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7.19 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): It is always a pleasure to respond to the speeches of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). I well remember my visit to Lichfield at his invitation in my previous incarnation when he was mobbed by his constituents in the high street, all asking for the name of his hairdresser.

It is a great pleasure also to see in the House my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster)--in my view, the best Member of Parliament that Hastings and Rye has ever produced. I look forward to visiting his constituency in March of this year.

This is an important and timely debate, as it is being held near to the visit of the Prime Minister to President Bush. We wish the new Administration well in their endeavours. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend has just returned from a highly successful visit to the United States where he met the new and dynamic Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Britain and the United States have a uniquely close relationship, based on common values, common interests and a common language. I want to mention a couple of those aspects. Our political systems are founded on a shared liberal outlook and values: freedom, free speech and free trade. Britain's strategic partnership with the US in NATO remains fundamental to the national security of both our countries. The US, as the hon. Gentleman said, is our biggest single export market. We are the biggest investors in each other's country.

There are close personal ties between our peoples at every level. More happens in the US that is relevant to Britain than in any other country. In the limited amount of time left to me by the hon. Gentleman, I hope to explore the fact that our position as a leading player in the European Union enhances this relationship.

The transatlantic relationship will remain strong because our vital national interests coincide now as much as they ever did. The Government are committed to working with the new Administration as we have done with previous ones in pursuit of our common interests. President Bush has confirmed to the Prime Minister that he shares this determination. The warmth shown to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary by the Secretary of State bodes very well for the future. The visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Washington from 22 to 24 February will re-cement this important relationship.

Last year, Britain sold £28 billion, or $40 billion, worth of goods to the American market, and bought about the same amount of American goods. We sell more to Boeing

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than we do to many countries. British interests in many of the 50 states individually outweigh our interests in most other countries. Year after year, Britain and the US are the biggest investors in each other's country. We are now the most important overseas investor in California, having just overtaken Japan. Some 5,600 American companies see Britain as their base in the European single market.

It is important to explore some aspects of what the hon. Gentleman said. First, he made a number of proposals which I shall dub "the Fabricant proposals", if I may. I will study them. If we can do anything that will enhance the relationship between the US and Britain, we are certainly willing to do it. If he would like to come to see me to discuss the proposals, I will be more than happy to do that. No doubt that will feature prominently on his website. I know that other meetings I have had with the hon. Gentleman have reverberated around the world.

The US seeks to ensure that Britain is a leading player in the EU. Since 1 May 1997, the Government have been committed to playing that leading role. We have been supported by the American Government and that has not in any way affected the special relationship we have with the US. It is because we are playing a role in Brussels and shaping the agenda in Europe that the US benefits, as do our business people and our own people.

The second point that the hon. Gentleman raised concerned defence and foreign policy. That gives me an excellent opportunity to clear up some of the misunderstanding sown by the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the shadow Defence Secretary, as he travels like a weasel to Washington on various occasions trying to spread disharmony among those on the Hill.

We are absolutely committed to NATO, which forms the cornerstone of our defence policy and we will do nothing to undermine it. However, we believe that our relationship with our European partners through the new European defence policy will lead to NATO's enhancement. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lichfield makes a funny face, but I assure him that we will act only when NATO does not wish to act. We will act only in co-operation and in consultation with NATO and on those key tasks--the Petersberg tasks--that have been agreed by successive Governments. I remind the hon. Gentleman that they were agreed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind when he was Secretary of State for Defence. The initiative is therefore not new, but has been on-going under several different Administrations.

Our discussions with our European partners and colleagues in the past year--certainly since the St. Malo conference when the matter was first raised between France and Britain--show an absolute desire to ensure a co-ordinated approach. Colin Powell and the American Government understand that, and have supported what we have said. That does not prevent an individual, usually from a former Administration, from appearing on "Newsnight" and being presented by Mr. Jeremy Paxman as a great authority on the subject. Of course, people have raised anxieties, but they do not need to worry. We will not act without our NATO partners. That has been agreed and approved by all the European leaders. My meetings in the European Council suggest that the matter will be developed in the next weeks, months and years.

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We do not need to choose between the United States and the European Union. We are in the European Union, as are eight of our top 10 trading partners and 700,000 British businesses. A huge amount of trade takes place with other European Union countries, yet some Conservative Members, when they attend our proceedings, say that Britain should withdraw from the European Union. We believe in a stronger Britain in a wider Europe. That is why we support the admission of applicant countries to the European Union. The hon. Gentleman tries to be tough and macho on the issues that we are considering, but he does not need to be. I know he accepts that Britain is a European country and that our future is in Europe.

We can maintain strong relationships with Europe and the United States. Indeed, the stronger the ties with the United States, the stronger the ties with other European countries. We are determined that developments in Europe should strengthen, not undermine, our strategic partnership with the United States. Britain's pivotal role in the transatlantic alliance is valued by our friends in Europe and in the United States.

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Any loss of influence in Europe would damage our economic and strategic relations with the United States. One of the best ways to maintain Britain's influence and interest in the United States is for us to continue the work of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in the past four years and ensure that we are key players. The Prime Minister's role at the Nice summit last month further strengthened our influence in Europe and therefore our relationship with the United States.

As the Foreign Secretary has said, however, it is not a choice between the United States and Europe. There is no tension. The tension is created by those who want to sow mischief. I urge the hon. Gentleman, who I know thinks deeply about these matters, to reconsider some of the views that he has expressed today. Perhaps by the time that we meet to discuss the Fabricant proposals, he will be able to tell me that he strongly supports our relationship with the United States and strongly supports our relationship with our European partners.

Question put and agreed to.

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