The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

John Major’s Joint Press Conference with President Chirac – 8 November 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint press conference with President Chirac of France, given in Bordeaux on Friday 8th November 1996.


Good Afternoon. First of all let me welcome the British delegation, Ministers and their officials with them. On behalf of the Mayor of Bordeaux and on my own account I would like to wish them the warmest welcome.

This morning we have had meetings, as you will be aware. Can I also take this opportunity to welcome the British and French journalists who are here for this press conference.

So we had meetings this morning and then we had the plenary meeting, which is the usual custom in these summits. And very briefly I will go over what has been said and done at this 19th Anglo-French Summit.

Of course we talked about monetary union yesterday evening at dinner. Nothing has moved on that. I informed the Prime Minister about the French position, which you are all aware of.

The British Prime Minister of course repeated to me the British position, which you are aware of.

On the Intergovernmental Conference, which we discussed this morning, it seems that there are many areas of common ground, although there are still areas where there are differences of opinion. Those areas where we have common ground are our determination to make a significant forward progress at Dublin and to conclude our Intergovernmental Conference in Amsterdam next June. There is also agreement in principle on a range of issues: the role of national parliaments; the principle of subsidiarity and the implementation thereof; weighting of voting; the size of the Commission; the European Parliament; the Court of Justice. Those are the main headings that we addressed and where we have common ground. Those areas where we differ, there are some still. We have worked on them already and we are trying to clarify our respective positions to see how far we can harmonise our positions on the question of qualified majority voting, defence and matters relating to the third pillar.

Then there is a particular subject where there is some ambiguity where we need to reflect further in the coming weeks, and this is everything referring to enhanced cooperation and the implementation of that cooperation. On the question of enlargement we are largely in agreement: equal treatment from the outset for all countries and I have proposed the convening of a European Conference as a substitute for the meetings that we now have with the 11 candidate nations for entry into the Union and I feel that the present arrangement for the meetings with the representatives of those nations is not correct and we should have a European Conference where more serenely and more calmly we should discuss together with our future partners the way in which things are evolving. But there is no question of this conference being in any way a substitute for the procedure relating to accession to the Union. It is a dialogue.

We have noted that we have common ground in our reaction to the unilateral trade measures taken by the US Government, the Helms-Burton-D’Amato legislation, and the need for the Community to respond as one.

We have also noted that we have an identical viewpoint on the need to strengthen our efforts to combat drugs and as quickly as possible to try and ensure that all European legislation is harmonised and it is as firm on this problem.

We have also discussed BSE and on this we noted that information that was in the headlines of the press some days back, that the British were not complying with the conditions they accepted in Florence was wrong, and we took the occasion to rectify that misinformation. And the Prime Minister reconfirmed to me that the United Kingdom fully shares the concerns of France regarding bananas.

Then we turned to political and strategic issues and I would say that the areas of common ground between France and the United Kingdom, and of course including Germany, have allowed us to reach agreement on the reform of NATO. We discussed the situation and outstanding problems regarding the general reform of NATO, which France could support. We talked about the enlargement of NATO which we are favourable to on condition that that enlargement takes place in conditions that are from the outside acceptable to Russia, although of course there is no question of giving Russia a veto on this. But we also said we need a European security architecture that covers the whole of Europe and which will enable us to turn the page and go forward from Yalta. We also noted that our approach to the forthcoming OSCE Summit in Lisbon was identical.

Then we turned to international issues and there again we have identical views on many areas, like the former Yugoslavia, the forthcoming conferences on Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, in Paris and in London, on post-IFOR. We also expressed our concern regarding the process of peace in the Middle East, again an area of common ground, our concern. And then we have an identical approach of our countries in our relations with Russia. And in conclusion, something that we began with, we have a common position on the drama that Zaire is currently subject to with refugees being chased out of their refugee camps in the Kivo province. You are aware that we published a joint communique on this this morning and indeed it was on that point that we began our discussion.

Then finally on bilateral issues, we noted that military cooperation between our two countries was increasingly more wide-ranging and was taking place in very efficient and friendly terms, and our respective Defence Ministers have just signed a Naval Cooperation Agreement. The Joint Franco-British Air Group is going to be expanded to include Germany and Italy. On armaments we also noted that important and significant progress had been made in areas of cooperation. The United Kingdom is going to join the European Armaments Agency, where France and Germany are already members, and we have several important agreements, the agreement between British Aerospace and Masa in particular.

As regards the Eurotunnel, we noted that there is a problem there and that together we need to study this and find the best possible solution, taking account of the constraints on both sides, both in the United Kingdom and in France.

And we noted the fact that initiatives, particularly on drugs and school exchanges, that we decided when I went on a State Visit to Britain last year, we noted that these initiatives were well under way and we were very happy to note that that was the case.

Just two further points that are quite important we noted that we have excellent cooperation in the implementation of the conclusions of the G7 regarding multilateral debt; we also noted that we had agreement on security of the international financial system, looking forward to Denver. So we have an identical approach and focus on these matters.

And finally, in the same spirit, we noted that there has been intensification of cooperation on security and anti-terrorism measures with enhanced cooperation between our respective services. The cooperation is already good but we look forward to it being continued effectively. I think that is what we have done today. Just one further step forward in the cooperation between France and Great Britain which is characterised by friendship and trust. Thank you.


Let me just add a few words to what the President has said. If I may at the outset, I would like to thank the President and the Prime Minister for their hospitality yesterday and today in Bordeaux and also the people of Bordeaux. It is always a disruption to normal life when one of these summits takes place, but we have had an enormously warm reception here and for that I would like to express my very deep thanks.

I think we have had an excellent summit today. It is built on a very good relationship and a very wide range of mutual interests, both bilaterally and internationally.

The President has summarised with great detail many of the matters we discussed and I will just perhaps emphasise a few of the points very briefly. We spent some time last evening and this morning discussing Zaire, as indeed did our Foreign Ministers. It is a complex issue. I don’t think anyone doubts the humanitarian difficulties that are building up there, or the need for help and assistance in the region. We intend to work constructively with our French colleagues, with the rest of the international community, and try and play our role in getting clear decisions taken most appropriately I think at the United Nations, as to what international action is most appropriate. The United Kingdom already makes strong humanitarian commitments to African countries, including Zaire, and I have no doubt we will have a role of some sort in whatever decisions are taken and clearly it is important that decisions about Zaire are clear-cut and taken speedily and we both agreed that that should be the case.

We spent quite a lot of time this morning discussing European Union issues. It is very fashionable, of course, to concentrate on the areas of difference amongst European partners. We discussed those, of course, we also noted the areas of agreement: on national sovereignty; on the role of national parliaments; on subsidiarity; on the desirability, the necessity even, of re-weighting the votes in the European Union; on the need for a reduction in the size of the Commission; on common foreign and security policy where there is very wide agreement, not total agreement but very wide agreements on enlargement; on the powers of the European Parliament; and on our joint wish to look again at the powers of the European Court of Justice, particularly in the areas where they make retrospective judgments that change European law and lead to large domestic expenditure within individual nation states. Many of these matters are matters where we are coordinating and we will endeavour as far as we can to see whether we can form a common position on many of these issues between now and the Dublin Summit and certainly between now and the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference.

Over the last two or three years there has been a very dramatic extension of our defence cooperation and today, in addition to discussion between our Defence Ministers of course there has been discussion between a wide range of senior Ministers covering their own individual subjects, and I am grateful to all of them for their role in this summit.

As far as defence is concerned, we had an Air Agreement that the President and I signed some time ago. Our Defence Ministers signed a Letter of Intent on Naval Cooperation this morning and that builds on the strong military cooperation, including nuclear cooperation, that we already have. And our Defence Ministers will be further examining the scope for yet more practical detailed cooperation as far as our Armies are concerned to match that that exists with the Air Force and with the Navy.

We also do a considerable amount of work together on drugs and I saw yesterday the work of French anti-drugs forces in Bordeaux. Here is an area, as the French said, where we believe it is appropriate to continue to press across Europe for a mere effective way of working together and for some coordination, some toughening of the penalties for drug offences across the European Union. We have very tough penalties already in the United Kingdom, we would be very pleased to see them reflected right the way across the nation states of Europe.

We spent a little while also on terrorism, that is a problem that both of us have had to face from time to time. Indeed the room where we met this morning was afflicted with a bomb attack just a few months ago.

On international issues of course we discussed the aftermath of the US elections, the Middle East peace process, Bosnia, Iraq and a range of other areas.

We both noted with considerable pleasure the tremendous progress that has been made by the collaborative venture, Airbus. Many were sceptical about that when it started, but think it has probably proved itself the most effective piece of European collaborative industrial ventures that we have yet seen. It has taken a very large percentage of the international aircraft market and it has ambitions to become the largest aircraft supplier in the world. So that is going extremely well and we were delighted at the orders that Airbus got yesterday from the United States.

We discussed also, as the President said, areas where we are not quite in agreement. It is inevitable that there are some of those. We have a relationship where we can discuss the areas of agreement, and the areas of disagreement, with complete frankness. We do have some different perceptions on some European matters and we were able to discuss those to see where we can narrow the differences and to ensure that there are no misunderstandings between us.

We also looked at a range of bilateral initiatives, most of which are going extremely well, the exchange of students and a range of other matters perhaps I need not detain you with.

So I found it an extremely worthwhile exchange of views. I think it is the 7th time the President and I have had the opportunity of exchanging views like this and I think that cumulative series of meetings is showing a good deal, of results in terms of the growing and deepening relationship between the United Kingdom and France.

So I am very grateful for the meeting we have had here today and I think the President and I will be happy to try and field any questions that you may have.


QUESTION (Robin Oakley, BBC):

President Chirac, you mentioned discussions on the IGC and Mr Major has said that if the European Court finds against Britain on the 48 hours working directive he will be seeking treaty amendments. Would he have your support in seeking such treaty amendments following a European Court of Justice decision? And on the communique on Zaire, could I ask why there is no reference to military action given that France was suggesting, in advance of today, that countries not prepared to commit themselves to military action were spineless?


On the dispute between the United Kingdom and the Court, I am very close to John Major’s position on this and quite prepared to support him. Turning to Zaire, France had never proposed a military engagement in Zaire. What we had said was if there were to be an international force, requested by the African states and controlled by the UN and the OAU, then France would be prepared to join and make a contribution to such a force to enable the refugees to go back to their camps and to enable humanitarian aid to get through, because humanitarian aid is already there on the ground but unfortunately cannot be got to the refugees

Yesterday there was a meeting of the 15, there was a meeting of the Security Council, there is a whole series of contacts that are going between the countries, members of the Union and the United States, despite the fact that this has happened on the day of the elections in the United States. And France wants and hopes that, provided the Africans ask for intervention in the conditions that I have said, we would be prepared to respond.


President, can you really talk about a common resolution on Zaire when France has got a draft resolution before the United Nations and as the Prime Minister seems to be more than reticent, don’t you think that we are losing a lot of time and time is of the essence in this?


You have seen the Franco-British communique. There is no divergence of views between us on this. We all want to try and get a solution on humanitarian grounds as quickly as possible but that doesn’t mean that we can just go ahead and do just anything.

Yesterday evening at about 8 p m., I had a call from President Mandela who was trying to get in touch with President Mobuto. Mobuto had said that he would be favourable to have a force coming to Zaire. You have to take into account that all this would be coming into Zaire so Mobuto said he would accept a neutral force on Zairean territory.

All this means that we have to reflect and there has to be a certain amount of agreement among the Africans. It is not our role to go ahead with any initiative against their wishes, this is their affair.

Of course, we denounce what is happening on humanitarian grounds and we the Europeans – the Union – will do everything we can to improve the humanitarian situation but there is the reality that it is not happening here in our countries so we must have agreement with the Africans as to what we are going to do because otherwise we can’t do anything.


Let me just add a point to that question because there is no difference between France and Britain about the importance of seeking international help into Zaire, both France and Britain are already providing it. We have a very long – a very proud record I think, both countries – of helping in humanitarian situations.

The question is to decide what precisely needs to be done and how it can be done and that does require some further international discussion. For example, you mentioned particularly the question of troops. We need to know what the host governments would think about that, what would the adjacent governments think about that, would there be a preference for African troops, would they want European involvement, would they want European logistic support, would they just want European financial support, how is that going to be dealt with via the United Nations, what would be the view of the Organisation for African Unity?

There is no dispute between the President and I whatsoever about the urgency and imperative nature of trying to get some extra help there. No-one who sees those pictures coming out of the Great Lakes district can be in any doubt about that and nobody who knows the history of France or the history of the United Kingdom in assisting in humanitarian problems of this sort can doubt our willingness to assist but what we have to do is to make sure that we coordinate with other people to provide assistance that is appropriate. If it is appropriate at some stage to go ahead with troops, what is to be their mission? That needs to be discussed and determined, the command structure.

What I am not doing is arguing for a long delay, what I am saying is that we need to get the answers to those questions right before we can take decisions. France has raised the urgency of those questions, it is now being discussed in the United Nations, France has some plans, Mrs. Ogata has some plans, other people have plans. The urgent thing now – and France has tabled its own resolution – is to make sure that this is discussed and that decisions are taken speedily and upon that fundamental point there is total agreement between the President and I, between France and the United Kingdom.

QUESTION (Financial Times):

President Chirac, in the wider area of social policy, are you convinced by the lower rate of unemployment in Britain, that France needs to introduce more flexibility into its labour market to get it higher rate of unemployment down?

Secondly, you mentioned Eurotunnel. Are you still in favour of prolonging the concession of the Eurotunnel operators in order to ease their financial problems?


On the first point, yes, I note the positive trends of the results achieved by the British Government on unemployment, of course I note that. I am not entirely certain that these results are due to more or less flexibility. I think they are more the result of the rigorous management over several years of the economy in the United Kingdom, in particular of overcoming the deficit and sound financial management.

I am convinced that you cannot fight unemployment and bring it down unless you have sound management because that is the only way for real growth. That in itself is not enough of course to bring unemployment down but what it can do is give you the necessary margin of manoeuvre in financial terms to enable measures to bring unemployment down to be more effective.

As regards flexibility which you have raised, in France we are very committed to a social model that we have. The social benefits that we have and enjoy should not be challenged in our view. I can agree, of course, that we should constantly adapt to new situations but that should not be done by raising any questions about social security and the security of workers on what they have achieved and the benefits they have won in the past.

What I would say is that we want a European model and we are working for that, we want to have that approach to this issue. Of course, we have a lot to learn from the British on management and the rigorous way in which they have managed the economy which has enabled them to relaunch their economy on firmer ground.

On Eurotunnel, yes, there is this request for an extension of the concession. Of course, we are aware that that creates problems for the British authorities and so we are not demanding. What we are looking for is a solution and we hope we have one solution or the other. What we want to do is find a solution and look at ways of doing that and I know that the British authorities together with their French colleagues and counterparts are looking seriously to try and find the best possible solution to these difficulties.


President, a question on domestic policy. It has been said you are going to change your Prime Minister. Is that true?


I am not sure that this is a very elegant question to raise in the presence of the British Prime Minister. He is going to ask himself where he has ended up, where he is and you should keep to the subjects of our press conference but I have been told that lots of French journalists have asked this question.

I am extremely attentive and I am sure nobody would challenge what the French people say. I listen to the French people. I also listen all the time to proposals and suggestions that come from their representatives, politicians, businessmen from all areas and I listen very carefully to them but on the other hand, I am not going to go into this kind of declaration.

What we need to do is together face up to the serious problems that France has to face in the interests of our people and this should be our foremost concern. Like you, I am aware of the difficulties that our people have, our country is engaged on a difficult exercise, a difficult effort, a thankless task but one that cannot be avoided, to rebuild our economy. We need to restore social cohesion and we are engaged on that and that is the only way to ensure the future security of the French people and of future generations so I will say to you that I have full confidence in the courage and the clearness of vision and the character of the Prime Minister but also of the governing party, and indeed of all the French people to successfully conclude this difficult effort we are engaged upon. Solidarity today, particularly in the majority of people in the government party that supports the government is a moral obligation at this moment in time.


Prime Minister, can I bring you back to the question of the 48-hour working week and ask you to react to what Mr Chirac said and say what sort of hope you have of actually getting this decision reversed if it does go against you on Tuesday?


At the moment, on the 48-hour week we have the Advocate-General’s opinion which was adverse. We don’t yet have the European Court’s decision which we will get I imagine next week. I hope it will be favourable but if it follows the Advocate-General’s opinion and is unfavourable, then clearly we will seek to reverse it.

We will seek to reverse it for several reasons. Firstly, we believe it has been brought forward under the wrong treaty head. It has been brought forward under the health and safety element of the treaty so that it can be put through by qualified majority vote. We don’t think that is the appropriate place for decisions that effectively relate to working conditions. We believe firstly that it is in the wrong place in the treaty and once the Social Contract had been agreed it was more relevantly placed there – though it wasn’t put there – and secondly, these are matters predominantly for employer and employees; thirdly, we don’t believe they are in an event a matter for prescriptive judgment from Brussels upon individual nation states so for those reasons we believe it needs to be reversed.

It is not just what is specifically in the working time directive, it is the principle of the working time directive and the fact that if we were to accept that after a European Court judgment, then we fear that the same treaty head would be used to drive through other pieces of legislation that also ought to come under the Social Contract for which the United Kingdom has an opt-out so if we lose then we will need to seek a change to the treaty and I have made it clear – not recently, I made it clear many months ago – that in those circumstances we would return to our colleagues and we would say we do not think this is appropriate, we do not think that this is in the spirit of what should have been done following the agreement that the United Kingdom had an opt-out on the Social Contract and we will say to our European colleagues that we wish to see this matter dealt with and changed in the intergovernmental conference and that will be a very important matter for us; we will bring it forward and we will expect our European colleagues to respond. They know about my concern for it, I have mentioned it in European Councils before. What I am saying to you today is not in any sense a surprise to the Commission or to any of the heads of government across Europe, they have known for some time how strongly we have felt about this issue and it is a matter of prime importance to us and we will seek the treaty change I referred to


Prime Minister, you have said in your article in “Le Monde” that you were a convinced European Everybody knows that if you are a convinced European in your country, in your party you have Euro-sceptics who often give you a hard time of it. Over time, do you think you are going to be able to persuade them to become good Europeans or are things going to remain uncertain over a further period?


I have to say the definition of a good European is quite an interesting one and I am not sure that many people would agree precisely what the definition of a good European is. I am a convinced European, I have no doubt whatever that Britain’s role is within Europe but that does not mean that I agree with every aspect of the way in which Europe is developing, indeed I do not and my judgement is that the good European does not gently slide behind his colleagues and say “Well, I don’t like this but I am going to follow the herd!” the good European, if he thinks something is going wrong, sounds the alarm and says so and that is the way in which I see the role of the United Kingdom.

In areas where we disagree with our colleagues – and there are some – we shall say so, not because the British Government is adopting an anti-European position but because in certain areas the British Government believes the direction in which Europe is going is the wrong direction and if it is the wrong direction I think we have a duty, a responsibility, to say so and to argue our case with our European partners and that is what we will do.

You referred to people who take a different view, less-convinced Europeans in my party. Well, they exist in every country. If you look at some of the opinion polls across Europe on some great issues at the moment, you will find very sharp divisions among the public in a number of European countries. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, I think it is very important that there is a proper, constructive European debate about the great issues that are immediately in front of us.

I will try and persuade people both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere across Europe of the substantive nature of our concern firstly to build a Europe that works and secondly to avoid making errors in the construction of Europe that I believe would damage it in the short-term and in the long-term so those are the matters that I debate with my European partners. I don’t do it in a spirit of obstructionism, I don’t do it in a spirit of anti-Europeanism, I debate areas of difference with them where I believe that there is a better way of proceeding for the future and I will continue to do that. Whether I will prevail or not with my European colleagues or indeed with colleagues at home remains to be seen.

QUESTION (John Kampfner, Financial Times)

Prime Minister, on EMU what is your reaction to the report of the Commission this week suggesting that twelve countries would qualify for the convergence criteria with the exclusion of Britain? Do you see this as a reasonably fair prediction of what may happen?

To the President, how do you respond to criticism of the means by which France may well bring itself within the 3 per cent criterion by the use of the transference of France Telecom’s debt? Do you regard that criticism as valid in any respect and how do you also react to the Commission’s report?


If I may answer first since the first question was directed to me, with great frankness, I don’t recognise your description of the Commission’s report. The Commission set out a range of criteria on the fiscal deficit – we are at present outside the range though we are closing to within the range. There is a range of other particular criteria where some countries are wildly outside the criteria. There are some countries on the debt criteria that are nearly 100 per cent above the criteria with no credible likelihood that they are going to get down to within it for a very long time and if they were to go into a single currency it could only be on the basis of an interpretation that they were moving in the right direction rather than that they had actually got within the strict interpretation of the Maastricht criteria.

In most of the areas, Britain is in the convergence criteria, where we are hot we are in any event – quite apart from the necessity to get in it for that reason – moving down within those convergence criteria because they are sensible economic policies to follow and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is rigorously following them so I believe Britain is moving very rapidly towards the criteria where it would have the option of joining or not joining according to the way it decided at the time.

I personally would be surprised if by 1st January 1999 anything remotely like twelve nations were to qualify for EMU upon a strict interpretation of the criteria. If the criteria are interpreted liberally, then of course more countries will qualify; if they are interpreted strictly, then I would be very surprised if when we get there there are anything like that number who are able to qualify.


On the question that you addressed to me I would like to say that when we prepared our budget we of course consulted French experts, the best in the field, and they said to us that regarding the Telecom debt we could rightly act in the way we did. Of course that is not enough so we submitted the matter for consideration by international experts and then by European Union experts; they all looked at our proposal in great detail and they all confirmed that it was perfectly justifiable and that our budget provisions were completely honest and transparent. I can’t go further than that and I am sure you would not want to put yourself in the place of the most competent European experts.

Thank you.