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UK Press Briefing: 11am Tuesday 22 February 2005

Press Briefing: 11am Tuesday 22 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Brussels Brief, Iraqi Government, EU/US Conference, Iran, Training, Palestine Conference, President Bush/Prime Minister, Northern Ireland, Ken Livingstone Apology, Royal Wedding, China/Arms Embargo, Poland/Airbus and John Major article.

Brussels Brief

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman briefed journalists from Brussels via a phone link-up. He said that the Prime Minister had met President Bush this morning. He said that we had been very encouraged by what the President had said yesterday about the Middle East Peace Process, both as an indication of the seriousness of his intent in terms of trying to push forward the process, but also in terms of how he characterised that attempt, and what we thought was necessary. The other issue that had been discussed had been Iraq. The PMOS said he would go through what he thought would be included in the two sessions later today.

By the end of today, we would see that all NATO members would be contributing in some way to the process of Iraqiisation. That process involved training Iraqi forces, and giving them the skills they needed, both in terms of quality and quantity. By the end of the EU meeting, there would also be a willingness shown, if the new Iraqi Government wished, for n EU/US conference which would try to coordinate international effort to support the new Iraqi Government. This would help in the process of reconstruction of the country, by building up both administration and the judiciary structure. It would also help in the very important process of "outreach" reconciliation within Iraq itself. All those would show that whatever differences there may have been on the war, there was now a new willingness following the Iraqi elections to help the new Iraqi Government. A line had been drawn under the differences of the past, and there was now a common consensus on supporting the new Iraqi Government.

The PMOS said that at the Ukraine/NATO session earlier in the morning, the Prime Minister had emphasised the fund of goodwill that existed towards Ukraine following recent events and the election of the President. The Prime Minister said that President Yuschenko was a "remarkable man" and that the courage of the Ukrainian people in standing up for democracy was equally remarkable. The Prime Minister recognised, as the President would do too, that there would still be difficult times for Ukraine, but he pledged the support of those around the table for helping the Ukrainians as they moved forward.

Iraqi Government

Asked about the scale of help which would be given to the Iraqi Government, and what it would mean to the removal of British troops from Iraq, and when that might happen, the PMOS said that the scale of help would be a matter for individual governments to decide what their contribution would be. Things were already happening but the important thing was to coordinate that effort through NATO. Some of that help would be training inside the country, and some would come in the form of contributions from countries as trust funds, which had been set up to help the process of training. In terms of troop withdrawal, our strategy since April had been Iraqiisation.Building up the capacity of Iraqi forces, to allow them to take on responsibility. That would therefore determine the timelines of how quickly we handed the responsibility to them, and how quickly we could take a lesser role. Obviously, we would have to coordinate that process with the new Iraqi Government. The PMOS said it would therefore be premature to speculate any further until those discussions had taken place.

EU/US Conference

Asked for more information on where and when the EU/US conference may take place, and why was it decided to go "this route" rather than take an existing format, such as NATO or the UN, the PMOS replied that the details would depend on the views of the new Iraqi Government. What was important to recognise was that there was already a lot of activity going on, but there was a need to find a mechanism, which coordinated that activity in the best way possible. The consensus was that this was the best way to do it.

Put to him that President Chirac was keen that the conference be held in Brussels, the PMOS said he had heard a variety of proposals. He thought the venue was less important than what it did, and people should not get hung up on it. Rather what they should take notice of was that this would be decided in conjunction a newly elected Iraqi Government, and that we worked with them, and if they believed it would be helpful.

Asked about timescales for a EU/US conference, the PMOS said it would depend on the formation of the new Iraqi Government and their views. The PMOS said it would not happen within days, as the Iraqi Government had to establish itself and form a view. Equally, everyone understood that this was not something that could be put off for the long term; this was a medium term need. That need was once the government was formed, was to get it engaged in helping it in a coordinated, practical way to establish its authority and establish democracy to let other elections take place later in the year.

Iran

Put to him that President Bush had renewed his threat to Iran yesterday regarding their nuclear ambitions, and whether the Prime Minister could see any circumstances where we would join forces, the PMOS replied that as President Bush had said in his speech yesterday "Iran was not Iraq". Therefore we were in the early stages of diplomacy, and that was what was important. President Bush backed the diplomatic channel, and believed that what was crucial in trying to get a diplomatic solution was that there should be no opening for anyone to divide Europe and the US. We should maximise a collective pressure on Iran. That was what we were doing, and the Prime Minister was a very firm believer in that strategy. What was needed at this stage was that we backed the IAEA in setting the criteria, and making sure they were lived up to and implemented.

Asked if the Government agreed with an article in "Der Spiegel" that the US should join the British, French and German talks with Iran in order to secure objective guarantees from Tehran that it will abandon its nuclear ambitions, and if the US did not get involved, would there be a prospect of any deal otherwise, the PMOS said it was up to the US to talk about its involvement. What was important was that the world sent a clear message to Iran, and nobody could dispute the fact that the message was clear. Following on from President Bush's comments, there was a support and recognition of the value of what Europe was doing in terms of the diplomatic approach. We needed to ensure that people did not diffuse that pressure by creating differences between the US approach and our approach. We therefore needed to be clear about what we were seeking, and clear about what Iran had to do, and united in pushing for that. That was what the Prime Minister believed was happening.

Training

Asked if France and Germany were planning ahead in the form of training, or were they contributing towards a trust fund, and also why the Prime Minister appeared to be keeping a low profile today, the PMOS said the first question was really a matter for France and Germany. His understanding was they would be helping in training, and that Germany had already started in the UAE. In response to the second part of the question, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister used this morning to make his comments about the Middle East, and to underline what he thought was the importance and true significance about what President Bush had said in his speech yesterday, especially about the Middle East. The Prime Minister believed this was an important time for the Middle East, not least because of the run up to the Palestine Conference in London next week. The PMOS also pointed out to journalists that the main focus of attention today was President Bush and his exchanges with NATO and the EU.

Asked if the involvement of France and Germany might signal the withdrawal of British troops, and if so, when might that occur, the PMOS said the Government would make troop announcements as and when we were ready to do so. With regards to troops, the process of Iraqiisation had to go hand-in-hand with the development of the capacity in Iraq to handle its own security. It also had to go hand-in-hand with the Iraqi Government's views on what its security forces could handle, and what its wishes were about the role of a multinational force. Therefore, it was premature to jump to other conclusions, and instead, it should be taken step by step.

Asked what the Prime Minister thought was the main accomplishment by President Bush during his visit, the PMOS said that what was important was there was both a NATO and an EU dialogue about how we help the Iraqi Government. We were also talking about how we support the Ukrainian Government, and how we push forward to Middle East process at a very crucial time. The Palestine Conference in London, for example, would be aimed at taking that forward in a practical way, rather than making grand statements. It was also about how we could help build its security capacity, civil administration capacity and political institutions so it would be a viable democratic partner for Israel to engage with.

Put to him that the response to Iraq was going to be done by individual NATO countries other than NATO, could it be clarified how it was seen to be a NATO action, the PMOS said that as far as it was agreed at a NATO meeting, all NATO members would contribute. Therefore, people would be aware of what they were doing, but the PMOS left the details to NATO to outline.

Asked if therefore this had been discussed at a EU meeting, the PMOS said that it had been dealt with at a NATO meeting. The EU contained members who were not members of NATO.

Asked if Mr Solana was speaking for the Prime Minister when he expressed marked pessimism about what the trans-Atlantic relationship could achieve in Iran, the PMOS replied that Mr Solana spoke for himself. The Prime Minister's view of the strength of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, and the benefit it brought to the UK was expressed explicatively after his meeting with President Bush this morning. The PMOS said he did not think anyone who heard what he said would be surprised by one "syllable" of it. Under the new EU Constitution, Britain would still be able to express its view independently and decide its own foreign policy.

Put to him that what would be seen at the end of today would be contributions from all the NATO countries, but not a NATO contribution, i.e. it would be individual rather than corporate, the PMOS said that what would be seen was commitment by NATO members to help in the process of Iraqiisation. The idea of the conference, if agreed by the New Iraqi Government would help coordinate in other ways as well. The PMOS said people should not, in any way, underestimate what that meant, as there was a genuine consensus to help the new Iraqi Government establish not only itself, but also democracy permanently in Iraq. As with Afghanistan, that was a major step forward and should never in any way be underestimated.

Palestine Conference

Asked what would be the significance of President Bush's remarks on the Palestine Conference next week; did they lend some "much needed gravitas", and also what was the Prime Minister's response on Darfur, as there had been comments that the issue had been drowned out by the tsunami disaster, the PMOS said that the US confirmed at an early stage that Condoleezza Rice would be attending the Palestinian Conference. Therefore, that guaranteed the significance of the meeting in terms of the US's view of it. Once the cast list had been viewed, especially with regards to the Palestinian contingent, people would understand that this was a significant conference. The true significance of the conference, however, was not what would be said in advance of it, but rather the practical outputs that would come from it to help the Palestinian authorities to develop as an authority, and as a partner for negotiations.

Regarding Darfur, the PMOS reminded journalists what the Prime Minister had said during the Sudan trip. It was a serious situation and continued to be so. We strongly support the African Union in what it was doing in trying to take the lead to tackle the situation. What needed to be understood was that international attention including the UK attention, would not in any way disappear. This was an issue that the Prime Minister personally followed, and he would ensure that we did everything we could to help in what was a very difficult situation.

President Bush/Prime Minister

Put to him that President Bush was "full of very warm words" for the Prime Minister, why had the Prime Minister not said anything in return, or was that just a "difference in style", the PMOS said that anyone who doubted the Prime Minister's view of President Bush and the leadership he had shown had not been listening to what the Prime Minister had been saying, not only over the past few months, but repeatedly over the years. Anyone who had any questions about their partnership just had to look at how well they worked together.

Northern Ireland

Asked if Paul Murphy's statement to the House of Commons later today would be a definite and substantive response to the IMC report to the Northern Bank robbery, and also if there was a need for a Government motion to withdraw allowances from the Sinn Fein MPs, the PMOS said the short answer was that Paul Murphy's statement would be substantive. Regarding the second part of the question what was important was that as the IMC said, sanctions of whatever kind were not going to resolve or solve the issue. Rather, they were expressions of disapproval, and underlining the determination of a government that was echoed by various governments and political parties in both North and South Ireland that the IRA had to make a choice. That choice was either: politics or continuing criminality. It could not ride both horses any longer.

Ken Livingstone Apology

Asked what the Prime Minister's reaction was towards Ken Livingstone's refusal to apologise about his recent comments to a journalist, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had given his personal view last week that he believed it was a matter for Ken Livingstone himself to decide how to respond. Mr Livingstone had done that.

Royal Wedding

Asked if the Government could envisage any legislation being introduced, either before or retrospectively relating to the Royal wedding, the PMOS said the Government had given its view to the Palace, as it was required to do. The Government did not believe that legislation was necessary.

China/Arms Embargo

Asked if there was any discussion of China at the breakfast meeting, and did the Prime Minister still believe the arms embargo should be lifted, the PMOS replied that we recognised that the US had concerns, and along with our European partners, we were working to address those concerns. The Americans had said they were in "listening mode" on that issue, so it was a question of discussions to continue.

Poland/Airbus

Asked to confirm if the Prime Minister, along with President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder had written to the Polish Government encouraging them to purchase Airbus planes, rather than Boeing, and if so, were there any details or responses, the PMOS said: yes. That was all the detail he had.

John Major article

Asked if the Government agreed with an article in which John Major said the Government had dealt in "political black arts" and "demeaning politics", the PMOS said there was an element of party politics regarding the matter that he was not getting involved in. He would rather let the records speak for themselves; people could go back and read the lobby notes!


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