HL Deb 08 March 2004 vol 658 cc975-8

2.53 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their view of the United States Administration's draft greater Middle East initiative.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we are at the beginning of a process that is intended to respond to the needs that the governments of the region have themselves expressed. The United Kingdom Government and the United States Government are already engaged in wide-ranging discussions with the governments of the region on developments that will enable those countries to realise their full potential.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does she accept that the draft greater Middle East initiative looks likely to be the most important dimension of American foreign policy towards its European allies in the next two to three months, for the G8 summit, the NATO summit and the EU-US summit? Does she also accept that the Foreign Secretary's speech to the Foreign Policy Centre last Monday, which I thought was rather thoughtful, offered a very different emphasis on western policy towards the Middle East than that contained in the draft Middle East initiative? Can she assure us that we shall do our best to make sure that this American drafted initiative works with British and EU initiatives towards the Arab and Muslim regions, particularly towards the Mediterranean or Barcelona process, rather than working across them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I emphasise that these questions of how Arab countries develop over the next two years have been matters of discussion for quite some time. I agree with the noble Lord that there are different nuances in the United States' presentation from that which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary presented in his speech last week, which I thought was excellent.

The noble Lord is quite right: we are working towards the G8, NATO and EU-US summits. However, he must remember that the United States' paper has not as yet been published in its final form; he knows that it was leaked. Unfortunately, the way in which it was leaked was not particularly helpful to the sort of dialogue that we want to develop on both sides of the Atlantic. By "both sides of the Atlantic", I mean that our European partners and we in this country want to develop a dialogue with the Arab countries. British officials are today in Brussels discussing the matter, and last week I asked all the Arab League ambassadors in London to come in to discuss it. I hope that those discussions will be positive and will have an agenda that we can take forward together.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's first reply and the implication that we shall continue to respond positively to requests for advice and help from governments in the Middle East on better governance. Nevertheless, is she aware that the press reports of the draft initiative—and I have myself seen only the press reports—are liable to be interpreted in the Middle East as attempts to impose inappropriate forms of government on those governments? Does she agree that we should perhaps wait to see how the constitution of Iraq develops—and, indeed, perhaps our own constitution—before attempting to impose constitutions on others?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I would agree, if that was what we were attempting to do. However, we are not trying to impose constitutions on others. The fact is that there are questions that the Arab countries themselves have identified as needing urgent address. Of course, advice and help will be given when it is asked for, but given in a spirit of partnership. It is important to recognise that we are talking about promoting the values of good governance, human rights, tolerance and the rule of law. Those are not "western" values, but values that many Arab countries are developing. They are universal values—the very values that are detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is that agenda that we want to work towards.

I stress to your Lordships that I was in the region when the leak came, and I am very aware of how the leak struck the countries of the region. The Foreign Office will be working very hard to establish the spirit of partnership to which I alluded.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Minister, together with the Foreign Secretary, use their influence to ensure that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is at the top of the EU and the G8 agenda? Is that not even more important than whatever progress can be made towards democracy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is an enormously important question. I remind the noble Lord what my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said when he made his speech last week. He said that, we must match our common engagement in support of reform with renewed international effort to make progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". He was very clear that it was not a question of doing one or the other and that the two things have to be matched with each other.

I hope that the noble Lord will be pleased to know that before I came to the House today I had a meeting with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mr Abu Ala, who brought with him a very powerful team, including Nabeel Sha'ath, Sayeb Erekat and Salam Sayyad. This afternoon, they are seeing my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to have further discussions on the important point that the noble Lord raised.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, presumably, the big thought behind all this talk of a greater Middle East initiative—and the Minister has been very much involved in those matters—is that there should be a vast area of stability throughout the Maghreb and Arab world, in which terrorism no longer receives any sponsors or encouragement but, on the contrary, is removed from all the agendas of all the states involved. Will she continue with her work in that direction? There seem to be three different versions of this initiative: the EU version, the NATO version, and the American version that she mentioned, and indeed a British version of the American version. Will she ensure that they all gradually coalesce into an effective and sensitive operation for the entire area, that they pull together rather than pull apart, as so often seems to be the case nowadays?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is not implying that we shall pull apart from each other. It is important to see this in the context of addressing some of the problems that countries in the Middle East have themselves identified—the questions about regional economic growth, which is failing to keep pace with the growing population of those countries. We must remember that there is an extraordinary problem when 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 18 and when youth employment is in the region of 50 per cent at the moment. The World Bank has said that over 100 million jobs need to be created in the region in the next 20 years.

The noble Lord is right to identify the question of terrorism. It is enormously important but we cannot look at it in isolation. A bigger picture must be painted. Stability will be part and parcel of economic growth to deal with the questions that I have just identified to your Lordships.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the history of British and American policy in the Middle East has not always been good? In the light of recent history and that of the past 100 years, we ought to tread with great caution. Will she also accept that until we focus our attention on the root cause of injustice in the Holy Land and seek some resolution of that issue, the spreading of peace and freedom in the Middle East will be extremely difficult to achieve?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree in part. It would be very interesting for some of your Lordships to hear what I hear when I visit countries in the Middle East because I hear about historic friendship. I hear a great deal about the way in which this country has contributed to the growth of the countries concerned and to establishing the ways in which they deal with their international relationships. The right reverent Prelate should not run away with the idea that all the countries of the Middle East bear a huge grudge against this country. It is simply not the case. I hear a tremendous amount about friendship, historical links and the current vibrancy of our relationship. It is important to remember that countries such as Qatar and Bahrain are as different from Egypt and Saudi Arabia as we are from other European countries. One size does not fit all in this relationship. There are very different issues at stake and they must be addressed differently.

I do agree with the right reverend Prelate that we cannot separate out the problem of Israel and Palestine. For many countries in the region, this is a heart-felt, almost visceral, problem and it must be addressed. That was what my right honourable friend was doing in his speech last week.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the British Government have a clear understanding of exactly what the American concept of "the greater Middle East" covers? On Friday, I heard two American officials disagreeing about whether it was the Arab world or the Muslim world. Does it include Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and all the other "stan"s in Central Asia? Does it go, as one atlas put it, from Marrakesh to Bangladesh or further? Where is it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord sounds like those on the Benches opposite who asked me to define Europe or, on other occasions, those in your Lordships' House who want me to define NATO. I cannot speak for the American Administration. There are enough times when I am in the Middle East when I am asked to answer for American policy. I say very firmly that I am a British Minister and I answer the noble Lord as a British Minister. In the Foreign Office, we define the greater Middle East as the Arab world and the countries of North Africa that constitute the Maghreb.

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