With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Libya and report back from last week’s European Council. On Libya, I want to update the House on military action, on the steps that we are taking to strengthen and deepen the alliance, on our efforts to ensure that humanitarian aid gets through and on plans for the future, including the conference that we are holding tomorrow.
First, on military action, I believe that it is quite clear that allied operations have had a significant and beneficial effect. We have stopped the assault on Benghazi and helped to create conditions in which a number of towns have been liberated from Gaddafi’s onslaught. In towns such as Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, people are now free to return to their homes. The no-fly zone is now fully operational and effective. When it has been challenged, Gaddafi’s planes have been shot down. He can no longer terrorise the Libyan people from the air.
UK pilots have now made more than 120 sorties and flown for more than 250 hours. Over the weekend, RAF Tornados continued to conduct armed reconnaissance sorties, hitting a total of 22 tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces around Ajdabiya and Misrata. This involved some extremely skilful and courageous work by British pilots seeking out and destroying tanks while doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. I am sure that everyone here will want to send their best thoughts and wishes to our brave pilots and all those in our armed services for the work they do.
I can also tell the House that during the early hours of this morning our Tornado pilots flew deep into the desert to strike against major ammunition bunkers at Sabha, which we believe were being used to resupply Gaddafi’s forces, including those terrorising people in Misrata. Initial reports suggest that the bunkers have been destroyed.
There remain, of course, real issues of concern. The situation of civilians in Misrata and Zintan is extremely grave, and the situation for civilians in other towns under the regime’s control is also deeply concerning, with widespread reports of human rights abuses. But we have moved quickly and decisively over the last week and we will stick to our task, as set out in the UN resolution and take all necessary measures to protect civilian life.
Secondly, on the strengthening and deepening of the alliance, I told the House last week that we believed NATO should take on the command and control of Libyan operations. This has now been agreed. NATO is already co-ordinating the arms embargo, the maritime operation and the no-fly zone. Now it will take on command and control of all military operations, including those to protect the civilian population. Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard has been appointed as the NATO commander of the joint taskforce for the operation.
I have also made clear the crucial importance of the further active involvement of Arab nations. On Friday, the United Arab Emirates confirmed it would provide 12 fast jets, six F-16s and six Mirages, while on Saturday jets from the Qatari royal air force flew over Libyan airspace to patrol the no-fly zone for the first time. We look forward to welcoming the representatives of five Arab states, the Arab League and the African Union at our conference tomorrow.
Thirdly, it is critically important that humanitarian aid gets through to those who need it. It is absolutely clear that when the Gaddafi regime occupies a town such as Ajdabiya, the people suffer terribly. When the regime leaves a town, the way is open for proper humanitarian access. The important thing now is to make sure that it happens.
Our strategy is to help fund the humanitarian organisations that have been able to get in, to help the UN play its co-ordinating role and to provide assistance at Libya’s borders. We have funded the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is now present in Misrata, to provide support for up to 100,000 people for basic necessities and to treat 3,000 walking wounded. We flew 12,000 migrant workers trapped on the Tunisian border back to their countries and their families and we delivered 2,000 large tents and 38,000 blankets to the border. We will continue to give intense focus to humanitarian access in the coming days.
Fourthly, on plans for the future, in order to make the pressure on the Gaddafi regime as effective as possible, it is vital that we have the maximum political and diplomatic unity around the world. At the European Council, Europe came together over Libya. The Council conclusions endorsed UN Security Council resolution 1973, set out Europe’s
“determination to contribute to its implementation” and recognised the lives saved by our action so far. This is an important step forward and it shows that Europe is now fully on board with this mission.
Today, alongside the British and French aircraft, there are Danish, Dutch and Spanish aircraft taking part in the action over Libya, flying from Italian bases, working with warships from the UK, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Poland. Romania will also provide a frigate and the Turks are planning to make naval assets available, too. Tomorrow, Britain will host a broad international conference in London to review progress and plan for the future. This will include representatives from more than 40 countries, including all the military contributors to the operation, and the United Nations Secretary-General will also be there.
I can tell the House this afternoon that France and the UK will issue a joint statement to the conference participants, setting out what is at stake as we gather to support a new beginning for Libya. A copy of the statement is in the Library.
Libya’s new beginning requires three things: first, to reaffirm our commitment to UN Security Council resolution 1973 and the broad alliance determined to implement it; secondly, to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, including to the newly liberated towns; and, thirdly, to help plan for the future of Libya after the conflict is over. It is for the people of Libya to choose how they are governed and who governs them, but they have a far better chance of doing that as we stand today than they did 10 days ago. Had we not acted, their future would already have been decided for them.
Let me now turn to the economic issues discussed at the Council. Britain had two goals at the summit: first, to support the euro area’s efforts to bring stability to the eurozone while fully protecting Britain’s sovereignty, and, secondly, following our Budget for growth last week, to win support for a similarly ambitious pro-growth, pro-market agenda for Europe as a whole. Let me take those two goals in turn.
I have always said that a successful eurozone is in Britain’s national interest. Given that 40% of our trade is with eurozone countries, we want the eurozone to deal with its problems and challenges, and we should therefore welcome the steps to which eurozone countries are committing themselves to taking with the euro plus pact. However, I have also said that Britain is not in the euro and will not be joining the euro, so it is right that we should not be involved in the euro area’s internal arrangements. That is why we are not intending to join the “pact” that euro area countries have agreed. It is also why I believe that we should not have any liability for bailing out the eurozone, but given the current emergency arrangements, established under article 122, we do have such a liability.
That decision was taken by the previous Government, and it is a decision to which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor specifically objected when it was taken by his predecessor after the election but before this Government took office. Frustratingly, we are stuck with it for the duration of the emergency mechanism, but that is why I ensured last December that the eurozone treaty change would carve Britain out of the eurozone bailout arrangements when the new permanent arrangements were introduced in 2013, and specifically secured agreement that, from that point onwards, article 122 would not be used for this purpose. That ends our current potential liability, and makes it clear that from 2013 Britain will not be dragged into bailing out the eurozone.
My second goal was growth. There was clear agreement at the Council about the link between action on deficits and action for growth. As the conclusions clearly state, fiscal consolidation
“should be frontloaded in Member States facing very large structural deficits or very high or rapidly increasing levels of public debt.”
We agree. It is worth noting that the UK still has one of the highest budget deficits in the EU—higher than those of Greece, Spain and Portugal—but because of the actions we have taken our interest rates are closer to those of Germany. It is also worth noting that the EU forecast is for the UK to grow in 2011 faster than France, Spain, Italy, the eurozone average and the EU average.
Just as we have a Budget for growth in the British economy, we need a plan for growth in the European economy. In advance of the Council, I organised a letter, which was signed by nine countries, making the case for specific actions to support growth: completing the single market and extending it to services, boosting trade, opening up and connecting European and global markets, reducing regulation, supporting innovation, and unleashing enterprise. That has had a real impact, not least because the argument is now being made not just by Britain but by Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. As a result, the European Council endorsed much of our approach. We agreed that we should focus on concluding the Doha round and other free trade agreements in 2011. We also agreed that
“the overall regulatory burden should be reduced”,
and that micro-enterprises should be exempted from certain future regulations. That moratorium, which mirrors the moratorium on regulation for small businesses in last week’s Budget, is a positive endorsement of the approach we are taking in Britain.
Finally, the Council discussed how Europe could help Japan to recover from the devastation caused by the earthquake and the tsunami. I spoke to the Japanese Prime Minister on Friday. As the House knows, we have provided search and rescue teams, and stand ready to help in other ways. I know that everyone in the House will applaud the resilience and courage of the Japanese people during these tragic times. Looking to the future, we should show solidarity with the Japanese, and help both our economies by pushing forward with a free trade deal between Japan and the EU. At Britain’s instigation, the Council conclusions explicitly refer to the
“potential launch of negotiations for a free trade agreement .”
At this Council, Europe was faced with a choice: to rise to the challenges facing our continent, or to take the path of least resistance. On Libya, Europe chose to come together around the stand taken by Britain, France and the United States to respond to the call of the Arab League and save people on our continent’s doorstep from slaughter. On the economy, Europe chose a new direction, based on the principles set out by Britain and other member states, for stronger growth and prosperity.
For too long Europe has focused on issues of process and structure. Last week, Britain helped Europe to focus on policies and people: on creating prosperity for its citizens, and confronting a humanitarian crisis on its southern border.
I commend the statement to the House.