22 Jun 2001 : Column 281

House of Commons

Friday 22 June 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Member Sworn

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Dave Watts, St. Helens, North.

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Third Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [20 June],

Question again proposed.

Foreign Affairs and Defence

9.35 am

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): It a great honour to address the House for the first time as Foreign Secretary. There is a nice symmetry about moving to the Foreign Office from the Home Office because both Departments were created in 1782 in the wake of our defeat in America. The first Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, had a more distinguished record than the first Home Secretary, William Petty, who lasted in his post for only five days.

I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). In his four years as Foreign Secretary, the United Kingdom's reputation abroad was greatly enhanced. In all the major international groupings to which we belong, Britain is regarded as a force for good and a partner on which to rely. The prosperity and security of our people have consequently been strengthened.

We shall continue to uphold the values that underpin our security and prosperity and that of our allies. Every human being is entitled to the fundamental freedoms of human rights and democracy. We shall use our influence in the world to help to confront tyranny, oppression, poverty, conflict and human suffering. I aim to build on

22 Jun 2001 : Column 282

my right hon. Friend's achievements by pursuing an active and engaged foreign policy to provide practical benefits for the people of the United Kingdom.

There was a time when international relations, though vital, were conducted with little apparent relevance to people's daily lives at home. The direct attention of our citizens was engaged only when the diplomats failed and the national interest had to be determined not around the negotiating table but on the battlefield. How things have changed. On vital issues such as the environment, drugs and organised crime, the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy have become increasingly blurred. If we are to look after our interests at home, we have to be active and engaged overseas.

The interrelationship between domestic and foreign policy is best illustrated by our membership of the European Union. When I arrived at the Home Office in 1997, I was surprised by the amount of European Union work in which I was to be involved as Home Secretary. On asylum, crime, justice and security, I sought to work closely with our EU partners on palpably common European problems. I describe myself as a practical European because I have experienced at first hand the tremendous amount that we can achieve for Britain through engaging constructively in Europe.

In the general election campaign, one choice before the British people could not have been clearer: isolation from the rest of Europe or engagement with it. Of the many conclusions that we can draw from the result, one is incontrovertible. The British people overwhelmingly rejected the isolationist approach to Europe.

I referred to "the rest of Europe" for a good reason. We are, and always have been a European nation. Our monarchy was Danish, then Norman, then Dutch and then German. Engagement with Europe over many centuries, not disconnection from it, took us and the British flag to the four corners of the world.

There have been moments in our history when, in trying to consolidate the gains of the past, we might have cut loose strategically from the mainland of Europe. However, as the historian Norman Davies powerfully argues in his epic work "The Isles", our last opportunity to do that was in the fateful few days in August 1914. Instead, we chose military engagement in Europe, and the die was cast.

We are, and always have been, European. The labels "pro" or "anti" European have therefore long seemed hopeless to me. How can we be pro or anti something that we are? Of course, there was a more recent moment in the early 1970s when the United Kingdom might have chosen a different sort of engagement with the continent of Europe. I know because I took part in that argument. However, that moment, too, has gone. With 15 nation states already members of the European Union and 13 at the door, our destiny as a European nation now lies indissolubly with the European Union.

Yes, the European Union has imperfections, but I suggest that its historic achievement is extraordinary. It has secured peace and prosperity among its members, when previously there was, with dismal regularity, war and destruction. It has made us all richer, safer and stronger and our people can live, work and travel anywhere within the borders of the world's largest single market. The EU is now a major player on the world stage, and we have achieved all this while preserving the nation

22 Jun 2001 : Column 283

states at its heart. The fact that Europe is a union of nation states is emphasised by the central role played by the 15 Heads of Government meeting regularly in the European Council.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): In case my right hon. Friend should be considered biased in his theme of engagement with Europe, will he consider the view of the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd? Speaking in Hamburg on Wednesday, Lord Hurd said of the recent general election that it had settled

Mr. Straw: I entirely endorse those words, and I think that the Conservative party accepts that that is the case. Indeed, when I was preparing this speech I wanted to include a few quotations from the Conservative party manifesto.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Don't do it.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says, "Don't do it." The fact is that I could not do it. I called up the Conservative party website, which contains a search engine, and typed in the word "manifesto". Back came nothing. I tried again, thinking that perhaps my information technology skills--which go before me--had failed me. I called in an expert, who also typed the word "manifesto" into the website, but nothing appeared. The truth is that the Conservatives have now wiped out their manifesto. Within 10 days of the election, it is no more. It is a non-manifesto for something approaching a non-party.

I was talking about the fact that the European Union is a union of nation states, which is emphasised by the fact that the 15 Heads of Government of those nation states play a central role in the determination of the policy and direction of the EU, meeting in the European Council.

I had the privilege of attending the Gothenburg European Council with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last weekend. The full text of the Council's conclusions has been placed in the Library. We made important progress across a range of issues, chiefly that of enlargement, to which I shall return in a moment. Those issues also included agreeing the European Union's first ever sustainable development strategy, which focuses on climate change, public health, food safety, poverty and transport congestion--issues that are important to our economic development.

The sustainable development strategy was led by the Swedish presidency and, as someone who has now observed eight or nine presidencies--all of which have been brilliant--I particularly commend the Swedish presidency for the way in which it has conducted, and continues to conduct, itself, over its six months in office.

The Council endorsed the work that the Swedish presidency has done to advance the European security and defence policy, including work on military capabilities, conflict prevention and the civilian aspects of crisis management. The Council called for early agreement on

22 Jun 2001 : Column 284

the European single sky. We shall pursue a range of contacts, including bilateral contacts with Spain, on this and other issues relating to Gibraltar, including the continuation of the Brussels process.

As is customary, the Heads of Government considered important foreign policy developments, including the middle east, Algeria, East Timor and Korea. The appointment of an EU representative based in Macedonia in support of Javier Solana was agreed. The final decision on who that will be is to be made at the General Affairs Council this Monday.

Regrettably, the European Council took place against a backdrop of malicious violence. That raises important issues of security at future EU summits and meetings, and the need for greater co-operation between police forces across the EU. Here in Britain, the police service has wide experience of dealing with public order situations, and knowledge and expertise that may be of use to other member states when planning forthcoming events.

The EU police chiefs' taskforce exists to bring together senior police officers from across the EU to share expertise on common operational issues. We are keen to have an early meeting of this group on that issue. Peaceful protest has a valuable role to play in any democracy, but the travelling circus of violent demonstrators that has accompanied recent high-level international meetings has nothing to do with democracy or, I suggest, the legitimate concerns of voters.

The powers of the EU--yes, they are controversial in some countries; of course we understand that--were conferred on it by treaties agreed unanimously by the democratically elected Governments of all the member states, and implemented in scrupulous accordance with their constitutional procedures. People sometimes complain about the delays in decision making in the EU, particularly in relation to the ratification of conventions and treaties. I think that that is a price worth paying. The EU is a union of nation states, each of which has to get endorsement for fundamental or significant changes to the way in which the EU operates from its own democratically elected representative institutions under its own constitution.

Next Section

IndexHome Page