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8.10 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues raised in the motion, and to examine differences in approaches to the way in which the world is currently developing. We have a new Administration in Washington, continuing tragic violence in the middle east, tensions in the Balkans, and a China that is becoming more assertive; so there is much on which to reflect. First, however, let me use this opportunity to acknowledge, freely and warmly, the way in which the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) has sought over many years to highlight important foreign policy issues in the House as a distinguished parliamentarian and party leader. I also take the opportunity, personally, to wish him well in the future.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Will the hon. Gentleman explain his party's motive for boycotting the right hon. Gentleman's valedictory speech?

Mr. Spring: There was certainly no boycott. I think it rather churlish of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to make such an unfortunate and inappropriate remark.

The complexities of globalisation demand multilateral approaches today, but nations and networks, not greater integrated Government structures, make that possible. A new world of nations and networks is replacing the old world of blocs and hierarchies. That is one reason why the Conservative party formed a commission on the Commonwealth to examine ways in which that often overlooked and undervalued organisation could be of real benefit to its members in the future.

In this new world, the bedrock of stability, security and prosperity is the self-governing nation state, which enables societies to understand their roots and character in a way that integrated supranational constructs and multilateral organisations simply never can. Constantly resorting to higher and higher levels of supranational government, as the Liberal Democrats' ideas incessantly do, reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in Britain as an important player in the world, and--that elusive democratic deficit again--a fundamental reluctance to ensure that accountable forms of government, our best option in times of rapid change, remain to the fore. Those views, regrettably, are powerfully echoed by the Government.

Given our range of assets across the world and our influence through our language and culture, Britain has a role to play, not as a pale shadow of the United States, or simply as a component of European foreign policy, but as a strong and independent force for good in the world. A unique British role is particularly possible in the context of the Kyoto protocol, but, given the Deputy Prime Minister's apparent keenness to express anti-American sentiments, it is a role that this Government cannot fulfil. No wonder the right hon. Gentleman found himself sidelined during his recent trip to Washington. We too will be sidelined, as a country, if we adopt the right hon. Gentleman's course. Sabre-rattling by the Government will certainly not solve the problem. We will achieve a solution by agreement, not confrontation.

Of course the United States' decision was regrettable. Conservative Members support action to tackle climate change and implement the Kyoto protocol. That is why

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the next Conservative Government will act as a bridge between the United States and Europe in climate change negotiations, rather than simply encouraging animosity towards the United States.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the shadow Foreign Secretary, returned from Washington only this morning. He had meetings with the Vice-President, the national security adviser and the deputy Secretaries for Defence and at the State Department. A view was confirmed that many are happy to promote--a view of the United States becoming simply isolationist. That view is utterly misplaced. In reality, in the new Administration we have an ally whose outlook extends throughout the world, and it is in our interest that that position remain. We must do nothing to jeopardise it.

With our allies across the Atlantic and across the channel, we have the basis for collective action in foreign policy, in maintaining our security and in tackling environmental concerns that know no geographical bounds. A multilateral organisation like NATO is the bedrock of our security. However, as the right hon. Member for Yeovil will know, NATO's decisions are not made on the basis of majority voting.

For 50 years the Atlantic partnership has been one of the most powerful forces for good in the world, but today I believe that it is at risk. Why do both the Government and the Liberal Democrats favour a European Union defence structure which in practice will be separate from NATO, and will risk weakening the Atlantic alliance? Is it not the case that a tried and tested multilateral arrangement is being bypassed by a developing European Union foreign and defence policy--a move that is supported not only by the proponents of the motion, but by the Government?

What the Americans really want, and are not materially getting, is greater burden-sharing. Multilateral co-operation must be flexible to succeed; by contrast, co-operation based on doing everything together at the same speed is a recipe for failure. Truly multilateral organisations such as NATO have achieved that successfully. Attempts to create an EU foreign policy response through political integration, absorbing the views of individual members, produces policies that no one will follow, and which are easy prey to other states that are willing to play off one EU member against the other.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I do not agree with the proposition that he has just described--but can he explain why that proposition is so unacceptable, given that it was signed up to by the Conservative Government whom he supported at the time of the Maastricht treaty?

Mr. Spring: Let me put the right hon. and learned Gentleman straight. We are totally in favour, and have always been in favour, of pan-European defence co-operation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that to be absolutely true, and it was agreed in the talks at Petersberg. What is being proposed today is entirely different; the right hon. and learned Gentleman, of all people, knows that.

We have seen the inertia that I have described again this year--the playing off of EU countries against each other. Britain again failed to register the deep concern that exists among many people in this country about human

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rights in China. That is not to say that either the EU--or, more broadly, the UN--does not have a significant role to play in establishing international co-operation leading to firm action, but it should do that by doing less, and doing it substantially better. The aim of those organisations should be to muster international consensus, but not at the expense of national democracies' ability to act independently. Both, however, need substantial reform if they are to achieve that.

Beyond the EU, the UN is and will remain the focal point of attempts to co-ordinate international action to deal with global issues--but the majority of today's disputes are internal. The UN has become more actively engaged in peacekeeping roles in the last decade than it was during the entire cold war.

We are clear that it is now more important than ever that the UN be realistic about what it can achieve. It needs to focus its efforts on fulfilling the responsibilities it already has, rather than constantly taking on new tasks. The UN Security Council will remain the central pillar for international co-operation to secure peace and security.

The composition of the Security Council is the source of some controversy today, but the criteria for membership remain clear. It should comprise those countries that are most willing and able to contribute to international security, and membership should not be seen as being related to the size of a country's economy, land mass or simple position on the earth's surface, in an age when distance matters less and less. We Conservatives believe that the UK and France, for example, should continue to be members in their own right. We, the next Conservative Government, will consider proposals for new members to join the Security Council, but we will not support the idea that the EU should have its own seat.

We will work to reform the UN. The aim will be to ensure that it has a clearly defined role that it is able to perform effectively, and that its work is co-ordinated with organisations in the regions concerned.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I do not need to patronise the hon. Gentleman with a resume of the history of the Baltic states, but not much in what he has said so far gives me much assurance that under his plan, were the Baltic states to be threatened by an aggressive Russia, they would be protected in the way that they believe they would be by a common European defence strategy. What assurance can he give to countries such as the Baltic states, which have a potential danger next door, that the Conservatives have a strategy anywhere near as effective as we believe the European defence strategy could be?

Mr. Spring: The Baltic states will of course be strengthened by their membership of the EU, and I hope that that will happen sooner rather than later. Their defence and security will be embraced by the European family of nations and, under the umbrella of NATO, everything is possible. Need I point out to the hon. Gentleman that if we disengage from NATO and possibly cause the Americans to withdraw substantially from Europe--which is the threat--the Baltic states' situation could be considerably worse?

I turn to the issue of human rights. Many areas of the world, such as China, Burma and Iraq, suffer oppression, and our position remains clear. James Mawdsley,

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the courageous and defiant human rights activist imprisoned in Burma, recently joined the Conservative party because of the clarity of our stance on such issues. On Iraq, we have been clear about the damage that Saddam Hussein continues to do to his country's people by refusing to adhere to the UN resolutions. In the meantime, the Government have rowed back and forth from their initial promise of an ethical foreign policy.

Labour's ethics have been bizarre to witness--a mixture of inconsistency, leading to an aggressive approach to Sierra Leone but a shockingly inadequate response to Zimbabwe, and condemnation of Yugoslavia but barely a murmur about Russian atrocities in Chechnya. We read this morning that, with the election approaching, the Foreign Secretary has been spinning his intention to continue with his so-called ethical foreign policy. I remain unconvinced that he will be around to pursue it.

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