Barcelona Process and Assistance to Palestinian Society

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David Cairns: I readily concede those points. They are not in dispute. I readily concede that Israel's behaviour has often exacerbated the situation, but I hope that my hon. Friend will concede that the behaviour of the Palestinian Authority has not been exemplary on every occasion. I am sure that he will concede that the Palestinian Authority does not have, or pretend to have, complete control over everything that goes on in its geographical area.

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that the Palestinian Authority is beginning to get a bit tougher on some of those operating unchecked—I will not use the phrase ''under licence'', because I do not like it—from bases in Palestine to launch terrorist attacks on Israel. I obviously regret the killing of one Palestinian by another, but if the Palestinian Authority sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate such breaches, some good may come out of that tragedy.

The key question for DFID and the EU is whether to increase resources in order to match high aspirations, or to lower aspirations and do less, but better. I am unashamedly in the second camp. It is always a mistake when there is mismanagement and funds are going missing to believe that the problem will be solved if more money is thrown at it. I do not agree; that is not the right attitude.

We must focus on getting core activities right and ensuring that, within waivers and limits, corruption is minimised. If we can get those basics right, the programme should be expanded, but if there is a running argument about whether to increase resources to manage existing programmes or to lower aspirations and do less, better, I will nail my colours to the latter mast.

11.49 am

Roger Casale: I welcome this timely opportunity to debate the positive role that the European Union can play in relation to the present crisis in the middle east.

May I preface my remarks by saying that I welcome the fact that a debate of this kind brings together hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who has had such a distinguished and long record of commitment to the middle east peace process, and others who have perhaps come to the subject more recently?

We should all recognise that we need to set the question of the EU's role in the middle east, and, in particular, the EU's aid and assistance to the Palestinian Authority, in a broader strategic context. The middle east crisis is at the top of the international security agenda. All of us who want the forces of moderation and democracy to prevail over a descent into violence and despair should want to show our

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colours at the present time and engage in the debate, just as we look to the European Union to step up its engagement with the middle east.

Secondly, and in response to a reply given by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, I do recognise the roles that EU high representative Solana and External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten have played—not forgetting the EU special envoy for the middle east peace process, Mr. Moratinos. However, I think that all three would be the first to admit that their role would be more effective with clearer political leadership, stronger political will and a broader strategy—together with a mechanism for monitoring it—for using EU influence to try to stabilise the situation in the middle east.

Drafting of the documents that are before us began in 2000, and there has since been a dreadful decline in the political situation in the middle east, with the breakdown of the peace process, the start of the second intifada and a steady deterioration with respect to security. As has been mentioned, Israeli tanks rolled into the Palestinian town of Nablus yesterday, and last night we learned of a further shooting, on the streets of Jerusalem, of Israeli citizens by a Palestinian suicide gunman. The ebb and flow of violence in the middle east has claimed more than 1,000 lives since November 2000—80 per cent. of them Palestinians, and many of them women and children. Yet the cycle of murderous attacks followed by brutal assassinations and savage military reprisals daily becomes more severe.

Against that dismal backdrop, we are right to ask what, if anything, can be done to move the Arab-Israeli conflict away from violence and towards the path of peace. This debate provides a further opportunity to reconsider what steps can be taken by Britain, the international community and, in particular, the European Union, to engage constructively in the current middle east crisis.

For many years, the EU has provided substantial economic assistance and aid to the Palestinian Authority. More than 108 million ecus were given to the authority in 2001, in addition to the more than 3 billion ecus that have been invested in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1994. The EU has also done more than any other institution to promote elections, the fight against corruption and the rule of law in the Palestinian territories.

When the peace process broke down, the EU rightly began to examine its role and effectiveness more critically. Later, as the political and security crisis deepened, the EU's overall strategic framework for aid to the middle east began to be called into question. By the time of the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September, the EU's approach to the middle east was in need of a complete overhaul. We face the choice of finding a bold new impetus for EU involvement or losing influence in the region for many years.

The documents that we are considering today relate to the Court of Auditors assessment of the assistance that has been given to the Palestinian authority, but also the strategic framework—the Barcelona

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process—through which the EU has sought to bring the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority together, in the context of a regional initiative to secure peace and stability in the Mediterranean region. The European Union can play a greater role in relation to the middle east, but that will require much greater leadership, political will and, perhaps, an entirely new strategy to build on the Barcelona process.

The Court of Auditors report makes the understandable, if obvious, point that the effectiveness of the economic assistance provided to the Palestinian Authority has been hampered by deterioration in the political and security situation. It also criticises the lack of management skills, staff and co-ordination necessary for the efficient delivery of the programme. The building of the European Gaza hospital is cited as a particular example of such failure.

In part, the difficulties encountered by the EU in delivering development assistance to the Palestinian Authority are germane to the EU's development work as a whole. However, given that such problems exist in relation to similar programmes elsewhere, it is not surprising that the situation has been further exacerbated in this case by the political situation in the middle east. That has made it harder to deliver individual projects on budget, on time and to the defined specifications.

We have also heard evidence that completed EU-funded projects have been damaged or destroyed by the fighting—particularly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, by Israeli military reprisals in the Palestinian-controlled areas. In re-examining the package of assistance, it is right to accept that there is always a need—as there is in this instance—to improve the efficiency and monitoring of EU projects in the area. However, I do not believe that it would be right in the present circumstances to use that kind of argument to throw the existence of the aid package into question. On the contrary, it is crucial that the EU should continue and, if possible, step up its assistance to the Palestinian Authority, not just as an instrument of development aid, but to help to shore up the Palestinian Authority and so help to stabilise the political situation in the middle east.

We should recognise that there is a two-way relationship between aid and the political and security situation. As the Court of Auditors report makes clear, a deterioration of the security situation would hamper our development efforts. It is also the case that reducing the level of assistance would aggravate the political situation and lead to further escalations of conflict.

The EU must continue to take the lead in supporting the Palestinian Authority, recognising that it is the only structure capable of providing basic services and a minimum security guarantee; it is the only alternative to anarchy and increasing support for militant groups, such as Hamas and jihad. We should ask our Ministers to work with their EU counterparts to impress on Israel the need for restraint—not least because in destroying infrastructure and public buildings in the West Bank and Gaza, and through its policy of closures, it is destroying projects that have been paid

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for in whole or in part by Europeans, who will wish to hold them to account. We in Europe, and people across the world, have a stake in the success of those projects.

Mr. Hopkins: I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that a good case can be made for substantially increasing aid in order to rebuild the very projects that have been destroyed by military action by Israel?

Roger Casale: I do agree. I hope that the matter will be discussed at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels next week and at subsequent summits of the Euro-Med council and the Barcelona summit. It is right that we should do that; there is a fundamental issue of human rights and of justice. It is also essential in order to stabilise the situation in the middle east. None of us should forget that the situation is so grave that we all—wherever we are in the world—have a stake in a satisfactory outcome to the present crisis in the middle east.

Let me turn to the Barcelona process itself. It was launched under the Spanish EU presidency in 1995. By coincidence, we are re-examining the Barcelona process under another Spanish presidency. It was also in Spain—in Madrid—that the Palestinians and Israelis were brought together under American leadership 10 years ago, when a strong, new impetus was given to the peace process that led to the Oslo accords and the Mitchell agreements. The process must be seen as an attempt by the EU to help create the conditions to shape the parameters of the middle east peace process so as to increase its chances of success. As the tragic events unfold in the middle east, it is clear not only that the peace process has broken down but that the road back to the peace process is no longer in sight. Under those circumstances, the question of reinvigorating the Barcelona process must, as today's debate suggests, be seen in a completely different context from that when the document was drafted.

We must consider not only how best to reinvigorate the process but whether the strategic approach that underlies the Barcelona process is appropriate. Looking today at the Barcelona process, it seems to me that we need to consider three principal options. First, we might consider abandoning the process in the face of the current crisis, or at least formally decouple the Barcelona process from our strategy to put the middle east process back on track. We can see that from the minutes and from the ministerial correspondence in the documents before us.

At the EuroMed meeting in November 2000, the middle east issue was dealt with in separate meetings, and at the Euro-Med meeting in November 2001, EU Foreign Ministers could do little more than reaffirm their commitment to the Barcelona declaration and urge both Palestinians and Israelis to end their violence and return to the negotiating table. However, it was clear that there was no prospect—it has been confirmed today—of the charter for peace and stability, which was meant to underpin the Barcelona process, being signed. Moreover, although the importance of widening and deepening dialogue

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between cultures and civilisations within the European framework was emphasised, especially in relation to education, youth and the media, there was also recognition of the fact that that dialogue would have little or no impact on shaping the political and security situation in the middle east. However, to abandon the Barcelona process would be to advocate a counsel of despair.

The second option to consider is whether, if the Barcelona process can be reinvigorated, it could have a discernible impact on the current crisis. That seems to be the Government's preferred option, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. It could be argued that there is sufficient flexibility in the Barcelona process to accommodate discussion of the middle east crisis while moving forward on other aspects of the European Mediterranean agenda, and that the stronger the bilateral links that bind EU countries to those non-EU countries that border the Mediterranean, the better the prospects for peace and stability in the region, whatever the outcome of the peace process in the middle east.

My view is that there would be much merit in reinvigorating the Barcelona process, and I hope that the Minister will take those arguments further when he meets his EU counterparts next week and at the Euro-Med conference in April. The process is well established, and it provides a vehicle and mechanism for taking forward and implementing important strands of an overall approach to the region.

The third option that I ask the Committee to consider is that the Barcelona process should be set within a new strategic framework if we are to give a new impetus to the EU's role and influence in the middle east. We should take the process forward, but recognise also that the strategy underpinning that process has been overtaken by events. It is time now to broaden that strategy and to give it a new strategic focus. We face a middle east crisis, not a middle east peace process. That crisis must be seen as an international security crisis of the highest order.

We cannot continue to view the political situation in the middle east—as the Barcelona process does—as being predominantly about regional peace and stability in the Mediterranean area. I submit that the Barcelona process should continue to be part of our overall approach within the new strategic framework, but that the impetus for recasting and reinvigorating the framework must come from elsewhere in the EU's institutional portfolio. In particular, we should examine the role that the instruments of the European Union's common foreign and security policy can bring to bear. Such is the elaboration of common positions in relation to the middle east, that I would favour the elaboration by the EU of a common strategy on the middle east, with a much stronger input from the European Council at the level of heads of state, leading into the Barcelona summit.

Traditionally, as I commented in my earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the EU has been seen as—and has been—economically powerful, but has not enjoyed political power or influence commensurate with its economic strength.

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That has been particularly true in the middle east. That is a serious handicap in relation to the role that the EU can play with respect to the unfolding crisis. However, new leadership—by Britain in particular—would help to overcome the EU's lack of political authority internationally.

A point that will not be lost on any Committee member is the extent to which many citizens not just in this country but across the European Union look to our Prime Minister as the European leader who could move the political and security agenda in the middle east forward from its present position towards the path of peace.

I hope that today's debate will encourage the Government to try to move the EU agenda beyond simply attempting to reinvigorate the Barcelona process. Instead we should recognise that Britain can play a decisive role in giving new impetus to the overall EU approach to the middle east, by focusing attention on the middle east crisis as an issue that threatens international security. It is in Britain's interest to do that, and it might help to tip the balance between the spiralling violence, with the end of any prospect of peace, and a return to the negotiations that are the only route to a stable, just and secure future for all the peoples of the middle east.

12.6 pm

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