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The risk of conflict is the most pressing challenge that we face, nowhere more so than with nuclear weapons. It may be 18 years ago this week since the Berlin wall began to come down, but the end of the cold war has not made the world a more certain or a safer place. Some strides have been taken with significant reductions in some arsenals, but the capability in the world remains terrifying and the risk of proliferation remains real, not least with the threat from Iran that has been discussed and the prospect that others in the region would follow suit if Tehran obtained a nuclear capability. We are at a crucial moment in our dealings with the Iranian regime, as the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have recognised. None of us is blind to the awful prospects if it were to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, but handling Iran requires more poise than we sometimes see in different parts of the world. The
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drumbeat for war in some parts of Washington has become sufficiently alarming for senior retired military figures, such as General Zinni and General Hoar, to speak out against it. We need more of that, particularly in this country. After Iraq, we must make it clear that another military conflict is not on the horizon. Our pressing need is to focus international efforts to sharpen both the sanctions and the incentives on offer, to build the diplomatic front to prepare the next, long overdue Security Council resolution and to make it clear to Iran that compliance is essential.

The situation in Iran demonstrates that we are at a perilous moment in the world. It is essential that our strategic actions as a country do not tip things in the wrong direction. Our decision about the future of our nuclear capability is critical in that respect. In seeking to fulfil our most important duty—to protect the citizens of this country—we need to take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war occurring. We must show leadership in the west to persuade others of the need both to reduce the nuclear threat, by getting rid of more of the current global arsenals, and to reduce the headlong rush elsewhere to acquire them. We cannot create the right conditions for force reductions if we pre-empt the debate by making the decision to replace Trident now, especially when the technical considerations show that we do not have to do so until well into the next decade.

As a country, we have lost our focus on that first priority of arms reduction. We cannot afford the failure of another non-proliferation treaty review conference, as happened in 2005. We need a serious programme for 2010 and a serious statement of intent. That is why we have proposed a 50 per cent. cut in our nuclear capacity now. The rules of engagement also need to alter if we are not simply to see an escalation of nuclear tensions and the associated risks. The outcome of the 2010 talks will be the key moment to assess our future needs. This is not about postponing a decision on replacing Trident, but about making it at the appropriate time.

Another area where bad decision making will not be in Britain’s interest is missile defence. The idea of protecting ourselves from missile attack is clearly attractive, but there is a great deal at stake, not least because of the way in which the United States is developing its proposals. There are already serious doubts about the technical aspects of the programme and the cost issues. They should give us pause for thought; but the failure to pursue the programme multilaterally is the most alarming and potentially the most dangerous aspect.

It is not stretching things to say that we have had very little from the Government on the matter, other than the written statement from the Secretary of State for Defence just before the recess in July. Although it gave little away, it highlighted the fact that nothing has been agreed yet in NATO, only bilaterally, between the USA and individual countries such as the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic. However, missile defence has huge consequences for our strategic defence, both as a country and as part of our key alliances. At the very least, the priority should be to agree it with our NATO partners.

We should also deal with countries such as Russia, whose hostile reaction was perhaps predictable but which can for once be understood. We are seeing a
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chain reaction, with Russian threats over the future of both the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty and the conventional forces in Europe treaty. We can deprecate the Russians for those actions, but none of us should doubt their intent or the seriousness of the consequences for global stability if the threats are carried out. The growing crisis requires an urgent multilateral response. If there is not to be a multilateral approach to the issue, Britain should play no further part in it.

Our engagement in international alliances and institutions is central to how we cope—or ought to cope—with the many challenges that we face. Through our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, our key role in NATO and the Commonwealth we have responsibilities to work with others to tackle the many issues already raised today—the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the atrocities in Darfur and the appalling situation in Zimbabwe—and not to lose sight of the traumas in Burma. As has been discussed at length, the complex situation in Pakistan has special resonance for us, with our historic and current ties placing additional burdens on us to influence General Musharraf to honour the latest of his many pledges to hold elections and to lift the state of emergency.

This country remains fully committed in neighbouring Afghanistan, where some unfortunate shortcomings by our partners in delivering what has been promised have become clear. We need to continue to overcome those shortcomings, because too much is at stake, and neither the Afghans nor the international community can afford to lose any of the many different battles being fought there.

Likewise, in Iraq there is still a desperate need to recognise that Britain’s presence has been a major part of the problem. Our priority must be to move on to a multilateral footing and to bring British forces home. Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, I urge the Government to ensure that, beyond this general debate, we will still have regular opportunities to debate matters relating to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We, too, believe that a public inquiry into how the debacle in Iraq began and unfolded is still urgently required.

The conflict in Iraq highlighted difficulties with Britain’s relationship with the present Administration in the United States, and there is much about that that we would like to see changed. That does not, however, undermine the basic fact that the ties that bind this country to America are stronger than the differences that can divide us. The United States remains our most important bilateral relationship as a country.

However, it is the European Union that, on a multilateral basis, presents us with the opportunity to deal successfully with some of the most pressing issues facing us. Our membership of the EU recognises the need for Governments to work together to tackle problems that they cannot deal with alone. It is fundamentally important to us in terms of our economy, the environment and our security. The system needs to be reformed, however, and to adapt. Even its most supportive friends recognise the need for that.

Enlargement has made the pressure greater, and there is general agreement across the House that more countries should join the EU, including Turkey and those Balkan states that are not yet members. However,
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there can be no hiding from the difficulties of achieving reform, as the crisis arising from the attempt to ratify the constitutional treaty illustrated. We have experienced deadlock on that for the past three years. With the new reform treaty, however, we can see significant and important changes, including an end to the flummery and trappings of a constitution, and an end to the conceit of a constitutional concept. All the old treaties that were to have been consolidated into that one document have now been stripped out, leaving us with an amending treaty along the previous lines. On key issues such as the charter, important changes have been made that have changed the nature of the treaty.

We are invited to oppose the treaty on the basis of a checklist of issues about the full-time presidency, the high representative and qualified majority voting. But surely all of us—however strongly we might criticise the European Union—recognise that the proposals will improve the situation in Europe. The proposals on the presidency will make things more efficient; we shall no longer have the nonsense of passing on the baton every six months. The high representative will make co-ordination of our common foreign and security policy much more effective, and will ensure that common policies are much more clearly expressed. The proposals on qualified majority voting in areas such as humanitarian aid and intellectual property rights will surely be good moves for Britain. The opponents of the treaty fail to recognise the improvements in transparency, the greater co-decision making with the European Parliament, the better accountability through the enhanced involvement of national Parliaments such as this one, and the more effective decision making by, among other things, reducing the number of Commissioners in Brussels.

On that basis, we believe that the treaty will provide an improvement in the governance of the European Union that will be good for the United Kingdom. We anticipate many happy hours scrutinising the proposals in the House, but we do so from a standpoint of wishing to see the Bill passed. We also believe that it is Parliament’s job to ratify the treaty. In our judgment, the changes made to create this amending treaty have altered its constitutional significance, so we should not hold a referendum on it.

We have heard much about the issue of trust, which is a serious matter that should not be diminished. Maintaining the electorate’s trust is not just about being able to explain what has changed and making clear how significant the changes are, as it is also tied up in the honesty of our debate. The debate in this country is not about the composition of the Council or the future of the high representative. The debate taking place in our constituencies up and down the land is about Britain’s role inside Europe. It is about whether or not, after the all the changes overseen by the Conservatives for 18 years and a further 10 years of changes by this Government, we should remain part of the European Union.

The Conservatives have drawn some lines in the sand that conveniently allow all the vetoes that were scrapped when the internal market was created under the Single European Act to be ignored. They also allow the changes under Maastricht, which introduced a common foreign and security policy and policies in justice and home affairs matters, to be left aside. Now the debate is apparently to be defined by how long the
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president is to sit in the chair of meetings. Any debate on the reform treaty will not be constrained by what is contained within it. The core of the debate across Britain is about staying in or leaving the EU. It is about accepting how important it is, notwithstanding all its flaws and the various attempts to improve it, or deciding to opt out and leave. Let us not have a phoney debate. Let us debate the merits of our relationship with Europe.

On the Liberal Democrat Benches, we believe that there should be a referendum—but it should be on the real issue of either staying in or getting out of the EU. We are clear that, as a country, Britain’s future lies at the heart of the enlarged and now to be reformed European Union. We must continue to be part of it, not marginalised on the peripheries. It is more than 30 years since Britain took stock of its membership of the then European Economic Community. That is why I, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and other Liberal Democrat Members will later this evening table our amendment on that specific issue alone. We invite others from all sides of the House to join us and help to start the real debate about where Britain’s interests lie.

5.22 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): The international environment in which Britain finds itself is as difficult and complex today as it has been since the end of the cold war. The combined challenges of international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional instability and highly organised global crime make it more difficult than ever to plan and effect lasting solutions. The question is how we should devise policies to deal with those challenges in an increasingly uncertain world.

First and foremost, we must be absolutely determined that, however daunting the scale of the problems we face, we will never lose sight of the sacrifices that we ask of our armed forces. Yesterday saw millions across Britain stand in silence to mourn and remember those who paid the highest sacrifice in serving their country. It is right that we should do that. It is absolutely right, too, that we have such expressions of our gratitude as the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire. At this point, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who, as I know from my time as a Defence Minister, personally intervened to ensure that the appeal fund for that unique expression of our nation’s gratitude would not founder. When there were difficulties, he certainly made sure that there was funding to enable that project to proceed.

It is vital for our servicemen and women to know that they have full support and understanding back home for the difficult and dangerous work that we ask of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our armed forces need to feel valued, supported and thanked for all they do. I find it amazing that some, even in this House and perhaps in the other place, draw the conclusion that the morale of our troops is somehow helped by the incessant carping of politicians.

Our armed forces are not cut off from what is happening in the news and at home. That imposes on us a responsibility to conduct our debate in a careful and constructive
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manner. There are issues that require discussion—supply of equipment to our troops, the need to honour the military covenant, and the defence budget. Those require detailed consideration in this place and elsewhere. However, the near hysterical attitude whipped up by some in Parliament and the media which portrays any failure or shortcoming as if it were a betrayal of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan makes me wonder about the motives behind it. Hysteria does not help our troops. What does help is looking carefully at issues such as equipment, the covenant and defence spending in a frank and constructive atmosphere that recognises that these are legitimate matters of concern which need to be debated in a sensible and constructive way to benefit our whole country.

Britain will continue to face serious challenges. There is no place for moral or political cowardice. That means not reneging on our international commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan or stepping back from our efforts with our international partners to bring peace to the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a clear strategy for his Government’s approach in Iraq in a statement to the House on 8 October. If our ultimate goal is to help Iraq to build and develop institutions that can sustain its people, it is crucial that we help with economic aid and the reconstruction that is needed. For that reason, I welcome his announcement that the provincial council has created the Basra investment promotion agency to stimulate private sector development and is also forming a Basra development fund to help small business and to kick-start the economy. In the coming years, our ability to offer training, mentoring and support to the Iraqi people as they strive to rebuild and revive their economy will be just as important as the support that we have given to provide security over the past four years.

The same point should be recognised when we are trying to build democracy and bring stability to Afghanistan. The scale of the problem that our troops are tackling there and the lessons of that country’s history serve as a sharp reminder of the terrible and difficult task that we are addressing. British troops are involved in fierce fighting against the Taliban at a level of intensity perhaps not seen since the Korean war. Alongside that, we face the massive problem of the drugs trade there. Afghan opium and heroin production feeds millions of addicts worldwide. If the drugs trade is not tackled, all our hard-won successes of bringing democracy and stability to the country will be for naught.

I am not saying that the drugs problem will go away overnight, and I am not saying that Britain alone can solve the problem. Primary responsibility rests with the Afghan Government, but we must do all that we can to stamp it out. The fight against drugs and the fight against terrorism go hand in hand. In the centre and north of Afghanistan, where the Government have managed to increase their authority, opium cultivation is diminishing, and that is good. However, the opposite trend is seen in southern Afghanistan, where our troops are deployed. In the volatile province of Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is concentrated, opium cultivation in 2006-07 rose by 48 per cent. and more than 100,000 hectares are being used for poppy growing and opium cultivation, such is the scale of the problem that British forces are battling against in Afghanistan.

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If we can win that battle, however, we can strike a blow against those involved in the drugs trade here. The big question is: can we win? There are no finer forces than ours, and if peace and security are to be brought to that country, we certainly have a role to play.

Paul Flynn: We went into Afghanistan with a hope that we could reduce the number of drugs coming to this country. We have been there since 2001 and have spent £250 million of British taxpayers’ money. Last year, the drugs crops increased by 60 per cent. to the highest that they have ever been and the price of heroin on the streets of Britain is the lowest that it has ever been. What does my right hon. Friend suggest we do now?

Mr. Touhig: I would not suggest that we pack up and come home. That would not solve the problem. I accept that there is a problem, and I mentioned the increase in heroin production in the south of the country. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others will be in discussions about how we can best help the Afghan economy to change over to other sources of production and income.

I wish that our allies saw the position in Afghanistan in the same way as us. If they did they might come out of their barracks some time, but to date their response has been shameful. Indeed, they might as well have stayed at home for all the good they have been in many operations in Afghanistan.

I believe that the future of peace in the world will be decided in the middle east. There is a critical need for talks about the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. I am heartened by the constructive dialogue between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, but the international community really needs to support those efforts, and that means including both Iran and Syria. As long as Iran—I was heartened to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about it— continues to supply weapons, training and funding to extremists operating in Iraq, and to Hezbollah and others in Lebanon, that will prove impossible.

Sooner or later, the Iranian regime will have to face a choice. Either it must form a constructive partnership with the international community, play a constructive role in the middle east and end its support for terrorism, or it must face political, economic and cultural isolation. The offer is there for the Iranians. They can begin by making commitments to bring their nuclear programme to an end. Syria faces the same choice: it must either act responsibly or hold back progress throughout the region.

We face a new world, a world that is fractured, divided and uncertain, but more than ever we must be sure that we are united in fighting global terrorism in all its forms, or we will have no world in which we can sustain our lives. The solution, however, is not a military one alone. The problems that we face are difficult. Sometimes the struggle seems intimidating and the rewards initially not very great, as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). However, I believe that in the long term those rewards will be great. These are struggles that are worth enduring, because the prize is worth winning for the whole of humanity.

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