Barcelona Process and Assistance to Palestinian Society

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Peter Hain: May I first respond to the powerful and persuasive arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon? He asked pertinent and sometimes uncomfortably awkward questions about where the Barcelona process is going and the limits of our engagement, as the European Union and the British Government, in this fraught crisis. I should like to reflect on many of the points that my hon. Friend made, and perhaps write to him, because he raised some sharp issues about the direction of the process during the current conflagration in the region. That will, as he pointed out, be the subject of the Barcelona five session in April, under the Spanish presidency.

I thank hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, for their contributions. It has been an interesting and sombre debate, at a key moment in the developing crisis. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked some fairly sharp questions, about educational aid for example. Those were, I think, partly answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, but I should add that many of the allegations, which it was quite proper to mention, have, as a result of investigation by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, been shown to be unfounded.

We are aware of the importance of delivering British and European aid in a responsible fashion, and, as well as enhancing the development of a new Palestine, promoting stability and peace. We strongly agree with the important point about the possibility that effective, targeted aid could be a powerful instrument in reducing economic resentment on the ground, which is the enemy of progress.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North made the compelling point that the problem is political and not just technical. I agree, and it would have been wrong if the Committee, particularly under your generous chairmanship, Mr. Amess, had concentrated only on the technical matters when the whole region is up in flames and people are killing each other in such a terrible way. I also agree with my hon. Friend that opinion is not monolithic on either side. There are still peace activists, in difficult conditions, in Israel, and there are democratic and progressive forces, which we need to encourage, both in the Palestinian Authority and generally in the Palestinian Authority region and the occupied territories. We must unlock those creative forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield showed his long-standing and committed interest in the region's problems. That is particularly true of his strong support—which I share—for Palestinian rights, and he has probably done as much work as anyone in that regard. He said that it was important to understand the concerns of his Israeli friends in Jerusalem and his Palestinian friends in Nablus, all of whom are caught up in this dreadful situation, and he speaks with great authority in that respect.

My hon. Friend mentioned an issue that he has persistently and quite properly raised with me before: goods from settlements. It is good that he does so, because Parliament should scrutinise the issue. It was raised at the European-Israeli association council on 20 November. There is evidence that goods from settlements are being imported as though they were of Israeli origin, and we have been working with our EU partners and Israel to find a solution that is compatible with EU law. This technical matter is governed by the terms of the association agreement. We have not yet reached a satisfactory outcome, but the association council agreed on 20 November to continue discussions at an expert level. I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the issue, because we cannot continue to put it on the back burner and must resolve it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde said that it was important to have a lessons-learned mentality. He referred to a unit that was set up under the then UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. I must say that my hon. Friend has educated me in that regard, because I was not aware of that unit. I am advised that the EU has a cross-cutting inter-service quality support group, part of whose responsibility is to learn lessons from different projects and programmes. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that reassuring.

My hon. Friend asked very pertinently why Israeli citizens who were active peacekeepers only a year or two ago were now Sharon voters. That goes to the heart of the issue because, as my hon. Friend said, Israeli citizens are completely terrified. It is difficult to see how the tit-for-tat violence that Israel inflicts on the Palestinians and the Palestinians inflict on Israeli citizens through suicide bombings can lead their communities anywhere other than down an increasingly dark and bitter cul-de-sac from which it

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will be extremely difficult to emerge. I agree that there were faults on the Palestinian Authority side before Sharon, but very damaging faults and mistakes could be ascribed, too, to the Israeli Government. Those will not enhance the future security of Israel or its citizens, but, on the contrary, damage them.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the potential misuse of funding. I remind him that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, European Community budgetary aid is accompanied by conditions, including accountability for funds and transparency. In addition, support is channelled through one line Ministry. As regards its assistance, the European Community employs strong monitoring mechanisms in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund. I am not saying that there have been no failures, because clearly there have, but we keep a beady eye on the situation. I should also remind my hon. Friend that British support is currently provided in the form of technical assistance or through non-governmental organisations, not in the form of direct funding to the Palestinian Authority. Several donors have now confidently begun using direct funding mechanisms that go through PA institutions, and we hope that that will generate greater confidence so that we can engage much further.

Overshadowing this debate are the awful tit-for-tat atrocities being committed by both sides. That is self-evidently a tragedy, and it is a frustration to the British Government and the European Union. Just 18 months ago in August 2000, when I was Minister responsible for the middle east, I recall meeting both Prime Minister Barak, as he then was, and President Arafat within hours of each other, travelling from Jerusalem to Gaza. We talked about the fraught issue of

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sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif—the Temple mount. I carried a message between them and it was clear that they were very close. The differences were deep, yet they were incredibly close.

We need to get back to that situation so that we can bring the two sides together to crack the negotiated settlement that I am confident is there for the cracking if only we can provide the conditions in which people stop killing each other and start talking. The European Union's commitment to the Mediterranean region is important to the Union's prosperity and security. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon. The regional conflagration is not isolated from us—it has the capacity to destabilise the whole world and could well do so if it is not resolved.

The Barcelona process is an important means of furthering Europe's relationship with our 12 Mediterranean neighbours. As has been said, the 1995 declaration established an equal partnership among 27 members and called for further co-operation on political and security issues, economic and social issues and cultural issues. I hope that the debate has contributed to extra energy being put into resolving an intractable problem.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents Nos. 11381/00, the mission Communication on ''Reinvigorating the Barcelona Process'', and 14778/00, relating to the Special Report by the Court of Auditors on the management by the Commission of the programme of assistance to Palestinian Society; and welcomes the Government's approach to EC assistance to Palestinian society and supports the Government's continuing commitment to the Barcelona Process.

        Committee rose at Seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Barrett, John
Cairns, David
Farrelly, Paul

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Francis, Dr. Hywel
Hopkins, Mr. Kelvin
Picking, Anne
Williams, Hywel

The Following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Benn, Hilary (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State

for International Development)

Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield)

Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)

Casale, Roger (Wimbledon)

Duncan, Mr. Alan (Rutland and Melton)

Hain, Peter (Minister for Europe)

Hawkins, Mr. Nick (Surrey Heath)

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