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7.25 pm

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): May I start by thanking the people of Preston, Walton-le-Dale and Bamber Bridge who placed their trust in me by sending me to the House. Those areas were well served by my predecessor, Audrey Wise, who battled for many years on issues such as health, unemployment, housing and immigration. It is an honour to follow in her footsteps in such a wonderful town.

I have represented Preston in a different place across the water. Preston is at the centre of my former central Lancashire European constituency and is the town where I live. It is a fine town with the fastest-growing university in the land and world-beating aerospace and technology

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companies. The town centre combines old and modern and, of course, there are down-to-earth Lancashire folk. Preston is outward-looking and its prosperity is largely dependent on the sale of aircraft around the world. It is a town full of people with the skills to produce world- beating European fighter aircraft, with plans for newer and even better aircraft on the drawing board. It is a town with a rich ethnic and religious diversity, with people all living together in harmony. Preston values European industrial and defence co-operation because it used to build military aircraft in the previous century to defend Britain from our European neighbours. In recent years, it has built aircraft jointly with our European neighbours.

In looking forward to the new century, it is important to look briefly at where we have come from. I should like to quote Winston Churchill, who summed up the sentiments behind closer ties between European nations when he said:

Clearly, Churchill's party does not hold that view today.

Good European connections very often start at local level with twinning agreements between towns such as Preston, Recklinghausen and Almelo. That sort of co-operation is helping to create a stronger, more unified Europe that is built from the bottom up by the people, as well as from the top down by the politicians--and may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on reaching an historic agreement in Nice?

Throughout history, cultural divergences and differences have provided Europe with a richness of culture unrivalled in the world. However, they have also led to some of the bitterest conflicts known to man. One need only look at a map of Europe to see where the lines of conflict have been drawn over the centuries. A determination among the leaders and people of Europe that battle lines must never again be drawn between Germany, France and Britain led to the commitment to develop cultural and historical ties between nations. However, the commitment to European co-operation and understanding between different nationalities had to go far beyond the local level, and has done so. Governments are now well aware that collective initiatives are far more effective than individual ones. It was on the basis of that belief that the European Community was founded. Although many at first doubted the ideas behind the European Union, now, almost 40 years after its creation, there can be little doubt that it has been an overwhelming success.

Since 1957, the European Union has grown stronger year by year. Not only have new member states joined the original six, so that the European Union now comprises 15 member states, but, as we have seen in Nice, Europe is increasingly expanding its vision eastward to encompass the countries of central and eastern Europe. However, the European Union beyond 2000 will not just be a Europe with increased membership: its policies have also grown considerably in the years since its founding. Withdrawal from Europe is now virtually an impossible option. Whether loose talk about reserve powers to end Britain's commitment to the EU treaties is a rejection of any possibility or is based on the discredited notion of joining the North American Free Trade Agreement, such messages undermine British interests.

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Three million jobs depend on our trade with the European Union. Massive advances have been made in social and environmental legislation. A Tory recipe for the isolation of Britain in an era of globalisation is folly. It is unnecessary because the European Union does not pose a threat on health, education, defence, welfare or tax. Indeed, the EU's involvement in all those matters has been of great benefit to Britain.

The myth is still being peddled that an anonymous bureaucracy in Brussels takes decisions on European legislation, not the elected representatives of national member Governments and directly elected European parliamentarians.

Europe and the world beyond 2000 will be places where communications bind together disparate and diverse cultures, languages and traditions. The boundaries that have existed for centuries will be swept away, because the economic, social and political forces that are developing will make them irrelevant. That is not to say that we will lose our language, culture or traditions, but merely that we will have the benefit, knowledge and understanding of others. People can still have a hotpot on a cold evening and fish and chips on a Friday, in spite of European integration.

As MEP Nobel peace prize winner, my good and hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), would say, we must not see diversity as a threat. It is an opportunity for understanding, and respect for it is a prerequisite for peace. When we consider the war in the Balkans and the ethnic cleansing that occurred on a mass scale, we are reminded of the horrors of the second world war. Murder, torture and rape are the weapons of evil, and are being perpetrated on people because they are different. Difference should be treasured and cherished. What sort of a world would it be if we were all the same?

As we move beyond 2000, I am convinced that the war in the Balkans and other conflicts around the world are the last vestiges of nationalism. They are nationalism gasping for its last breath. That is happening--it might seem strange for me to say this as a socialist--because internationalism is being driven by international capitalism. To be successful, internationalism needs rules, laws and order--a new international order that is different from that which prevailed in the previous century through the cold war. It also needs peace and co-operation. That is not to say that this new century will be without war; it will not. However, as someone who believes that the power of good will conquer evil, I believe that in this new century, Europe and the world generally will have won another battle against evil.

7.34 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): May I start by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) on jumping his first parliamentary fence with such confidence, feeling and knowledge? He came to the House to replace Audrey Wise, who was a formidable champion and spokesman for the causes that she favoured and advocated with such strength and fortitude. I am sure that he will prove to be a successful Member of Parliament in her place, following her sad loss. His constituents will be fortified by the knowledge that he gained in another career. I have no doubt that we will hear a great deal more from him, to the great advantage of the House of Commons.

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I want also to pay another warm tribute. As this a foreign affairs and defence debate, I pay tribute to our armed forces and--this applies especially at this time of year--to the families of our service men and women, wherever they are. The nation owes a huge debt to them, as, time after time, they have to pick up the pieces of overstretch, as well as dealing with great difficulties and often terrible disasters. They also regularly have to come to terms with the many penalties of long and unwelcome separations. By keeping the home fires burning, they provide a signal and largely unrecognised service, as do wonderful organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association, which does so much to help and support service families.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will understand--I hope that other hon. Members will also do so--the furore about the new defence arrangements, which rouse such strong feelings in this country. Apart from the strategic importance of getting it right, the people of Great Britain are truly and rightly proud of their armed forces and the way in which they carry out their duties, often in the most difficult circumstances and sometimes in very dangerous conditions. We are all living in a period of revolution: social, technological and political. That is extremely uncomfortable, as it destabilises people. In this extraordinary period of turbulence, the armed forces have maintained high credibility and a unity of purpose and performance. They will survive and prosper whatever the Government do to them, as they are imaginative, courageous, adaptable, flexible and not afraid to use new ideas. In their standard of personal conduct and sense of duty and cohesion, they are an institution that is wholly unique in this land and a priceless and golden asset for the vigorous promotion of our national interest throughout the world.

It will not, however, surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I want to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in saying a few words about the Gracious Speech with particular regard to NATO. I should like to start with what I hope is a truism. Our small armed forces--indeed, they are too small for all that is asked of them--vastly exceed in quality and operational ability those of any other European state. The French, who are the best of the rest, may just have a deployable force of British size and capability in about 10 years' time, but certainly not before.

Thus do we see that the efforts of the previous Conservative Government to improve the capability of our European partners were vital. It is a massive untruth promoted by the Government's propaganda factory to say that the Tories are anything other than wholly in favour of enhanced, improved and greater European defence co-operation and capability. The Minister for the Armed Forces can sit with an inane grin on his face, but it remains the case that, for three and half years, a massive amount of work was done by the previous Government in that very field. It was done under the aegis of NATO, however, and not some foolish, half-arsed idea--I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker--to split NATO asunder.

We already have a good rapid reaction force in NATO: the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, for which a specialist military doctrine was developed on the basis of the joint rapid deployment force concept. The corps was intended to deal with all crises, up to and including war fighting, and included the use of American

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assets and logistics, and, most important, intelligence. What can the new paper creation do that the ARRC cannot do much better already? I repeat that Conservative Members are wholly in favour of increased defence co-operation, but not at any price. What is required, in truth, is a vast improvement in capability, greater firepower and larger European defence budgets. However, there is absolutely no sign or evidence that that is happening.

What is proposed is, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, dangerous, for it has created the one thing that is most fatal in all military matters--a climate of uncertainty. As we warned, that could well damage NATO and the Atlantic alliance. All military operations, at whatever level, depend on absolute clarity of the chain of command and on simplicity of orders and mission. It is insane to have a separate EU planning establishment, Military staff and Military Committee. They are all bound to grow, which will certainly cause confusion.

I do not question the Atlanticist credentials of the Prime Minister, but, in his vanity and naivety, although he believes that he can trump the French, he is quite wrong. As my right hon. and learned Friend so pointedly and correctly said, the French have worked for years to undermine and dilute the American influence in Europe. Indeed, General de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the European Union precisely because she was too big, too powerful and too linked militarily to the Americans. What has been decided, whatever the spin of the Minister for the Armed Forces, will weaken the bonds that bind NATO to Europe.

I do not think the Prime Minister understands that there are, in military matters, no substitutes for victory. Wars are not won by scruffy compromises on defence at EU summits or by the assigning of underfunded, undermanned forces to a largely paper-created concept. I want the development to take place wholly under the NATO umbrella, but the Prime Minister has seen to that--he has begun fundamentally to undermine the most successful defensive military alliance the world has ever seen, and his actions will have led to the weakening of the Atlantic alliance, with possibly grave military consequences.

I am, in truth, staggered at the failure of the Government and their Back-Bench poodles not to see the dangers of the EU defence proposal. In this case, the Opposition have an absolute duty to warn that the arrangements will not work. We must see to it, when we come to power, that we radically put them back on the right track.

I just do not understand how the Prime Minister cannot see how France has achieved her greatest ambition: to saddle the European Union with a separate and politically powerful, and certainly divisive, military planning capacity, against which the American Defence Secretary so powerfully spoke out last week.

We Europeans live in an arc of danger, even in this cosy little socialist world into which we have been dragged. It begins with the countries of the former Soviet Union, passes through the Balkans--where we have a continuing and formidable commitment--stretches east to the troubled Caucasus, passes through the middle east and stretches along the north shores of Africa to the Atlantic. Those areas, which are crucial to Europe's interests, suffer from a range of violence and turbulence and the constant

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threat of trouble. It is imperative, therefore, that the partnership between Europe and America gets this right; the current proposal is not the right way to do so.

I want to say a few words in conclusion about our diplomatic service. Man for man and woman for woman, they are, in my judgment, the best in the world. They and their families are faithful, energetic, loyal and resourceful, and they are very good at what they do. We are exceedingly lucky to have such a fine diplomatic service, and I salute it as Christmas approaches.

I of course welcome those parts of the treaty of Nice that will lead to the enlargement of the European Union, but only those parts that genuinely will do so. I detect across continental Europe a profound feeling that the existing and sometimes unwise transfers of sovereignty have reached popular limits. We do, indeed, need a fundamental rethink of the way in which that union works. However, I hope that the Commission and Governments will press ahead with producing a defining treaty which sets out clearly those tasks that need tackling on a European basis and those that should be left to nations. Popular opinion across Europe now demands a proper settlement of those matters. Only by doing so will we do away with the sullen mood of understandable scepticism across Europe, which is so souring this very important debate.

I am fed up with my party being characterised as anti-European. On our side of the House, we understand, as these great and profound changes in the geometry of Europe take place, that it is not in the interests of Britain for a substantial group of continental countries to move ahead without us into any major sphere of policy if there is any possibility that in that sphere they will, without our participation, create a situation that will have a deep influence on our lives. The thrust of British foreign policy in recent centuries has always been to prevent that. An enlarged European Union will certainly need such flexibility. The ideas promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) and many others in my party, about how to create a flexible, outward-looking, enlightened and vigorous Europe, can be signed up to by our whole nation.

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