European colleagues, Prime Minister Schluter I have met also, the Prime Minister da Silva of Portugal I have met and Prime Minister Adreotti of Italy, I am going to see Chancellor Kohl on Sunday, I will be seeing President Mitterrand, I have further meetings with other European leaders between now and Maastricht, so there is a great deal of bilateral discussion to be had upon the particular point that you raised and I think it has to be said upon one or two other points as well but I don’t want to elaborate on it now.

QUESTION (John Craig, Today):

You have been a bit dismissive this morning about Labour’s victory in Langbaurgh. The fact is they won and you lost. You have not won a by-election I think since Richmond and you were absolutely trounced by the Liberal Democrats up on Scotland. These are rather bad results for you, aren’t they?


We did lose at Langbaurgh with a swing of 3.5 percent against us; we did lose at Hemsworth with a swing of 3 percent against us, both to Labour. The fact of the matter is that Labour need a 5.5 percent swing to win a general election from the Conservatives to Labour and in a by-election, after twelve years of government at the end of a recession with all the by-election factors that traditionally arise, they only managed to get about one-half of that swing. I think if I were a Labour Member of Parliament I would of course celebrate the two victories that they have had and I would enjoy that celebration because casting the trend of those victories forward, I would not expect as a Labour Member to win a general election on those figures and indeed they would not, so for that reason I think that although I regret the fact that we lost Langbaurgh, it was an astonishingly good result in many ways.

The Conservative vote held up, the swing against the Conservatives in a by-election was remarkably low, not just in the history of the last couple of years of by-elections but if you go back through the history of the last fifteen or twenty years of by-elections you will find very few by-elections where the swing against the governing party in a Tory/Labour or indeed Labour/Tory marginal has been so small.

QUESTION (Adam Boulton, Sky TV):

I just wondered if we could ask you a question about the Scottish dimension because you yourself have devoted a lot of energy since you became Prime Minister to Scotland and yet the Tories now I think are level pegging as far as representation goes with the Liberals. Does this really make it conceivable that a Conservative Government, if you win the-next election, could go on governing Scotland where you don’t really have a mandate at all?


I think you are jumping a long way ahead from a by-election to a general election. It is not all that long ago in this Parliament that the Liberals were getting swings from the Conservatives in by-elections as protests of something over 20 percent. This was half that and in many ways it is a rather unusual and odd by-election. There is certainly said to be a great deal of protest about the decision on Scottish regiments but I think it is a protest vote for this reason: because the Liberal Party’s policies would be to halve defence expenditure; that would be bound to affect Scottish regiments, indeed it is arguable that there might not be any Scottish regiments left, so I think it must be seen as a by-election protest vote.

We are just coming out of recession, there were local issues in that particular by-election and that, I believe, is acknowledged not just by us but by everybody else who visited the by-election or knows anything about it.