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House of Commons

Tuesday 22 June 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

India (Religious Persecution)

1. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): What discussions he has had with the Indian Government regarding the persecution of Christians in that country; and if he will make a statement. [86572]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): India is widely respected for its commitment to religious diversity. We have made clear to the Indian Government our concern over attacks on religious minorities. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with the Indian national security adviser and principal secretary to the Indian Prime Minister in January. The late Derek Fatchett urged the Indian Home Minister last year to take steps to restore the confidence of the Christian community. Officials here and, indeed, in India are in touch with representatives of those communities.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that, on 13 January this year, more than 140 bishops in India wrote to the President saying:

Is he also aware of reports in the press about the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is currently operating illegally in India and also collecting money in the United States and this country, and is alleged to be persecuting Christians on the back of the money that it is raising?

Mr. Hoon: I am aware of the letter and, indeed, of the situation. That is why--as I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman's main question--we continue to urge India to respect the rights of minorities. We have, however, welcomed statements by the Indian President and Prime Minister condemning attacks on, in particular, Christian minorities. We will continue to urge them to preserve India's secularism and respect for religious minorities.

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European Common Foreign and Security Policy

2. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on his policy in respect of implementing a common defence and foreign affairs policy for the European Union. [86573]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): The Government believe that we are likely to have a bigger impact on what happens in the world if Europe speaks wherever possible with one voice and not with different voices. Britain has been in the lead, along with France, in promoting an initiative on European security. That will improve the ability of the European Union to draw on NATO's assets for crisis management and peacekeeping.

The initiative was warmly welcomed in Washington by all members of NATO, and in Cologne by all members of the European Union. It is a good example of the leadership that Britain now provides in Europe, which must be welcome to all hon. Members.

Mr. Swayne: Not quite, Madam Speaker.

Why did the Government agree at Cologne to the merging of the functions of the Western European Union into those of the European Union, when that very move was described by the Prime Minister only two years ago as an ill-judged transplant? What has changed?

If Her Majesty's Government do not intend there to be a single European army, what can the right hon. Gentleman do to make Mr. Prodi desist from calling for one?

Mr. Cook: I am sorry that I have been unable to carry the hon. Gentleman with me--and, probably, the House--in welcoming the initiative.

There is not the slightest prospect of a single European army. No one in the Council of Minister is proposing one, and no one would support one. Let us leave aside Britain's view: there is no question of France or any of the other major military powers of Europe putting their armies under a single European control. Following our experience of the past 10 years in the Balkans, however, it surely makes sense for Europe to consider how it can improve its decision making on security, and provide a better capacity to enforce that. Surely all hon. Members recognise that as a legitimate objective.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): Does my right hon. Friend see any continuing role for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union when the other institutions are absorbed into the second pillar? He must agree that there is a need for some continuing supervision of common foreign and defence policy. Can he give some hope to those who are currently delegates from the House of Commons to the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU?

Mr. Cook: I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern, but I think it is premature to bury the WEU. Throughout this initiative, we have stressed that the important thing is to ensure that we get the decision making right in the European Union, and provide the right capacity for it to carry out its security decisions. Only when we have done that will the time be right for us to consider whether the WEU has fulfilled its purpose.

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I agree with my hon. Friend that, if we arrive at that point, it will be important for us to ensure that there is proper democratic scrutiny of security decisions.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Can the Foreign Secretary explain why what the Prime Minister vetoed at Amsterdam became acceptable at Cologne? What exactly happened to change the Government's mind?

Mr. Cook: What has happened since Amsterdam is that over the past year, along with the French and our other partners in Europe, we have proceeded on the basis of our St. Malo declaration. As a result, we have a new communique from NATO which expands on the Berlin declaration, carried by the last Government. That enhances our ability to call on NATO's assets for the purpose of European security decisions. We have also considered how we can improve security decision making within the European Union. In the light of all those changes, there is an obvious question mark over whether it is necessary to keep the Western European Union as a body existing to call meetings, but not necessarily existing to replicate what can be done better in the European Union.

Mr. Maples: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary, but I did not ask him about the Western European Union. He does not seem to have a reason for the fundamental change of policy announced at Cologne. Although hon. Members know that two years is a very long time for this Government to believe in anything, it was a fundamental change of policy. Is not the real reason for that change the fact that we were not going to be in the first group joining the euro, and the Prime Minister was worried about his European adulation rating? He needed a Euro-friendly policy at short notice, and the policy change was the sacrifice.

Is it not true that the development of a military capability outside NATO, as envisaged at Cologne, will inevitably create a conflict between the EU and NATO, undermine the United States commitment to Europe, and give the EU a role for which it is totally unsuited--as the Prime Minister, quite rightly, said at Amsterdam?

Mr. Cook: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role, but have to say that the initiative goes back long before Cologne, to last autumn, when we met--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I was there at St. Malo. The initiative goes back to St. Malo and the Portschach decision of last autumn. As for NATO, I tell Opposition Members that not a single ally in NATO failed to welcome what we have done--[Interruption.] I was also at Washington, but do not think that the hon. Gentleman was. I have the Washington communique, which records the welcome for what the European Union has done to strengthen the initiative. I have had many discussions with Madeleine Albright--[Interruption.] The only countries at the Washington NATO summit were the countries inside

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NATO, and they all welcomed the initiative, which builds on the basis of the Berlin declaration. As I recall it, that declaration was negotiated and signed by one Michael Portillo. I honestly do not think that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) should try to outdo him in Euro-scepticism.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in developing a common foreign and security policy, it is important to consider the role and perspective of countries that are in Europe, but are not currently either in the European Union or in NATO? Specifically, does he agree that Ukraine could play an important role in Europe? Will he try to ensure that Brussels remembers that Ukraine is now an independent country, and no longer a subsidiary of Russia?

Mr. Cook: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend's last point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has just return from a visit to Ukraine, and carried that message on behalf of Britain to the Government of Ukraine. Of course, through NATO we work closely with our partners for peace. Through the European security initiative that we are launching, we shall want to ensure that we have the closest possible contacts with those NATO members that are not in the European Union. I have had bilateral discussions with a number of those countries.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does the Foreign Secretary share my despair at the visceral and irrational anti-Europeanism that prompted the main question? Does he also agree that the lesson of the Balkans demonstrates that there should be a European defence capability, so that we may act when the United States is either unable or unwilling to do so? Does he also agree that no one in Europe can be satisfied when the European members of NATO have a defence budget that totals two thirds of the US defence budget, but produces only a fraction of the capability of the United States?

Mr. Cook: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very valid point. Europe spends on defence the equivalent of 60 per cent. of that spent by the United States, yet Europe could field only 20 per cent. of the military aircraft involved in the recent conflict in Kosovo. There is something wrong in that mismatch of spending against output. It surely must make sense for Europe to co-operate more closely, and to ensure that we are better able to get value for our money. I echo the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

The issue is not one for NATO: it is not about territorial defence, but about peacekeeping and crisis management. Heaven knows, we have seen the need for that recently on our continent, and it is time that we were ready to respond to it.

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