The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Press Conference in Moscow – 20 April 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference in Moscow on Saturday 20th April 1996.


Let me talk about the summit and the adjacent meetings I have had during the period I have been here in Moscow.

The summit began last evening with a fairly extensive discussion on the situation in Lebanon. I think all of you know that there is a fair amount of diplomatic activity going on, even as we speak there are a number of Foreign Ministers at the moment engaged either in Lebanon, or in Israel or in Syria, to see what can be done to bring about a ceasefire. It was our view that a ceasefire would be the first step, beyond that we need something that is going to be rather more permanent to prevent re-occurrence of the difficulties there have been over the last few days.

We moved on this morning to the main reason for the summit being called, you will recall it was suggested by President Yeltsin when he met the G7 in Halifax last year, and that was to examine comprehensively the question of nuclear safety. And I think the fact that the G7 attended in full, with President Yeltsin, is an indication of the importance that we attach to that process.

Many people I think were quite sceptical at the time as to whether anything would emerge from a summit of this sort. In fact there has been quite a comprehensive range of agreements, some of them very technical, many of them the subject of discussion for some time. And I am extremely grateful to Neil Hurst for the work that he has done on that over the months that have gone.

But let me just summarise the main agreements that have been reached: an agreement to bring into force the nuclear safety convention, we have long wanted that, it has now happened; agreement to work together on a new convention on the safety of radioactive waste management; thirdly, a commitment by Russia to sign the London Dumping Convention Amendment, that is the amendment which effectively bans the dumping of radioactive waste at sea; a programme to help prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, that too is something the United Kingdom has sought for some time and we are delighted to have that agreement.

And of course also there was agreed at this summit a new impetus to the conclusion, by September we think is possible, of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which bars all nuclear explosions on the basis of a zero yield. And I know from time to time in the past there have been conflicting interpretations of what is meant by zero-yield. Let me make it clear that what we mean by this, and what I think is understood by our partners, is that no nuclear explosion of any kind, however small, is permitted. That too I think is an agreement that many people will welcome.

Over lunch, we discussed the situation, particularly as far as Chernobyl is concerned. We emphasised our commitment to make real the programme contained in the Memorandum of Understanding that we signed with Ukraine last December, and we were joined for this particular discussion by President Kuchma. You will recall, I am sure, there are three elements to the problem with Chernobyl: firstly, there are the grants that we made available to assist with work; secondly, there is the amount of international finance that will be made available to provide alternative sources of energy, that finance is agreed, it is not yet drawn down, the Ukrainians are still determining precisely what they need to do; and thirdly, there is the question of the temporary covering, the temporary sarcophagus over the reactor that exploded. There is no additional financing agreed for that.

At the moment there is a European Union study being undertaken. When that is concluded, which will be later this year, we will need to look at the question of funding that and how it will be done. I have little doubt that it will need to be an international effort. I don’t think it is remotely likely that the Ukrainians would be able to fund that on their own and I think post-Chernobyl no-one is seriously going to doubt the need for that work still to be done. But at the moment we still await the experts’ report on the sarcophagus. As soon as we have got it, we will be able to move forward.

One happy development today, President Kuchma said that he would see if it was possible, and he thought that it was possible, to close another reactor at Chernobyl by the end of the year. And we spent some time also discussing alternative energy sources and the need to develop them in Ukraine and beyond.

We spent some time discussing Bosnia, I won’t elaborate upon that discussion unless questioned, except to say that although it has been more quiescent lately, I don’t think anyone is in any doubt about the importance of making sure the civil development of Bosnia proceeds, and that is a matter to which we will regularly have to return.

At the conclusion of the summit proper, I had a bilateral for a little over an hour with President Clinton. We discussed a range of matters: Lebanon; the importance of Most Favoured Nation status from America for China, that is important to us of course because of the impact upon Hong Kong and I discussed that with the President; we discussed also the forthcoming Commonwealth meeting concerning Nigeria and the present internal situation there; and I took the opportunity of dealing with one domestic matter by briefing the President on the present state of the legislation on Northern Ireland and the preparatory work for the elections, the forum and the all-party talks that we hope will follow the elections, and that was an extremely worthwhile occasion.

Let me just say one thing in conclusion before we seek to take any of the questions you may have. I think it has been a very valuable visit, very valuable because of the agreements that have been signed. But also very valuable, to be frank, because it is extremely useful on these occasions, you have the opportunity of discussing in a relatively informal manner in the sidelines of such conference a range of issues with the other Heads of Government who are present, and I think that increasingly close contact is a very reassuring element of international affairs these days. Heads of Government tend to know one another far better and far more personally than ever used to be the case in the past and I think that is immensely useful.

During those bilaterals I had specific bilaterals with Prime Minister Chretien; President Yeltsin of Course; Mr Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister; and also, as you know, a meeting last evening here to discuss the European problems of beef with the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council and the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany. So we were able to take the opportunity of reviewing the situation whilst we were here. So all in all a very useful and worthwhile visit.




On Ulster, we have heard that President Clinton was praising your efforts towards securing peace, and he also apparently made mention of the need for another ceasefire. Could you tell us a little more about that?


The President has been very helpful for some time and I have absolutely no doubt at all that he will continue to play a constructive role in helping to take the process further. We do need a ceasefire. There is no immediate sign, I have to say, from Sinn Fein and the IRA that one is imminent. But I think there is no justification for them holding off from a ceasefire. For a very long time they have asked for the prospect of all-party talks, they have asked for a proper consideration of the problems of Northern Ireland. All those lie just weeks ahead. And upon that basis, to take them at their own evaluation, there is no justification for anything other than a comprehensive ceasefire so that they can join the talks that lie immediately ahead. I very much hope that they will do that. But let me emphasise again. If they do not, we will proceed without them. Sinn Fein and the IRA cannot, by not offering a ceasefire, stop the process that is now in hand, they cannot stop the elections, they cannot stop the forum meeting and they cannot stop the beginning of negotiations on 10 June. All of those things will go ahead, but of course one would like to see a ceasefire.

QUESTION (The Guardian):

You say that personal relationships are important. Did you feel that you advanced your personal relationship with Mr Zyuganov in your meeting with him yesterday and is Britain taking the [indistinct] that he represents seriously enough?


I had an extremely good meeting with Mr Zyuganov yesterday. We discussed a range of issues. And I read with astonishment the way it was reported this morning. I don’t recall Mr Zyuganov saying to me any of the things that were reported in the media this morning and I am at an utter loss to discover how they got there. Perhaps if some of those present wrote them, they can explain to me how they got there. But I can certainly tell you they did not get there on the basis of what Mr Zyuganov said to me in the meeting that we had yesterday, in no sense did they. It was a good meeting, it was a constructive meeting. I asked him about his programme, he answered about his programme, and we discussed a range of other matters about the situation in Russia generally. But at no stage did he speak in the aggressive manner in which he is reported in the Western press as having spoken to me yesterday. It simply did not happen.


Prime Minister, obviously quite an important meeting last night.


Which meeting are you talking about?


Sorry! The meeting with Mr. Carl Sherak [phon] over the question of the beef ban. Do you feel more optimistic today that we are slightly closer to a lifting of the ban?


Yes. I think we have made progress. Of course, that wasn’t a decision-making meeting last night, it couldn’t be. Decisions are for the European Union as a whole. Self-evidently, the Agriculture Commissioner will be deeply involved in these and neither of the other members of the European Union nor the Agriculture Commissioner were present last evening but it was an opportunity to explain in a relaxed atmosphere a good deal more of how this matter is perceived in the United Kingdom and to explain some of the misconceptions, as we see them, that are, present amongst our European partners.

What we have seen since the ban was instituted firstly by our European partners nationally and then endorsed by the European Union collectively is that the beef market has fallen very dramatically in the European countries as well. The effect of that ban on British beef, which is unjustified on health grounds, has also reflected in a collapse of confidence in the beef market amongst our European partners as well.

I took the opportunity last night of making several things quite clear:

Firstly, the fundamental point that there is no public health problem. The scientific advice is unequivocal, British beef is safe to eat – the view of British scientists, the view of the World Health Authority, the view of scientists in other areas as well. All the measures recommended by the scientists have been adopted by the British Government, all those measures are in place. The problem, as our European partners have skid, is one of confidence not one of public health and we have introduced measures in Britain. Those measures will involve destroying elderly animals that would otherwise have entered the market; those elderly animals are the ones that people were most concerned about, they will no longer be in the market. There is no justification for the ban in my judgement at all and the ban has a number of absurdities in it. Let me just illustrate a couple of the absurdities:

Firstly, calves born after 1 April this year when we instituted the new controls on foodstuffs, under the ban they can’t be exported. That is nonsense, total nonsense. Those calves couldn’t possibly have been exposed to BSE in any conceivable way. I made that point to our European partners.

Secondly, let me take another illustration. A farmer – and there are a great many farmers like this in the United Kingdom – whose animals have never eaten anything but grass, never close to any possibly contaminated feed at all, and yet they are banned and so are animals identified as coming from a demonstrably safe herd and so are animals coming from herds no members of which breeds, no member of which has ever had BSE – palpably absurd!

I took the opportunity of running through some of those absurdities last night in the meeting we had. It was a very constructive meeting, it was not a decision-taking meeting, it was a meeting where we were all addressing a problem that now affects the whole of the European beef market, not just a British problem, and I think it was a worthwhile and constructive meeting and I think it will have played its part in helping inform people better for the decisions that will need to be taken in the days that lie ahead and I am delighted I had the meeting, I think it was very worthwhile.

QUESTION (John Craig, Daily Express):

On beef, the impression we get, however, is that you didn’t receive what one might describe as support for your position. We have heard what you said to them but was there any indication that they said: “OK! Yes, we’ll take that on board and we will go back to our colleagues and recommend that because of the action Britain has now taken the ban can be lifted!”?


The first thing that needs to be done is that people have to understand the reality of what the situation is and not operate under the misunderstandings that there have been over recent weeks. I think I removed a number of those misunderstandings though I am not going to anticipate decisions that have to be taken not by the people who were here last night but by the European Union as a whole. I don’t think that would be wise, it certainly wouldn’t be prudent and I am concerned about the whole of the European Union understanding the position but let me reiterate I think it was very worthwhile having that meeting last night, I think there is a much greater understanding of what is happening across Europe. Each of the other people present of course learned what was happening in the other European countries and the collapse in beef confidence does stretch across Europe, that was apparent, so I reiterate what I said. I am not going to be drawn further on the issue. It was a worthwhile meeting, it was a constructive meeting and I think it was time very well spent.

QUESTION (Phil Reeves, The Independent):

Prime Minister, it is pretty plain that the Russians are continuing to prosecute a war in Chechnya despite the ceasefire that Mr. Yeltsin announced on March 31st. Did you raise this issue with him, did you discuss the question of the violation of human rights going on in Chechnya and what was Mr. Yeltsin’s response?


Of course I discussed Chechnya with President Yeltsin while I was here. He is looking to see what can be done to reach a negotiated settlement, clearly he needs to do that if it is possible. It needs two sides to negotiate was the point he made to me but he is clearly looking to see whether that can be achieved; it is desirable in order to move towards a settlement in Chechnya. He indicated to me that there were many areas of Chechnya where there was no difficulty, that it existed rather fiercely in a number of areas but in some areas it had gone away completely. I can neither verify nor dispute that, I report what the President said to me and he was certainly seeking to take a constructive role to see whether they could reach a settlement.

I am sure that is so for two reasons: firstly, it is self-evidently the right thing to do and secondly, it is self-evidently the prudent thing to do; it would clearly be extremely helpful in the present political atmosphere if some movement could satisfactorily occur on Chechyna.

QUESTION (Jon Sopel, BBC):

Sir Edward Heath, writing in the “Express” today, has said that if you lost another by-election you should call a general election. Do you agree with that and if you don’t do you think you could still go the full term?


I haven’t seen Sir Edward’s article. Sir Edward is a very wise man and I always read very carefully what previous leaders of the Conservative Party have to say. I don’t always agree with them but I will read it when I return with some interest, but I won’t promise to agree with it.


We have got the “Telegraph” hitting your Government with an unusually strong editorial, the “Sun” saying that you are depressed, rumours of Tories about to defect, some misunderstanding with John Redwood.


Were you present at Question Time last Tuesday?


I am afraid I missed that.


I am sorry you missed that because I read I was depressed but doubt many people who attended Question Time on Tuesday would have thought that was the case and as far as the “Telegraph” is concerned the “Telegraph” must write what the “Telegraph” thinks it must write, I must believe what I believe to be accurate and have no intention of commenting on what newspapers write or newspapers say, they must take responsibility for their own words.

I will tell you what I am interested in. I am not so much interested in that; I would have a look at some of the things that are happening at the moment, some of the things perhaps that people ought to look at more often.

I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever at the Moment that life is getting better in the United Kingdom after the recession, self-evidently so and is going to get better yet and in case you think that is a standard bit of politicians oratory – “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” – let me give you some concrete examples of why that is the case:

Mortgage rates at their lowest level since the early 60s; I think I recall reading that the Beatles were top of the charts the last time mortgage rates were at this level, I think the song was “I Feel Fine!” and understandably so as mortgage rates fall. The proportion of new mortgages taken out by women more than doubled between 1983 and 1994, around 18 per cent, that is quite a significant change. Look at education! Huge increases in the choices and opportunities for people in the education sector. Look at changes in other peoples’ personal circumstances! 27 million people a couple of years ago took holidays abroad.

If you look at what is happening, when can you last remember inflation below 3 per cent for the third successive year, unemployment lower that any other major economy in Europe, investment rising and growth as high as most other countries in Europe and better than almost any other country in Europe, more people in work than any other major economy anywhere else in Europe?

I will extend the list if you like but they are I think what in newspaper parlance you call “feel good factors” and they are all becoming very apparent so if you want to know how I feel, I am delighted we have low inflation, delighted we have falling unemployment, delighted we have increasing growth, delighted we have good investment and I intend to make sure that we maintain the most benevolent economic situation we have seen for a very long time indeed and I intend very cheerfully to tell as many people as I possibly can that that is what the situation is.