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 Joint Press Conference with Helmut Kohl – 29 April 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint press conference with the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, held in London on Monday 29th April 1996.


I would like first to welcome Helmut to the United Kingdom, he is a very welcome guest and we have had, as we always do, some useful and wide-ranging talks on a number of issues most of which I will set out for you in the next few moments.

Apart from detailed matter, of course we looked at wider strategic matters as well. We looked at the future development of the European Union; there are many areas in there where we are of a mind and some where we have differing visions but nonetheless we took the opportunity to examine those yet again this morning.

Of immediate and contentious matters, of course we spent some time discussing the particular difficulties that there are in the beef market in the United Kingdom and of course in the beef markets right across Europe. We discussed both the problems and the prospects for the Agriculture Council meeting today that perhaps will extend into tomorrow. The Agriculture Council of course cannot make decisions on this matter, it can only make recommendations for subsequent decision. I indicated that what we are looking for out of these discussions are some positive signals of support for relaxing the ban that at present exists; certainly we are looking for specific movement on the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and related matters and I indicated to the Chancellor that I hoped that would receive some support.

There is a great deal occurring today in Brussels both in discussions and in bilateral contacts between the United Kingdom and our European partners and I hope we will be able to achieve some movement on this matter before long.

We also took the opportunity this morning of looking again at the sheer scale of the commercial relationship between the United Kingdom and Germany. There has also at the same time this morning been a meeting between leading businessmen in British/German trade and they joined the Chancellor and I for a pre-luncheon reception.

Britain is now Germany’s second-largest market around the world, Germany is Britain’s largest market for visible exports and a very important source of invisible earnings. There is a great deal of interdependence between our two economies, a very large number of German firms established here in the United Kingdom and a large number of British firms established in Germany. The trade flow between our countries is very large indeed and the mutual commercial interest is very great.

On European matters, as we look forward to the inter-governmental conference, we discussed in particular subsidiarity, that is to say ensuring that decisions are taken at the lowest possible level and not automatically at the European level; we discussed the prospects for better employment across Europe and for enlargement of the European Union and on these matters we have asked our staffs to work together very closely so that we may concert positions that are very close.

On competitiveness and deregulation the same circumstance applies: we are both concerned to improve competitiveness, we are both concerned to improve deregulation and there will be a high-level seminar on competitiveness later on in the summer.

We talked about the prospects for monetary union. We do have differences in enthusiasm about that and an agreement upon the importance of the economic criteria before such a step could be taken and agreement that those economic criteria would need to be sustained. The British position is I think well understood by the Chancellor and we had an opportunity to discuss it this morning.

We both agree very strongly on the need to sustain the transatlantic partnership and have decided to establish a new trilateral United Kingdom/Germany/United States-parliamentary forum. We think the importance of keeping the parliamentary opinion of these three countries in concert is extremely important both in the short and the long term.

We discussed foreign affairs and followed up on our brief discussions at Moscow. We talked also about Moscow and about my visit to Ukraine.

We discussed also Bosnia where the cooperation between Britain and Germany is excellent and where we have a joint view of present developments and a joint understanding of what we hope will be achieved later in the year.

Defence cooperation with Germany continues to be both deep and wide-ranging.

We discussed the prospects for the North Atlantic Council foreign ministers meeting in Berlin in June where one of the key themes will be the adaptation of NATO structures to deal with the evolving and changing nature of NATO.

We also discussed the question of NATO enlargement where British and German views are very close indeed.

We discussed also a number of other bilateral matters and in particular the joint wish that we set in train a couple of years ago to ensure that there were greater exchanges between young Britons and young Germans, one to the other’s country, to improve greater understanding for the future.

We had a very wide-ranging discussion indeed which was conducted in the friendly spirit that I have come to expect in discussing matters, even contentious matters, with the Chancellor and I am delighted that we were able to have such a fruitful meeting.


Allow me, if I may, to first of all use this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister most sincerely for the very warm hospitality with which we have been received, I myself and the members of my delegation, here in Downing Street. It is one of these visits that is part of our ordinary exchange of opinions but using the word “ordinary” does not actually correspond to the reality. It is more like a visit between very good friends because the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany is an excellent one and the personal relationship between the Prime Minister, my friend John Major, and myself is excellent and because friendships between politicians and those who are responsible in politics do not automatically remove problems, I have never been under that kind of illusion. That may be true but on the other hand such a personal relationship – such a good chemistry as the Americans put it – between two people certainly helps to smooth the way a little bit, even in those cases where one may be of different opinions and it was actually purely a matter of chance but also a good occasion for me here at this Round Table because it afforded us a good opportunity to meet with representatives of the business communities of the two countries and the Prime Minister underlined once again how close, how useful, how important, particularly the economic relationship between the two countries is and in my statement to the Round Table I said that after all British Officers launched the initiative for the Hanover Trade Fair that now has become the largest industrial fair in the world and I was very pleased to learn that next year, the jubilee year of the Hanover Fair, the United Kingdom will be the partner country of the Hanover Fair and I think we have every occasion to turn this into a big bash celebrating the friendship that has evolved between our two countries and business communities over the years and this meeting between the two business communities has actually also served to underline once again that we are here on a very good course in further intensifying our economic relationship and our exchange of views. I must say that from our talks today I took away a number of hints as to where we can come to improvements.

We talked about a number of issues that are of mutual interest. We exchanged views during this admittedly rather short meeting about a number of issues. We also mentioned obviously the governmental conference on Maastricht 2 which was, as you know, inaugurated in Turin and we talked about further developments. I must say that it is of tremendous importance to me that we should cooperate as closely as possible with our British friends in this particular stage of European integration and we talked in very concrete terms about how matters are developing and I would like to say this here most clearly because sometimes I read in the British papers the exact opposite. I would like to state quite clearly what my position is exactly.

I am a champion – and a fervent one at that – of building this house of Europe at the turn of this particular century that has seen such great suffering, that we should make room in this European house for our partners and friends in Europe and that we should make room on a sort of permanent lease for our American friends. It is unimaginable for me that this common European house might be one house where the United Kingdom does not have a firm position and its place.

I know that internally you have a lot of discussions going on here in the United Kingdom and certainly here would not be the place nor the time for me to barge into that but there are voices I sometimes hear in public here that there are people over there in Europe who want to push the British out of Europe. This is absolutely not the case and it does become any more true because people repeat it. I will certainly not act for a Europe where the British do not have their firm place and position but I do think that in building this European house we should bear in mind the different traditions, different historical developments, different geographical situations and also the different kind of roads that we have to travel to get to these goals and this is why I say it is so important that we should bear each other’s interests in mind, that we should not enter into an almost theological debate where we say we have the whole truth and nothing but the truth and the others are completely wrong in what they say but that we should come to a working together and cooperation that is characterised by common sense and I am very much persuaded that then we shall have a great opportunity to make headway, to take a big step forward. Obviously, there are areas where we have different opinions the British and German governments, and there are areas where we are very close together.

With the European Union we may have a different opinion as regards the two of us and the other partners on subsidiarity for example. That is a word that I know many people simply do not understand the way we interpret it. I would define it in a very simple way. I would say that when building this common European house – using now Brussels as a synonym for the European Union – I think we should opt for Brussels taking only those decisions that can be taken at that level and can then benefit citizens the best and decisions that can better be taken on a national level, for example in London, Paris and then later on in Berlin, those should be taken on that particular national level and those decisions that are best taken at a regional level – in Germany for example on the level of the Laenders – should be taken on that particular level. That is an issue that obviously we need to elaborate on a little bit further and in Maastricht 2 we will also have to ask a question as regards the [indistinct] local authorities in the European Union.

I only mention these few examples to illustrate that I do see very good chances for coming to a common kind of position and that I will tenaciously hold to the view that this is indeed a policy which is not aiming at isolating anyone but that this is a policy which serves as a policy of rapprochement of the British, of the French, the Italians and all the other partners in the European Union.

I don’t want to go into another issue now at length but I think I should raise it at least, BSE. I think that today and tomorrow, from what we have heard, the Agriculture Council will discuss the proposals submitted by the British Government and I think that those proposals should be then discussed as quickly as possible by the Veterinary Committee of the European Union and I would wish for the Agriculture Committee not leaving matters at that tomorrow but coming to a decision as quickly as possible.

I am very much looking forward to your questions and since you are very often writing about me, I would even more welcome you writing about me when I am actually here to answer your questions.



QUESTION (Robin Oakley, BBC):

Chancellor Kohl, you have frequently said that Europe cannot afford to travel at the pace of the slowest ship in the convoy. Have you persuaded the British ship, in your talks with Mr. Major today, to move any faster?

Can I ask the Prime Minister whether he and Chancellor Kohl have agreed that there should be any relationship between countries which stay out of an inner-core single European currency, any exchange rate mechanism to link those who stay outside and those who form any inner core?

Finally, could I ask Chancellor Kohl if he did eat beef for lunch today?


Just as my friend John Major, I had indeed beef for lunch and I ate it and I think that was probably the underlying purpose for this press conference – to answer your question!

What you have said by way of your second question you quoted me correctly but then automatically transposed that to the United Kingdom. This was not my meaning, that was your opinion from the BBC. I did not automatically declare the United Kingdom to be the slowest ship in the convoy which is why I cannot give you an answer to that question.


Let me pick up those points.

We had an excellent luncheon.

As far as the slowest ship in the convoy is concerned, I am delighted that the Chancellor was able to respond to that because it isn’t the only occasion where a remark like that has been wrenched out of context domestically and there has been an assumption that it was the United Kingdom that was in either the Chancellor’s mind or whosoever may have made such a remark in the European Union. That isn’t the case. Indeed, one of the things the Chancellor and I have been discussing today is the desirability – the necessity – of a more flexible approach to Europe as Europe develops further and I think it is much to be hoped that people will appreciate that those are the sort of things that are under pragmatic and detailed discussion at the present time.

We didn’t spend a great deal of time discussing the possibility of a fresh exchange rate mechanism, our finance ministers discussed that some time ago and I think the British position on that is well known and hasn’t changed so we didn’t spend any time particularly discussing that this morning. We did discuss the range of matters that I set out and the Chancellor set out.


I should perhaps mention and add to what the Prime Minister just said on this last point.

We shall decide in the spring of 1998 on this matter and not a minute earlier and therefore I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to enter into philosophical debate on what may or may not happen. In my day-to-day life as a politician, I am in many cases forced to take certain decisions but in Germany too a new form of penitence seems to have evolved. In former times, usually you had your sin first and penitence later; today, you have penitence and also the sort of penalty first and then the sin but I am actually one of the old school for that matter.


You are never enthusiastic about this kind of building and you showed a certain reservation about enthusiasm in European development when you made your statement just now. Can you enlarge on this a bit?


I don’t think that there is any doubt at all about the British wish to see Europe develop. What the main debate is about is the nature, pace and style and the purpose of the development and there is a great misunderstanding I think often in this country – partly it is linguistic, partly it is simply modes of expression – as to what is often meant by what is said by our European partners. The Chancellor is here so he will want to add something to this.

Often, when people talk about a “European house” in this country referring, to what has been said in Europe, there is an assumption that that European house is going to be centralised, that all the decisions are going to be taken at the centre and more and more is going to be sucked away from the nation state. That isn’t the sense in which it is frequently used.

I cannot envisage a time in the future when the Germans aren’t Germans, the French aren’t French, the Italians aren’t Italians in all their instincts and the British aren’t British so I think we should actually look at what pragmatically we are discussing with the development of Europe.

Where are the areas of development that are of importance? – The single market. Who were the proponents of the single market? The British and the Germans were the great proponents of the single market. What is another area of great development? Enlargement of the European Union in order to spread the opportunities that exist in a democratic free market further across Europe. Who were the great proponents of enlargement? The British and the Germans were the great proponents of enlargement. Who were the proponents of saying too much must not actually be centralised? You have just heard the Chancellor speak of subsidiarity; he and the British are very much at one upon those points.

The area where there has been some difference is the question of a single currency and Germany are clear that Germany favours a single currency. I made it clear at Maastricht that we reserved our position on a single currency.

We both want to see – if you wish to use the parlance – a European house, it is the nature of the construction that is a matter of legitimate debate and if I can make the point, it is a matter of debate. It is not a matter of artificial conflict as it is so often presented. Britain and Germany agree on many things, we disagree on some other things but I think I can say – and I think the Chancellor will confirm – that where we disagree we don’t disagree with animosity, we disagree because we both recognise that the other country has a legitimate point of view and to borrow the Chancellor’s comments of five minutes ago, different traditions and a different historical experience.

In the discussions that I have had with the Chancellor and my European partners I have found that understanding. It doesn’t alter the fact that on some issues we have different policies but those differences aren’t the subject of unpleasant and nasty disputes. It is a question of how we develop in mutual interest and there will be differences about that and we will see those gradually solved as Europe develops.


Allow me, if I may, just a brief remark on that particular issue. Let me be very frank with you. It is not a question that may be of any local importance from London or for Bonn, it is a Europe-wide issue. I don’t understand this discussion at all because it sometimes demonstrates an impatience that I find absolutely absurd. I remember my first EEC summit, as it was called then, in Copenhagen in 1982, at the time the word that was most widely used to characterise the European Community was Euro-sclerocis, a very bad disease that had befallen Europe. And now here had I in the December of that year been here in this room with you I would not have believed that we would have come so far as we have come and everyone told me at the time it will not work, the internal market won’t work, Maastricht 1 will never come about, and then all of a sudden the treaty was there, and then people said it will never be ratified.

So again and again we overcame those hurdles and we did move forward and it is simply not true that we have taken too long. Just look at European history over the past 200 years and it is only then that you have a correct yardstick as to what sort of distance we have travelled.

Let me mention one example where we do disagree, at least at this particular point in time. For example on the issue of Maastricht II as regards intensification of our cooperation in the area of internal and justice matters, now if it were the case that we will not be able to come to some sort of conclusion in Maastricht II, would it be such a terrible thing if we were to find a formula that allows us to look at this matter again in let us say 5 years time. And then in the meantime we try to come to some sort of common decisions on an intergovernmental level. And these decisions will come, no matter what we may say now, at the very latest in 5 – 6 years there will be no European government that will be able to stand for elections and win the election shirking away from combating the threat from international crime and taking a defensive stand on it. And we will see that we will not make any headway on this particular issue on a purely national level. And it will be just the force of the situation as it stands at that time that we have to come to some sort of European-wide settlement. Obviously we have incredible amounts of drugs, for example, that are being brought into the European Union. This is not the fault of our police, but we have to come to a European-wide solution for that.

So perhaps let us first of all come to some intergovernmental agreements. But it won’t be the end of the world for me. The decisive thing is let us make a move in this particular direction. And I am a pragmatist and it is rather a strange occurrence that it should be a German all of a sudden who opts for pragmatism because we have always been accused of doing exactly the opposite.

So I am for a step by step approach and we shall make progress in one field and perhaps not in the other field, so well then there are areas where for the moment we will not make any headway at all, but this common European house will be built perhaps with different stages of development, but it will come about.


Chancellor, I was interested in that last answer when you talked about internal discussion in this country, would you accept that some of the difficulties are driven by what people see as a relentless timetable towards EMU in the treaty, though Britain has its opt-out, and your own great enthusiasm for political union and that worries people here, and could that perhaps go slower as you suggest that other things might go slower? And Prime Minister, could you ever accept a situation where individual candidates, standing in election, could say in their individual addresses no to a single currency when that will not be your position in the main manifesto at the next election?


On the second question, I suggest you wait for the election. The government’s manifesto will be quite clear, our position on a single currency is quite clear. We have said repeatedly that we don’t have the information upon which to base a proper decision at this stage. It is the most important decision that anyone is going to take for very many years, it has to be right, the economics have to be right and it is folly to take a decision in advance of knowing what the circumstances may be, for a country with the trading tradition of this country and the importance of sterling at an international trading currency. So I don’t anticipate the problem that you refer to arising, I read about it in the press, I don’t anticipate it arising and I think the position we will set out in the manifest on a single currency is well known.


I must say I don’t see this, what you mentioned. Without this kind of planning, without this kind of timetable, we would have lagged significantly behind the sort of progress that we have achieved. Let me give you one example that applies to Ireland, but that actually in more ways than one applies to the rest of the European Union as well. Ten years ago, for example, I had a number of fights with Francois Mitterrand. It would have been inconceivable at the time that as regards the matter of convergence of economic policy we would have made the sort of headway that we have made, and the citizens in Europe, after all, have drawn a great benefit from that. I don’t know, as regards the EU average, as regards inflation, but I think generally in the UK it is between 2 – 3 percent, and I was told when I was a student at the university that this is virtually no inflation, and I think you have 2.3 or something, so that means it is the kind of social policy that is geared to those who have small incomes. So why don’t we talk about the positive results that this has yielded for individual citizens?


Do you both think that you could win a referendum about the single currency in your countries?


Well we will have a referendum in this country if and when a British Conservative Cabinet decides to enter a single currency. If that were the case then we would clearly campaign for that. The answer, if you ask me whether we would win such a referendum today, is no we would not win such a referendum today, but then there is no prospect of us joining today so the situation does not arise.


As far as I am concerned I have never been a great friend of this kind of democracy that is plebiscite because I am familiar with German history and up until 1933 it was not purely a coincidence that the fathers and mothers, as it were, of our constitution were very familiar with the Weimar Republic and later on very familiar with the concentration camps under the National Socialists who [indistinct] champions of democracy. And if we had this instrument in our constitution I would certainly not hesitate in using it, but if I use it for this particular area of politics I would have to use it for other areas of politics as well and I have great doubts whether that would actually lead and improve internal peace in our country because there are a number of issues, on for example immigration, that in many ways move people a lot in Germany and we don’t intend at all obviously to introduce that, it would mean changing our constitution and I have no intention of doing that. But if you ask me in concrete terms that if we held that, how would we decide, and I have no doubt at all that if we had this kind of referendum the majority of people who are well informed in our country would opt for it because they know that peace and [indistinct] of the 21st century depends on matters such as these.


Chancellor, you have eaten British beef today and enjoyed it. Would you now tell the world clearly here today – eat British beef, it is safe and enjoyable?


I ate British beef but I am not a marketing manager for British beef. I said what is going on in the Commission and you don’t honestly expect me to say something like this, a sort of advertising slogan.


Can I ask you both would it be possible for a member state of the EU to go on enjoying the market advantages while resisting any deepening or further integration of European institutions?


I gave you the answer some time ago when I said we were talking about the problems that develop in the Community and the advantages of flexibility. The European Union is flexible now. There are a whole range of flexible instruments within the European Union. The two most obvious ones are the position of the Danes and the British, for example, on a single currency; the position of the British on the social chapter, but they are by no means the only illustrations. So the answer is yes.


I don’t have this kind of concern, I don’t have the impression that we have this particular kind of problem that no-one wants to get into the European Union, quite the contrary, I think we have rather the opposite problem, there are so many who want to come at the same time, so I don’t share your concern. Actually the European Union seems to be one of the places to be in the world. If you don’t believe me, go to Tokyo, go to the Wall Street Bank of New York and ask them, to Latin America, other parts of this world, why do all of these people want to do business with the European Union, why at this conference that both of us attended in Bangkok only a few weeks ago meet with such interest – because we are the place to be.


You said before that you would urge the Agricultural Commission to speed up the decision on the beef ban. Do you also respond to the Prime Minister’s request for help and support in a partial lifting of the beef ban?


I don’t think it would be entirely fair, I mean I am standing here as the German Head of Government and I am not part of those negotiations. My colleagues therefore are meeting there in Brussels today and tomorrow, they intend to look at the British proposals, they will submit it to the Veterinary Committee in order to examine it. The only plea I have is don’t let matters stand as they are but do it as quickly as possible and then there will be a concluding session where we come to a decision. But I don’t think it would be in any way a reliable or very serious answer that I could give at this point in time. After all, the debate will take place tonight when the individual Agriculture Ministers meet on that matter.


Chancellor, Douglas Hurd said at the weekend that you no longer believe in a European super state, I just wonder if you could confirm that analysis or not. And Prime Minister, on the matter that Mike Brunson raised, are you worried that some people in your own party are now using the alleged electoral threat by Sir James Goldsmith to have one last push at making you rule out a single currency in the next parliament?


Let me answer that point first. I think you must ask other people what their motives are. I have made the position clear. We will decide upon a single currency when it is necessary for us to decide upon a single currency and we are not going to do that precipitately. I know many people think it would be extremely convenient if I were to say now, no we are not going to do it. But I think in the national interest I need to see what the circumstances are, I need the British voice in the negotiations right up to the time when the decision is made. I don’t want the British voice to be excluded from those negotiations.

Whether we in the event turn out to be part of a single currency, or whether we in the event say we will not be part of a single currency, what happens in the development of that currency is important to the national interest in this country. If our European partners proceed with it, it is not a matter that we can just ignore, it will have its implications not only for those countries but for every country right the way across Europe. And frankly, for a country of the size and influence of the United Kingdom to exclude itself from the most important economic debate that Britain has had for 50 years, and will have for 50 years, does not seem to me to be in the British national interest.

So we will not exclude ourselves. We will make a choice when we are compelled to make a choice and then we will decide upon the basis of what we think is right for this country at that stage. So there will be no change in our position upon that point.


I am not familiar with this particular quote from Douglas Hurd’s speech. If I understood you correctly, you said that he had said I was no longer a proponent of the European super state. If this is actually what he said, I don’t quite understand how he can say something like that because I have never been a champion of a European super state, perhaps he has read it in one of your papers here but it has certainly never been an opinion of mine. For a time perhaps there have been a few misunderstandings, because we actually adopted a sentence out of Churchill’s Zurich speech, it is a very beautiful speech and a very beautiful phrase, but I think it was a bit misleading for our people. At the time I was 17 years old and he appealed to the Europeans, to the Germans, the French, but to the Europeans generally speaking that they should build these united states of Europe and perhaps that was a bit of a misleading kind of slogan. I used it for several years and the association obviously was that people thought we wanted to build the United States of America on European soil, but this is something that we never wanted and we have always said we remain Germans, we remain British, we remain Swedes, and this is different than being from Texas, from Oregon, from Minnesota or New York. This is a misleading kind of comparison even though it may be from Winston Churchill and may sound very nice.

I actually gave a speech a few years ago at a party meeting that because it was misleading we should no longer use this particular expression. I said we are building the European Union and the European Union, and again I think this is a bit misleading perhaps and may lead to different interpretations between the British and the Germans and I did try to define what I mean by mentioning this image of a common European house. It simply cannot be a centralised state and even though the British and the Germans may be of exactly the same opinion as regards the approach, we talk about federalism and for many people here in Britain in what we understand as federalism means quite a different thing.

What we understand when we speak about federalism is exactly what you want, but it is perceived differently here. We are saying on the level of the citizens, on the local level, on the land level in many areas of Europe, on a regional level, this is where decisions should be taken that can best be taken there, this is what we understand when we speak about federalism, it is exactly the opposite of a centralised state. I have always been a very fervent champion of federalism in Germany. I would hold that one of the most important, and then subsequently most positive decisions by the parliamentary assembly when they drew up our constitution and basic law was that they sort of tried to make room for the sort of variety that has always existed in Germany, that the Lander, that the Bavarian, the man from the north will find that he has left an imprint on the constitution and that they all are part of one whole. So I have certainly not said at any time that [indistinct] super state.

First of all I would like to thank Douglas Hurd for actually mentioning me at all because it is after all always an advantage. I have never been a man who has been a champion of federalism. I have always been, in the German sense of the word, how we understand it, not how you British understand it, a federalist. And actually those who think alike here in the United Kingdom should be creative and come up with a different kind of expression that exactly says that – this building of a common European house. So thank you once again. I will read your leading articles and will see what you come up with.