Middle East and Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:59 pm on 23rd October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Roper Lord Roper Liberal Democrat 5:59 pm, 23rd October 2007

My Lords, I thank the usual channels for including in this debate the Motion in my name. The report from the European Union Committee that we are considering was prepared by its Sub-Committee C, which I chair, and I am grateful to the members of the sub-committee—four of whom will be taking part later in this debate and may also have things to say about our report—and to our staff for the hard work they have put in to prepare it. It is an attempt—this takes up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—to discover what value added the European Union provides for its member states in approaching the Middle East peace process as well as trying to find out what further measures could now be taken.

The sub-committee is very grateful to those who gave evidence to us, particularly Dr Solana, the High Representative for the CFSP in Brussels, and Dr Howells, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are also grateful to the Government for sending us their reply last week, and for the kind remarks that the Minister made in his introduction today. Some points in the government response showed that they did not fully share our approach, and I will return to these.

The sub-committee had completed taking evidence and virtually completed the report when—as we make clear in chapter six—the growing hostilities in Gaza and the West Bank between Fatah and Hamas and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas militias led to the dismissal of the National Unity Government and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Mahmoud Abbas. While these significantly changed the environment, the sub-committee believes that they reinforce the overall conclusion of our report—that the European Union now needs to play a more active and energetic role in the search for peace in the Middle East. I will return to this.

While the situation when we completed our report in June looked particularly difficult, when we started work on the report at the beginning of the year there were a number of encouraging signs. The Saudi initiative, which led to the Mecca agreement, provided the basis for the Palestinian National Unity Government in mid-March. On the diplomatic front, the United States Secretary of State increased the number of her visits to the Middle East in an attempt to unblock the negotiating deadlock and Dr Solana was tasked by the European Union's Council with missions to the Middle East, including direct talks with the Syrian and Saudi Governments.

The report sets out—this is important because it is not always noticed—the history of the development of the European Union's relation with the region from the EC's Venice Declaration of 1980, where the call for a Middle East peace process was first formulated, and which by recognising the Palestinian right to self-determination provided the initial basis for a negotiated two-state solution. It is fair to say that although the United States has normally led the political negotiations, the European Union has often provided innovative ideas, and since 2002 through its role in the quartet, has been directly involved in the negotiations together with the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

The European Union has also played an important part in humanitarian aid, and from 1995, in providing financial and technical assistance for the creation and functioning of the institutions of an emerging Palestinian Authority. We were told that at one stage it provided half of the budget of the Palestinian Authority. The European Union, taking together the spending of the European Commission and the member states, is far and away the largest donor to the Palestinians, estimated by the Government in their response to be some €800 million in 2007. There is no doubt that at various stages there was abuse of some of this aid but we received evidence of a variety of mechanisms that had been introduced to check that the funding was properly monitored. We welcome the assurance in the Government's response that they are,

"working with the World Bank, EU and other partners to create a mechanism for direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority that will be based on conditionality around institutional and governance reforms".

Although, as the report makes clear, European Union aid, and for the last year the temporary international mechanism,

"has prevented a very serious humanitarian crisis from becoming even worse ... [it] should ... not divert the ... EU from the root causes of the insecurity and poverty in the Palestinian territories".

Analysing the impact of the boycott of the Palestinian Government introduced by key members of the quartet in March 2006 following their assessment that the Hamas-led Government had not complied with the three principles, the sub-committee expressed its grave concern,

"about the security, human rights and socio-economic situation in the occupied Palestinian territories".

The sub-committee cited the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council conclusion of 18 June 2007 which stated that the,

"EU will do its utmost to ensure the provision of emergency and humanitarian assistance to the population of Gaza, whom it will not abandon. Unimpeded access to humanitarian aid deliveries must be guaranteed".

Since the report was completed the situation has deteriorated in both the West Bank and Gaza, as the valuable reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs make very clear. There are too many of these to quote, but in the West Bank UNOCHA reported in September that 40 more control points had gone up compared with the position in June. That was in the West Bank, not in Gaza. In Gaza the position has also deteriorated in the past month since the Israeli designation of the strip as an "enemy entity". In its report of 9 October on Gaza, UNOCHA stated that since 19 September a large reduction has been reported in the number of truckloads entering Gaza. The average of 106 truckloads per day that was recorded between 10 June and 13 September has dropped to approximately 50 truckloads per day since mid-September. This trend is giving rise to growing concerns among aid agencies about shortages of certain food supplies.

As regards the opportunity for those in Gaza to get medical assistance, in September there was a significant reduction in the number of patients crossing into Israel and the West Bank for medical treatment: fewer than five patients crossed each day compared to an average of 40 patients per day in July.

The situation is perhaps best summed up in the statement made yesterday after news came of the closure of medical units and clinics because of the absence of anaesthetics. Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said:

"The economic noose continues to tighten around the necks of the people of Gaza, who are being manifestly punished as part of a political strategy".

In this situation I should like to ask the Minister what the European Union and its member states are doing to fulfil the commitments they made in June not to abandon the people of Gaza.

The sub-committee was concerned at the rigidity of the European Union within the quartet over the three principles, particularly after the creation of the National Unity Government in March of this year. The committee was clear,

"that the European Union's support for a Palestinian coalition government, including Hamas could not have been unconditional. To require that a Hamas-led government not only renounce attacks but use its governmental authority to prevent such attacks was entirely justified".

As regards the requirement to accept and respect the positions established collectively by the Arab side, we considered that by signing the Mecca agreement the Government had committed themselves to respecting the existing bargaining position and agreements signed by the PLO and more generally by the Arab side. On the other hand, the question of the formal recognition of the state of Israel as distinct from the de facto recognition implicit in accepting the objective of a two-state solution seems open to debate.

Hamas, we felt,

"regards recognition of Israel as the object of the peace talks ... rather than a condition that can be met prior to discussions".

We expressed the hope that the Government and the European Union would,

"reconsider the precise formulation of any conditions [on this subject] and ... apply them in future with a reasonable amount of flexibility".

We regret that on this point the Government in their reply was unable to agree.

As chairman of the sub-committee it is not appropriate for me to discuss in detail the approach adopted by Secretary of State Rice in her negotiations or the prospects for the meeting in Annapolis later this year. I wish them well, even if it is difficult at this stage to be too optimistic about the outcome.

However, two matters discussed in our report are relevant to the ongoing search for peace. We made clear that the peace process should not be held hostage by any faction, individual or state. We said:

"Although each situation is different, recent experience in other situations, such as Northern Ireland, can [provide] valuable lessons on how to bring into the peace process individuals and movements who previously espoused violence".

That was linked to our view, reiterated after the events in Gaza in June, that a precondition of the success of any peace process is that it must be as inclusive as possible. I welcome the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, on this point. The exclusion of Hamas can be explained by its behaviour, but many of us feel that it significantly reduces the chances of ultimate success.

The overall conclusion of our report was that the European Union,

"now needs to play a more active and imaginative role in the search for peace in the Middle East than it has done in recent years".

We made it clear that this should be in close co-operation with the United States. However, in the developments since June, the initiative has been very much that of the Secretary of State of the United States. Whatever happens between now and the end of the year, it would be important that the European Union realises the central contribution it an its members can make to the political, as well as the security, development of the Middle East in the coming months.