Middle East Peace Settlement — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 14th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 7:44 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, two themes underpin this very short debate, and I shall try to keep my remarks very brief, to assist others. First, and very obviously, the Middle East poses a major threat to world peace. There are appalling conflicts there at the moment and the humanitarian disasters are great. The second theme relates to the activities of the European Union, which have been growing in significance and are extremely important. One of the things that I want to suggest today is that we must use the influence of the European Union to get involved in some of the other disputes that trouble us in that region. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has played a particularly important role, and this House owes her a debt of gratitude as she has certainly put us on the map in that way.

In theory, the European Union does not have a foreign policy or a defence policy. What has been happening, particularly in the Iranian talks, is that you have the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, but with the European Union playing a very significant role in those negotiations, precisely because it has enormous economic power. With economic power in a unified market, as some of us have been saying for some time, you inevitably get drawn into foreign affairs and security policy because you cannot run a single economic market without having a profound influence on the world. It is, by far, the most powerful economic bloc in the world and is therefore going to have a wider influence. That is important. With such economic power, I would argue, states are born. They may be very diverse and loosely knit ones, and it is hard to call the European Union a state, but it certainly has some aspects of a state.

The European Union’s role in the agreement emphasises that economic power, because it was as a result of those talks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, chairing them, that she was also able to deliver relief on some of the sanctions imposed on Iran, such as some of the nuclear ones, some of the financial ones affecting the insurance of the oil industry and so on. You could see economic power translating into political power by saying to Iran: “If you co-operate, we will move, as will the other states representing the United Nations Security Council, and Germany as an individual state with great interest in the area”.

Those facts are true also for the Palestine-Israel dispute. I could spend some time—I will not because of the shortage of time—listing what the European Union has already done for both parties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Both parties have benefited from European Union involvement, which has been progressively growing. People will have noted that, if there is a final status agreement, the European Union has already promised a very significant economic and political package to try to underpin that agreement. Again, this is enormously important. It offers an attractive option for both parties to find a settlement and underpins the efforts by the United States to create that agreement. We ought to recognise that this is powerful.

Events outside the Middle East, which I would like to talk about at some other stage, also indicate this growing influence. When French troops went into the Central African Republic, fairly soon afterwards—indeed only the other week—the European Union asked its members to provide additional troops in that area. The reach of the European Union is becoming wider: it is not just the Middle East, although that, to my mind, is by far the most important area and the one where we can do the most at the moment.

It is my contention that we have gone so far in using the European Union as a tool of our foreign and security policy that we ought to think through additional ways in which we can use our influence within the European Union. We are a very influential player in it and by evolving a greater coherence on foreign and security policy we can have great influence. I stress that this does not mean that we have to rush to create a European army or a European Foreign Secretary, and I am sure the Minister will not be rushing to the Dispatch Box to say that that is what we want to do. However, there is a delicate but incredibly important balance where we can actually increase our influence in that way and develop it in a way that really benefits the whole region and enables us to act as though we had a foreign policy, but without actually creating the problems that would exist within the European Union if we tried to set that up formally. It is the informal but very co-operative approach that the European Union takes with its members that enables that to work.

I ought perhaps to put this into context as I was in the House of Commons when there were terrible problems in the former Yugoslavia. There was a growing desire to intervene in that situation as ethnic cleansing reached horrendous proportions. Eventually we did intervene, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was done by NATO but, significantly, nearly all the military assets were those of the United States. The vast majority of the air power assets—more than 85%—came from the US Air Force and US Navy. That brought home to Europe the fact that if it could not deal with ethnic cleansing in its own continent, what other threats could it not face down around the edges of its continent? That was a very important lesson and one that is continually being learnt.

I am a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which recently produced a very useful paper pointing out that it was incredibly frustrating for people in the defence industry and the defence world generally to see that the European Union did not have such a policy because it was increasingly marginalising the European Union forces as the world power balance shifts and new powers emerge—Brazil in aircraft production, and China, India and Russia will all come back into play in due course. Those factors are incredibly important and ought to be looked at in due course.

I want to focus on the Middle East and where it goes forward from here. The role of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in the Iranian talks is very important. I note that she is now being invited by Iran to visit the country. That invitation was issued the day before yesterday, I think. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether she has accepted that invitation. I think that there is a strong case for doing so not least because the discussions should widen as my Motion indicates, towards talking about resolving the dispute in Syria as well as the dispute with Iran over the nuclear weapons issue. There is a very real chance of the European Union playing a crucial role here. If the Iranians recognise, as I know they do, that the European Union is a different entity from the United States and from the individual great powers which it has dealt with so far, and if the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, does visit, the EU might find it a very useful way of seeing what role it can play.

It is difficult for the United States and others to accept that Iran should be present at the table when the discussions take place on Syria. I have doubted for some time whether those discussions will take place, as the Minister will know from other questions that I have asked her in the past. If we can get that conference going then there is a case that Iran should be there, subject to certain limitations. Perhaps the European Union can be helpful in that regard. Even if it does not work out that Iran is present then the European Union can act as a conduit between that conference and the Iranians. If the Iranians do not co-operate on a settlement within Syria, the problem will continue to trouble us, and the horrendous sights of what is happening in Syria that we see on our televisions will continue unhindered.

I said that I would keep my remarks as brief as possible but I have one final, important point, particularly for the Eurosceptics. The European Union magnifies our influence; it does not diminish it.