European Council and North Africa — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 7 February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy) 8:01, 7 February 2011

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and I will try to answer as many of her questions as I can, given the obvious time constraints. What she has to say is highly relevant and I hope that I can cover her remarks in detail. First, I am grateful for her support for the broad approach in line both of Her Majesty's Government and of what was agreed at the European Council-that an orderly transition is the right posture and that we insist on the right of the freedom to protest. We are concerned, as we would be in any political evolution in any society-this is a global age-about anything which restricts e-mail, blocks the media or undermines the position of journalists to go freely about their tasks in a way consistent with liberty and freedom. We are at one and there is nothing to debate in that because clearly it is the right way forward.

On the new talks, the noble Baroness will appreciate that things are moving all the time and that the process, chaired by Omar Suleiman and including the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, has only just begun. She asked whether they will lay the ground for progress. I hope so, and we think that this is the right way forward, but we are watching from outside and obviously these matters must be dominated and controlled by the people of Egypt themselves as they work out their new political destiny.

I would have to give the noble Baroness the same answer to her question about the position of President Mubarak. This is a matter for the people of Egypt to sort out in ways that we hope will be consistent with the core principles that she has enunciated and I have agreed with. However, it must be for the Egyptian people to decide. There is quite a broad point to be made about the danger in the west, and perhaps with our transatlantic allies as well, of assuming that western values and templates are going to shape the pattern of events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. That is not necessarily so. Those ideas might have been relevant during the 20th century, but in the 21st century we are dealing with a new landscape where there is both a dispersal and a new distribution in the transfer of power and influence to other forces, not least the gigantic forces of the internet, the mobile telephone, mass television and instant communications enabling protests to be e-enabled and rapidly organised. This is a different scene and it seems that not every policy maker in the west has fully understood that.

She asked whether we can help with the creation of democratic structures. We do help through our programmes and those of our fellow EU members, both through the UN and directly. They assist with helping democratic patterns and attitudes to grow, but there is always a problem. Just as someone said that you cannot create a tree because it must grow, so you cannot create and build a democracy out of nothing. As the noble Baroness very acutely observed, it is about a lot more than elections, voting and ballot boxes, and it is indeed more than about concerns for human rights and the rule of law. It is about the idea of those who have power or authority using them with restraint. In the language of Edmund Burke, if I may quote him given my own party antecedents, I think he said that there is a policeman, or a policewoman I should say, in each one of us. If there is that inner restraint within individuals, there will be democracy. If that restraint is not there, democracy can become warped and produce quite the opposite result, as has certainly been the case many times in the tragic history of the 20th century.

The noble Baroness went on to ask about travel advice, so let me give her the latest information as I understand it from my brief. We are currently recommending that British nationals in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez leave by commercial means if it is safe to do so. We advise against non-essential travel to Luxor. We are keeping a close eye on the Sharm el-Sheikh situation, where the majority of British nationals are, and we continue to judge that the situation in the Red Sea resorts remains calm and peaceful. Further, as I was able to tell your Lordships the other day, we have very substantially reinforced our embassy team on the ground, and since 29 January we have helped more than 2,000 British nationals to leave Egypt. We also have a hotline for distressed nationals to call for advice and we have chartered two planes to provide additional capacity. That is the latest travel advice, and I would be happy to try to elaborate on it. However, it seems to be fairly straightforward at the moment.

I turn now to the other questions raised by the noble Baroness about Europe. She asked whether we support the need for energy infrastructure, and I can say that we most certainly do. It is fundamental that if there is going to be a competitive energy market in Europe, it must be possible for energy in the form of piped gas and interconnected electricity to move east, west, north and south in the continental European system, to part of which we are actually attached. That must be possible without regulations and controls at every border and it requires the pipeline and electricity cable infrastructure to do it. However, it is not yet in place, so we have seen the extraordinary pattern of gas shortages in one part of Europe while another part has ample supplies. It means that reliance on monopoly suppliers further east-namely, from our Russian friends-is unnecessarily great. None of that points to the kind of balance we need, so we say yes to the infrastructure.

As for the renewable energy commitments, I can give the noble Baroness some, but not all, of the information she asked for. The Green Investment Bank allocation of £1 billion from departmental budgets and the significant asset sales are proceeding. We are pushing for the EU to demonstrate leadership in tackling international climate change, including by supporting an increase in the EU emissions reduction target from 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2012. As we know, that has not yet been accepted by all European countries or industries, but we believe that that is the right way forward. I have a lot of other details in my brief that were covered by the Prime Minister and his colleagues at the European Council, which I shall gladly discuss with the noble Baroness at any time she wishes.

Her final remarks were on the eternal economic debate, and the pace at which one seeks to cut deficits. All I would say is that the overwhelming view of the rest of the European Council was that of support for the British strategy. The point was made again and again by a number of leading authorities throughout Europe that this is the right way forward, and the point was also made that it is the confidence of the international markets and the necessary confidence in our international credit which are the absolutely vital aims. Once those are weakened, the real job destroyer would click in. That must be the prime aim and any deviation from that would be quite disastrous, in terms of jobs and human suffering in this country and weakness in our economic recovery, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor has also made vividly clear on many occasions.

Finally, on the difficult issue of Mr Megrahi and the Cabinet Secretary's report, the noble Baroness asked me to acknowledge certain points which I gladly do. I reiterate that the report makes absolutely clear that there was no conspiracy between BP, the British Government and Scottish Government, as some people allege. That is made absolutely clear. There is no contradiction in the report with anything said by the former Foreign Secretary or by the former Prime Minister. That is also clear.

Nevertheless, the comments remain, to which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister called attention in the other place, that the policy was being developed to,

"facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the [prisoner transfer agreement] or for release on compassionate grounds".

There was the paper from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office saying that,

"we now need to go further and work actively but discreetly to ensure that Megrahi is transferred back to Libya under the PTA or failing that released on compassionate grounds".

My right honourable friend said that,

"this tells us something that was not made clear at the time".

I think it is right for those who were involved to react and make clear their views as they wish. It seems that we now have to look back at what is for many people the most tragic and terrible situation with greatest sympathy but also look forward to better and wiser times in the hope that nothing so terrible, so appalling, will ever happen again. I hope that meets most of the noble Baroness's questions.