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Pursuing an Active and Engaged Foreign Policy

Pursuing an Active and Engaged Foreign Policy  

Opening Speech by British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in the Queen's Speech Debate (Foreign Affairs), House of Commons, Thursday 27 November 2003. Source: FCO, London.

Mr Speaker, the House last debated foreign affairs in the Queen's Speech debate almost 30 months ago, in June 2001. I had just taken over as Foreign Secretary, and I thought my new job might be quieter than the Home Office.

It wasn't. The world is less certain and more dangerous today than it has been for decades. Since our last Queen's speech debate we have seen the appalling attacks of 11 September; Britain has joined military action in Afghanistan and Iraq; and there has been an ever more violent intifada in the Middle East. People's awareness of global insecurity is probably greater than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s.

  • Defeating Terrorism

Last week I saw for myself in Istanbul the carnage and destruction wrought by the terrorist attacks on the British Consulate-General and the HSBC building on 20 November. 10 of the Consulate-General staff, British and Turkish, and 22 other innocent people lost their lives. I know the thoughts of all of us in the House are with the families and friends of all the victims. Let me also pay tribute to all those, both diplomats sent from the UK and local staff, who work in often dangerous circumstances at our missions abroad.

Here in the UK, we had to live for over 30 years with terrorism. We knew all too well from that experience how everyday life could and can be tainted by the fear of terrorist attack. We refused to bow to the terrorists, and let that fear take over. We have to show the same resolve and determination with the global threat - and fact - of terrorism we all now face. That means, not least, that we must show understanding, and support, for our allies, like Turkey, facing terrorist threats. And we need to balance carefully the advice we provide for the public. Where we have intelligence of a specific threat, we will advise the public against travel to certain countries or regions abroad; but as far as possible we will avoid blanket advice against travel. We must not do the terrorists' work for them. Life has to go on.

Mr Speaker, the attacks in Istanbul showed yet again how terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam have perverted a peaceful religion and claimed many innocent Moslem victims. Moslem religious leaders around the world have condemned the attacks. And even extremists have been shocked by terrorism into changing their views. Only last Sunday, a militant cleric in Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Nasir al Fahd, retracted publicly fatwas he had previously issued in support of terrorists, in shock at the attacks in Muhaya earlier this month. Killing innocent people, he said, was not jihad; suicide bombers were not martyrs.

Mr Speaker, terrorism is an international threat, and it now requires a concerted international response.

  • Tackling Weapons Proliferation

But it is not the only threat to our security today. Combating weapons proliferation is also a priority of our foreign policy. Like terrorism, it requires concerted international engagement.

As the House will be aware, I visited Tehran last month with my French and German colleagues, with the aim of bringing home to Iran the seriousness and urgency of international concerns on their nuclear programme. As a result of that visit, Iran said it would cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it undertook to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing. These are welcome promises. The key will of course be Iran's willingness to keep them.

The House will I know I welcome the adoption by consensus of the IAEA resolution based on a French/German/UK draft on Iran on 25 November, which is the result of the intensive diplomatic consultations which followed our visit. We and our partners look forward to continued cooperation with Iran. Already our approach, based on international unity and constructive but critical engagement, has brought us further forward than many imagined possible.

International action backed by strong institutions such as the UN and the IAEA is essential to combating proliferation. This government is committed to strengthening the multilateral system, and making it more effective. That also means that we need to be prepared to follow through Resolutions with action, as we did in the case of Iraq, which had defied UN resolutions for more than a decade.

Mr Speaker, defeating terrorism and tackling WMD proliferation are vital to protecting our security. But we also need to pursue longer-term goals which will create a more stable world and tackle state breakdown and the conditions where violence and extremism can thrive. The world today is too interlinked and interdependent for us to be indifferent to insecurity in any region, however remote.

  • Afghanistan

11 September 2001 brought the violence and chaos of Afghanistan to New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Part of our response to the threat from Afghanistan was military action against the Taliban regime and the terrorists it harboured. But building lasting security there has meant following this up with equal efforts to help Afghanistan towards stability and democracy. Our efforts are paying off. Four million Afghan children are back at school, the economy grew by an estimated 30% in 2002-2003, and over 2 ½ million refugees have returned. Next month, the Afghans will decide for themselves a new Constitution, to be followed by elections next year.

  • Iraq

Mr Speaker, I returned last night from a two-day trip to Iraq. In Baghdad, I met with Ambassador Bremer and General Sanchez, with Sir Jeremy Greenstock and many of the CPA staff, and with President Talabani and his colleagues in the Governing Council. In Baghdad I met with General Lamb, the British General Officer Commanding, many of his staff and that of CPA South, with Italian military personnel and Danish police advisers, and with Judge Wael Abdul Latif, Governor of Basra.

Mr Speaker, I am proud of what the coalition has been able to achieve so far in Iraq, and I expressed my gratitude for the American contribution to Ambassador Bremer and General Sanchez. But they will, I know, not mind my expressing my especial pride and gratitude for the extraordinary work of British military and civilian staff across Iraq. To a man and a woman these are people of calibre and commitment who are, as I saw, dedicated to making a better Iraq for the Iraqis. And I am sure I speak for the whole House when I thank their families and loved ones too - for the months of separation and anxiety involved.

Despite the terrorist attacks, Iraq is making good progress. An elected Iraqi Transitional Government should be in place by July 2004. By the end of 2005, Iraq should have a new constitution approved by its people, and national elections.

Only last week Iraq took another important step towards a normal relationship with the international community after decades as a pariah state under Saddam, when the UN oil for food programme was formally wound up and its responsibilities handed over to the Iraqi Governing Council and the Kurdish regional government.

It is easy to forget that only nine months ago, the stifling tentacles of Saddam's regime extended into every corner of life in Iraq, where Saddam's murderous habits are chillingly recorded in the more than 250 mass graves now discovered, containing just some of the 300,000 poor souls killed or missing under Saddam. Today, the Iraqi people can read, say, buy and watch what they want. Public sector pay has been massively improved: up from $1.50 a month to $180 for a Basra police officer, the Governor told me. The Iraqis have a new currency in their pockets and goods in the markets to buy with it. Over 14,000 reconstruction projects have been launched. Almost all 240 hospitals and more than 1200 clinics are open, as are almost all schools. More than 200 newspapers have appeared. Satellite dishes, which were illegal under Saddam's regime, are now freely available and widely used. Electricity production has surpassed pre-conflict levels.

  • Middle East Security

Building a free, prosperous, democratic and stable Iraq should make a powerful contribution to lasting security across the Middle East. But we also need urgently to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which feeds an environment of hatred and despair in which terrorism thrives. The Roadmap, published by the Quartet of EU, US, Russia and UN, sets out an international consensus, endorsed by Israelis and Palestinians, for what a just solution to the Middle East conflict should look like: two states living securely side by side. We continue to call on both Israelis and Palestinians to fulfil all their commitments under the Roadmap, which has just been explicitly endorsed in UNSCR 1515.

In the wider Middle East region, we are determined to work harder to build lasting stability. Stability does not mean no change: it means change in the right direction, towards economic development, greater democracy, and greater protection of human rights. As many Hon Members pointed out last week after my statement on the Istanbul attacks, the example of Turkey shows how mistaken it is to argue that there is somehow an incompatibility between Islam and a democratic, vibrant and secular society. But in the Arab world, human development is worryingly low, as Arab authors themselves have pointed out in two UN reports. With our partners, this government will continue to promote better governance and reform across the Arab world, by funding grassroots projects aimed at building up capacity locally, by encouraging our international partners to do the same, and through dialogue with Arab leaders.

  • Africa

In Africa too, laying the foundations for lasting stability means promoting good governance and democracy, as African leaders themselves recognised in the NePAD initiative launched in partnership with the G8. Again, our security interests are inseparable from our need to promote these values, which are the only way to guarantee stable and reliable partners around the world.

  • Membership of the EU

Mr Speaker, the government's foreign policy rests on two pillars: our relationship with the US and our membership of the European Union. It is false to argue that we have to choose one or the other. Our future security and prosperity depend on both working together to pursue common interests.

Mr Speaker our membership of the EU is essential for our security and prosperity. More than 3 million British jobs in over 800,000 British companies depend on it; almost 60% of our exports are to the rest of the EU; and EU cooperation is vital if we are tackle cross-border issues such as the environment, illegal immigration and organised crime.

I am the first to accept the EU is not perfect. That's why we are at the forefront of calls for reform. But we can only deliver by active engagement with our partners. Isolation and withdrawal can only result in marginalisation.

The expansion of the EU in May will be an historic milestone, and one which we in Britain can feel justifiably proud. It was after all our Prime Minister who led calls for enlargement to take place before next year's European elections - and that is what is being achieved.

Enlargement will create a market of 500 million consumers - by far the largest single market in the world. But it will represent something more than that, of course. It will represent the triumph of democracy and human rights in Europe, and the affirmation of our common European destiny.

Romania and Bulgaria should soon also be ready to join the EU, and in due course I hope Turkey will come in too.

But for enlargement to operate effectively, there must be change in the way the EU works. I have to leave before the close of this debate to fly to Naples for a further two-day session of the Intergovernmental Conference. Foreign Ministers will be discussing a new version of the draft Constitutional Treaty just released by the Presidency.

It is a little early to go into detail on the text. But I should stress the document is not final. The text makes this point extremely clear: 'the current document is intended to evolve in light of subsequent discussions'. So, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. I can assure the House that there will be ample further occasions to discuss the Constitutional Treaty over the next few weeks. There will of course be the usual pre-European Council Debate on 10 December. I shall also appear before the IGC Standing Committee on 1 December and the Foreign Affairs Committee on 11 December.

These Parliamentary occasions follow a pattern. Since May, there have been seven Debates or Statements in this House on the IGC or Convention. I have twice given evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee and once to the IGC Standing Committee. And my Honourable Friend, the Minister for Europe, has also given evidence to the IGC Standing Committee. Furthermore there have been two reports on the Convention or IGC by the European Scrutiny Committee, and thirteen reports by the Lords' EU Select Committee.

I hope the IGC will agree a constitutional treaty which modernises the way the EU takes decisions in preparation for a Union of 25 and more.

I also believe that national parliaments should for the first time be given a formal role at the EU level, and that the new treaty should make an explicit acknowledgement that the EU's power derives from its member states, ending the hopes of those who seek the creation of a federal United States of Europe.

The negotiations have yet to be completed, and there are changes which we require to the draft treaty in order for Britain to agree. As we said in the White Paper in September:

'The Government... wants the IGC to be a success. It will do its best to ensure that it is. We will take the same positive and constructive approach in the IGC as we took in the Convention and have taken in all of our dealings on Europe. But the Government will not sign up to any treaty which does not, in its view, advance UK interests.'

If we can get agreement, however, as I hope and believe we will, then the new treaty should be a good result for Britain and for the EU, and - as with previous European Treaties - the government will lay a European Union Bill before the House in order to enact it in UK law.

  • Active and Engaged Foreign Policy

Mr Speaker, Britain is more influential today because of the active and engaged foreign policy of this Government. Indeed a recent poll in Germany published in the German magazine Wirtschaftswoche this month rated Britain as the most influential nation in Europe, 27% above France, 26%, and Germany itself, 21%, almost seven times more people put Britain top than in 1996 (4%).

Next week I shall lay before the house a strategy which sets out how we see the world developing over the next ten years, the main threats and the main opportunities we expect to face. The strategy will stress the interlinked nature of today's world, and the need to work more closely together, both within government and with our international partners, to deliver our goals.

Whether it is limiting the flow of drugs to British streets, promoting British trade, tackling illegal immigration to our shores or creating a cleaner domestic environment, delivering national outcomes requires an international role.

More than ever before our destiny as a confident, progressive, prosperous and secure nation state requires an active and engaged foreign policy. If ever internationalism was an idealist luxury, it is today an essential part of pursuing our national interests.

Withdrawing to the sidelines of international debate, as some advocate, or isolating ourselves from the international scene as a way of avoiding the effects of global change, would simply undermine the way we cope and adapt to that change and undermine vital British interests. Withdrawal and isolation is not the road to national liberation but to national ruin.

Since 1997, this Government has pursued the active and engaged foreign policy that we need in today's world. Thanks to this government, Britain is today:

  • a leading player in the European Union;

  • a solid ally of the United States;

  • a strong and committed supporter of the United Nations and the system of international law;

  • delivering a greater commitment than ever before to action on world poverty and development;

  • and a country prepared to put all our assets, including where necessary our armed forces, behind the goals of enforcing international law and promoting justice and democracy.

This is our record, a record of which I am proud. And it is an agenda which we will continue to pursue with vigour and determination.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).