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2.33 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): First, I apologise that I cannot stay for the winding-up speeches because I will have to return to Birmingham to vote in the European elections. That brings me to a point made by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). He said that today was an inappropriate day to choose for a debate on defence in the world, but I think that today is most appropriate because it is important to recognise that what has been happening in Europe is significant to post-world war 2 peace.

Today is the day after last night's announcement on Kosovo and the Secretary of State has just given us the latest announcement, both of which are significant. Today, we should recognise what the part that we have played in Europe has done for peace within the framework of defence.

One of my most moving experiences since I became a Member of Parliament came a few weeks ago, when I was privileged to be with the Prime Minister in Aachen when he received the Charlemagne prize. French Prime Minister Jospin gave the recommendation speech and a British Prime Minister received a significant European prize in recognition of his work on European unity and maintaining peace. It was an extremely proud moment for someone like me, who has a somewhat international background. I like to think of myself in some way as a representation of how far Europe has moved, not least because I was born near Munich and have ended up inheriting Neville Chamberlain's seat by purely democratic means. Much has been achieved by democratic, peaceful means, and through Britain's role in Europe complementing NATO, not being apart from it.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Is not the lesson to be learned from the hon. Lady's inheriting Neville Chamberlain's seat not that Europe moved in a particular direction, but that Germany became a democracy? Germany became a democracy because British democracy defeated German militarism. To put that down to Europe rather than to a victory in a war and the maintenance of an alliance in peace is misleading and unworthy of the debate.

Ms Stuart: I regret having given way. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the British people of Edgbaston who elected me. It had nothing to do with the German Government.

The defence debate is not about hardware. Sometimes, there is a danger that it is about boys talking about toys. We have defence to protect people. It is no good pulling faces and saying that this is some unworthy debate. Defence is about people. We have defence to protect people.

Kosovo reminded my generation, the post-war generation, that war is essentially bloody. It came as a shock to realise that, in the heart of Europe, we could still

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have the kind of ethnic cleansing that we thought belonged to a different age and certainly to different parts of the world. Yet it was happening right under our noses. The most distressing aspect was how we responded to it. It took quite some time before the forces pulled together. It is thanks in no small way to British leadership that we have reached the point that we have today.

Let me return quickly to my experience in Aachen. The Prime Minister gave a speech about military action in Kosovo. Some of my German and French colleagues said that no French Prime Minister or German Chancellor would have dared to make that speech. That kind of leadership and determination to keep Europe united in one force is easily underestimated here in London, where we do not realise what the Prime Minister and the British forces have achieved.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the mainland European experience of being a refugee--something that we tend to forget in this country. Britain has not been invaded for a thousand years. We read about, and see pictures of, Kosovo and people--a whole generation--being displaced in former Yugoslavia. In a country such as Germany, virtually every family will have first-hand experience of, or--as I did--will have grown up with, stories about what it is like to be told that one has three hours to leave with only one suitcase. My generation may have been brought up, as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon rather glibly said, in the post-war CND era. Yes, we oppose war, but we also realise that there is a place for it, and an appropriate place for it when it comes to protecting people. We are in the heart of Europe and we must play our part there constructively.

It is difficult to understand why Europe has easily accepted economic and industrial leadership--Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world--when there is reluctance to accept similar leadership for defence. In some ways, we continue to behave like dependants on the United States, when it is a partner. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that Kosovo has shown that we need the States. My conclusion from that is not that we should not go on developing European defence strategies, but that there is even more reason to develop them because we should be able to deal with any future Kosovos.

The Prime Minister's initiative in Portschach signalled the Government's determination to move in that direction. The Franco-British declaration in St. Malo took the initiative further. To say that Britain goes into these negotiations simply signing what the French and Germans dictate to them is either an extraordinary failure to understand what is going on or deliberate mischief making.

Mr. David Heath: Both.

Ms Stuart: Indeed.

Britain's leadership and political determination are unrivalled in the European context and are supported by the professionalism of British troops. Some 8,000 British troops stand ready to be part of the peace agreement--the largest contingent of any nation. British forces have led the way in Bosnia in ensuring that war criminals are brought to justice.

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Our peacekeeping commitment is easily forgotten in talking about defence. However, defence is not just about the narrow window of warfare but about what happens afterwards, which can be more important than the immediate engagement. Britain has been leading that work. Later this year, Britain will become the first permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to sign an agreement with the United Nations to make more of our forces available for UN peace support operations.

The United Kingdom's approach has primarily involved finding practical ways to improve political and military capabilities. Our military capabilities would be inconsequential without the political framework to support them. There have been institutional changes to help us achieve that. The Secretary of State mentioned the need to take political control of military decisions. I am sure that other hon. Members will mention military hardware, but we should always remember that hardware is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Merely possessing weapons or talking about the percentage of gross domestic product spent on defence tells us little about defence, which is about protecting people and maintaining peace.

On the international co-operation required to deal with refugees, Britain has again taken the lead. The aim is to return people to their homes. It is no good throwing refugees out and dispersing them all over Europe. The aim should be what Britain has done in Kosovo by supporting the United Nations and enabling all the displaced people to return to their homes. It is also about facilitating restructuring. The post-war period and the early development of the European Community teaches us that economic reconstruction provides long-term peace.

We need to develop our European structures not in duplication of, or competition with, those of NATO but as a complement to them. Within that, participating Governments will and must retain their sovereign authority to commit or withhold their troops. To talk about a European defence strategy is not to cede sovereignty but to recognise common interests.

I commend what the Labour Government are doing on preventing conflict and arms control. We have elevated defence diplomacy and conflict prevention to one of the seven core missions of our armed forces, which underpin all our defence planning. The prevention of conflict is as vital a part of defence policy as the strategy for responding to it.

It is easy to forget the impetus that we have given to international arms control. Not only have we banned the import, export, manufacture and transfer of anti-personnel land mines in line with our manifesto commitment, we have extended the ban to cover their operational use. No British soldier on operations will ever again lay an anti-personnel land mine. That has gone hand in hand with strengthening our forces, not least by enabling them to respond quickly to any conflict as it develops.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is not in his place, accused the Secretary of State of wishing to lead Europe but not willing the means. Again, he fails to understand what has been happening in the past two years. I fundamentally disagree with his assumption. The fact is that Britain and the Prime Minister have given leadership to Europe. The professionalism of British troops, the Prime Minister's leadership during the

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Kosovan conflict and the way in which he carried his European partners cannot be over stressed. It is no good saying that that did not happen, because it did. France and Germany followed the lead given by the Prime Minister. No other European leader could have given that lead so successfully. I am not complacent, but we can be proud of that leadership.

I conclude with a reminder. If I have one sadness, it is that we have ended the millennium with the ethnic cleansing and conflict in Kosovo. I hope that my children will have the privilege that I have had, of which my mother, a victim of ethnic cleansing after world war 2, forcefully reminded me when I once made a derogatory remark about armed forces. She told me that I had had the privilege of never having had to wait on whether the Russian or American armed forces arrived first. My life had never depended on waiting for the armed forces, and I hope that those of my children will not do so. In the meantime, we have the responsibility of maintaining our armed forces within a European defence framework that complements, and works with, NATO, not one that thinks that Britain can, on its own without such co-operation, attain what we have achieved so far.

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