|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): The United States is Britain's closest ally. We enjoy excellent co-operation across a wide range of defence and security issues. NATO provides the cornerstone of our relationship. Co-operation between Britain and the US has continued after the recent change of US Administration, not least because a close working relationship is the best way of advancing our mutual interests and safeguarding our collective security.
Mr. Waterson: Will the Minister confirm that the Nice treaty refers to an autonomous capacity to take decisions and to independent intelligence and logistic capabilities? Will he now come clean and accept that the duplicate and parallel structures agreed at Nice can serve only to undermine the Atlantic alliance?
Mr. Vaz: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not come to last Monday night's debate on European security, in which I explained in great detail that the reason for the problem in understanding what has happened on European defence is the activities of Opposition Members, and especially of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I repeat that it is quite clear that NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy. That means working with NATO and consulting it at every single stage before a decision is taken.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is my hon. Friend aware of the great concern that is felt in a number of quarters about the US national missile defence proposals? That concern is felt not only by the Russians, the Chinese and our EU allies, but by local people who live close to the sites that would inevitably be involved--Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. Ministers rightly pride themselves on our very close relationship with the US, but will he assure the House that our anxiety to keep in with the Americans does not outweigh our ability to make a balanced judgment about the threat to world peace that this star wars proposal might cause? We do not want to allow the threat of an escalation in the arms race because we are frightened of falling out with the Americans.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): Having visited the United States recently and talked to many of the people there who know about the role played by Europe in the affections of the Government, what on earth leads the Minister to believe that their suspicion about weakening NATO arises from criticisms made by Opposition Members? Surely he has greater respect for the Americans whom he meets.
Mr. Vaz: I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he feels strongly about these issues, but the facts are very clear. On 23 February this year, a joint communique was issued by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister. It made it clear that the United States Government support the European security and defence policy. They are relaxed about that policy because its bedrock is NATO. The right hon. Gentleman need only look at his right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) to know where the history of European security and defence began: the Maastricht treaty, which his right hon. Friend signed.
That is where the framework began. It continued at Petersberg, where Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Hurd both signed up to a European security and defence policy. The policy has been accepted by both sides for many years.
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Will my hon. Friend say whether there have been any discussions whatever on the national missile defence system? If such discussions take place in future, will he tell the Americans that the system will restart the cold war, and that many people here do not want to see our country turned into an unsinkable aircraft carrier?
Mr. Vaz: I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work very closely with our strongest friend, the United States of America. No proposals are currently on the table. If there were, I assure my hon. Friend that he and the House would be aware of them, and the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence would be explaining them to the House; but there are no proposals. We told President Bush on 23 February that we would continue to work closely with the United States, and that remains the position.
Mr. Vaz: What is astonishing is the right hon. Gentleman's complete lack of understanding of what has been going on over the past 10 years. I find that particularly astonishing, because it was the right hon. Gentleman himself--St. Francis of Maastricht--who signed the Maastricht treaty, so he knows all about European defence.
The United States of America fully supports European security and defence policy. That was agreed, and the communique was set out on 23 February. What the right hon. Gentleman cannot stomach is the fact that the Prime Minister and the President could issue the statement together.
4. Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): If he discussed matters relating to the UN administration of Kosovo when he last met his colleagues representing other member states of NATO. 
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed matters relating to Kosovo with his NATO counterparts at a North Atlantic Council ministerial meeting on 27 February. Hans Haekkerup, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo, briefed the North Atlantic Council on the work of UNMIK--the United Nations Mission in Kosovo--on 28 February.
We fully support Mr. Haekkerup's efforts to ensure the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1244. We welcome the priorities that he has set, namely the establishment of a legal framework for provisional institutions for Kosovo, law and order and economic reconstruction. We also welcome his efforts to establish regular dialogue with the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Dr. Godman: Maintaining law and order in Kosovo is an immensely difficult task: everyone knows that. Am I right in thinking that KFOR is largely a European force, and a highly trained one at that? By contrast, the UN's international police force is composed of officers from 66 countries, many of whom, regrettably, are poorly trained. When did the Minister last raise at the UN the problems caused by this ill-equipped police force? There are some first-class officers in Kosovo, but many officers are not up to it.
Mr. Vaz: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns. Having just visited the area, he knows the seriousness and the difficulties of the situation. We believe, however, that things are improving. We continue to raise these matters at the UN, and in every forum that we have at our
Law and order is clearly a crucial issue. My hon. Friend will note that the murder rate has gone down dramatically over the last year. The British Government make a contribution to both forces and will continue to do so, but ultimately it is about building confidence between the communities. Unless and until we do that, we will never obtain a lasting settlement of the problems in the Balkans.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I have just returned from a visit to Kosovo with the Select Committee on Defence, and I was immensely impressed by the work that our troops are doing there; but can the Minister give us any guidance on the Government's exit strategy for our troops deployed in Kosovo?
Mr. Vaz: We will continue to be involved in trying to win the peace, as we have been throughout the past few years. The hon. Gentleman has just visited the area, and I would be keen to look at the report that he and his Committee will publish as a result of that visit. He knows that these are agonisingly difficult problems. The way to deal with the situation is, as I have just said, to build confidence between the communities. It would not be appropriate or right to talk about exit strategies. We are there to support the restoration of law and order, and to provide the necessary forces to ensure that there will be peace and security for the people of Kosovo.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I, too, was in Kosovo last week with the Defence Committee. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the British forces--the 1st Battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and the other forces--that are doing such a vital job there? Is he aware that, unfortunately, a lot of their time is at present devoted to defending the lives and protecting the religious property of the very few--only 300--Serbs remaining in Pristina? Is it not vital, given that that conflict was fought to preserve a multi-ethnic Kosovo and Serbia, to send the message firmly and clearly to Albania, to the groups in the Presevo valley and in Macedonia and to the Kosovar Albanians, that the international community will not tolerate any moves towards single ethnicity in the Balkans?
Mr. Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the British forces. I shall certainly pass them on to the Secretary of State for Defence. My hon. Friend's message is a powerful one, which we should heed, especially at these difficult times in the Balkans. What has happened there is a tragedy. Our role is to do exactly as my hon. Friend has suggested: to ensure that the message of multi-ethnicity is one that every country in the Balkans understands. This is the best way in which the communities themselves can work together. We have a proud record in the Balkans. We will also maintain our proud record of trying to ensure that the communities work together, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments.