HL Deb 28 January 1998 vol 585 cc230-2

3 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

As president of the European Union, what is their reaction to the recent Washington round and what steps they intend to take to advance the Middle East peace process.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we welcome the recent talks in Washington on the Middle East peace process. The EU reiterated its support for US efforts to restore momentum and its intention of playing an active role in support of the negotiations. Full and unconditional implementation of commitments made by the parties remains essential to restore mutual confidence in the peace process and provide a firm basis for a full resumption of negotiations on the Palestinian track. The Prime Minister discussed that with President Arafat when they met in London on Monday.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, has not the lack of progress and the current adversarial climate in the Middle East, together with the effective neutering of the President of the United States, undermined the peace process for far too long and, sadly, seems set to remain so? Will the European presidency support a unanimous call by the Commission, which I understand was supported unconditionally by Chairman Arafat, for Europe to participate in all bilateral and trilateral negotiations and so enable us to exercise our experience and high investment in peace?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot possibly comment on the neutering of the President of the United States. We hope that President Clinton's meetings with Mr. Netanyahu on 20th January and with President Arafat on 22nd January will lead to early progress on the implementation of existing agreements, including the incredible offer of further redeployments of Israeli troops from the West Bank. President Clinton's meetings demonstrate the United States' commitment to making progress on the peace process, and we fully support his efforts to reinject momentum into this important process.

The noble Viscount asked specifically about the Commission paper. At the moment that is an internal discussion document and does not represent the determined views of the European Union. We will have to wait to see how that paper progresses within the European Union.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, in view of the European Union's singular lack of success—to put it politely—in advancing the peace process in Algeria, Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Transcaucasus and the former Yugoslavia, can the Minister enlighten the House as to why it should be more successful in the Middle East?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord's view that there has been a lack of progress in the areas he suggests. The UK now holds the presidency of the European Union. It is our duty to do everything we can to further the peace process. The Prime Minister met President Arafat on Monday and reaffirmed our view in relation to redeployment needs, which have to be timely and unconditional. I hope that President Arafat will take note of the Prime Minister's view and that we shall see progress during the course of our presidency.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that the unique and excellent contribution that the British Government and the British people can make towards a settlement in the Middle East will not be muted by the differences of opinion that exist within the European Union in relation to the settlement of this problem?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that the United Kingdom Government's strong views on these matters will influence our European colleagues and that the two will be mutually reinforcing. We favour a strong EU role supporting the peace process, commensurate with the scale of European Union interests and economic support in that part of the world. We should remember that the EU remains the largest aid donor to the Palestinians. During the course of our presidency we must work to reinject momentum into the peace process, which will be one of our most important foreign policy priorities.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, given that the Israeli Cabinet's communiqué on retention of the land on the West Bank was announced at the time the Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs recently visited the region, can the Minister tell the House what practical success that visit had in launching the Government's commitment to reinjecting momentum into the peace process? When is the Foreign Secretary going to make his long overdue visit to the region?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord has obviously not yet had the opportunity of reading our recent evening debate when I told the House that the Foreign Secretary hopes to visit that part of the world in the spring of this year. Mr. Fatchett. on his visit, made our views clear to the Israeli Government. Those views have been unequivocal and were clearly stated in your Lordships' House during the course of the debate, which I suggest the noble Lord reads.

Lord IsIwyn

My Lords, can the Minister say what specific representations the Government are making concerning proliferation of illegal settlements on the West Bank, some of which are in extremely sensitive areas?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I have had occasion to tell the House before, the United Kingdom Government have been clear with the Israeli Government about our views on the illegality of those settlements.