British-US Relations

By Michael Howard

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I do so from the Back Benches; the policy of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition will be explained in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). I hope that there will not be too much divergence between what he and I say. I have been warned by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the Opposition Whip, who was present for the early stages of the sitting, that on no account should I make any spending commitment.

I wanted to take part in this debate because the subject is enormously important. The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is important and has far-reaching implications. It is important particularly because it is a subset, a critical element, of the relationship between North America and Europe, and that relationship is key to the resolution of many of the most serious problems faced by the world. So long as North America and Europe remain partners, great progress can be made in dealing with those problems, but if that partnership degenerates into rivalry, or perhaps something even worse, that would not only be a very bad thing for North America and Europe, but a very bad thing for the world.

Because I believe that that relationship is under serious threat, I founded and chair an organisation called Atlantic Partnership, which exists to try to counter those threats in an entirely non-partisan way—there should be no differences between the parties on these matters—and alert people to the dangers. There are several causes for concern, some fundamental, others visible on the surface. There are some fundamental trends at work in North America which, left unchecked, will weaken and undermine the partnership.

North America’s centre of gravity has shifted westward. All the centres of new technology, such as Silicon Forest and Microsoft, are found on the west coast of the United States, and California overtook New York as the most populous state in the union long ago. Even before the events of 11 September, the focus of those in the US, was shifting: people were looking towards the Pacific and beyond, to Japan, still an immensely important economic power, and even further to China, which is both a huge potential market for the US and the only potential rival superpower on the horizon. Demographic trends reinforce that tendency. There are more and more Asiatic and Hispanic Americans. The Asiatics tend to look to the east, and the Hispanics to the south, to Latin America; they do not look across the Atlantic to Europe to anything like the extent that Americans used to.

25 Apr 2002 : Column 143WH

On this side of the Atlantic, too, there are trends at work that are not entirely favourable to reinforcing the partnership. The movement towards political unity in Europe need not be an impediment to the partnership. Many of those who are in favour of greater political unity want that united Europe to be a partner of North America, but many do not, preferring a European entity that is set up as a rival centre of power to the US. It seems to me that several dangers attach to the latter view.

As well as those fundamental concerns, we see the problems that come to the surface and cause day-to-day irritation and difficulties: they include problems with trade, defence and the environment. This is not the time or the place to go into those matters in detail; the important thing—the point that I want to emphasise above all today—is that those dangers and difficulties should be managed in such a way that they do not impair, undermine or weaken the partnership as a whole. We will of course we will have disagreements with the United States on such matters from time to time, but we should take care not to allow those disagreements to threaten the relationship.

There is a real danger because people have a strong tendency to look at such problems in a compartmentalised fashion. Lots of people know what is happening in trade; to them, trade is the most important thing. The same is true of environment and defence matters. The danger is that people will not look at the picture as a whole and so will not take account of the dangers that can arise from such irritations growing.

What do I mean by saying that those problems should be managed in a way that does not impair the US-UK relationship? Let me give an example. Both parties to the current trade dispute over steel claim that they are acting within the rules of the World Trade Organisation. We are fortunate that the WTO exists, because it provides a rules-based framework for resolving such disagreements. Rather less fortunate is the fact that disputes take a long time to resolve. Although both sides say that the WTO will eventually rule, everyone knows that it will do so only in a couple of years’ time. That is not an entirely happy situation.

I have a positive suggestion to make. A real effort should be made by both the European Union, which has jurisdiction in these matters, and the United States to get the WTO to streamline and accelerate its decision-making processes. Both sides to the dispute claim to be acting within the rules. If those claims are bona fide and sincere, there should be no reason for the two parties not to co-operate to shorten the time scale for WTO decisions.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I am following the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s arguments closely. He makes an interesting point. Which party does he believe is right? Is the US or the EU right about the tariff barriers to steel?

Mr. Howard : I certainly regret the decision that the US Administration took. There is no question about that. However, I lack the expertise to say whether they were right or the EU was right in terms of the detailed

25 Apr 2002 : Column 144WH

interpretation of the rules of the WTO. I do not know that, but I have no hesitation in saying that the decision of the US Administration is regrettable.

We must take these difficulties and dangers seriously. There is always a tendency for discussions of the transatlantic relationship to be bathed in a sea of complacency. I thought that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee was going to fall victim to that, but he proved me wrong in the second part of his speech, even though I did not agree with everything that he said then. We pretend that everything is wonderful, that our relationship with the US is special, and that nothing much needs to be done to attend to it. That is extremely dangerous. If the relationship between North America and Europe is not nurtured, there is a danger that it will be fractured. That would do immense harm, not only to the partners in that relationship, but to the world as whole.

Can anything else be done? There is merit in the idea of setting up a standing conference comprising representatives from the EU and North America—not just the US, but Canada and perhaps even Mexico—whose expertise would span a range of activities. The conference would have the task of examining, identifying and anticipating areas in which problems might arise. Anticipating the difficulties that have arisen over steel was not beyond the realm of human wisdom. Setting up a standing conference of that sort would provide no guarantee that such frictions will not arise and cause problems, but it would help.

It would help if potential difficulties were identified early and drawn to the attention of Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, so that discussions could take place and action could be taken to stop the issue becoming a real problem. If the body that I propose achieved that result in only a few cases, it would have earned its money. I am not sure whether that amounts to a spending commitment, but I doubt that the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury would be too upset by that proposal.

Donald Anderson : The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be comforted to know that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is aware of the problems that can be caused by friction in different sectors and seeks to set up organisations within in the Assembly to boost its operations. That is a positive development. Hopefully it will be possible to anticipate and manage the problems to which he refers in that more informal atmosphere.

Mr. Howard : I am aware of the work of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, to which I pay tribute. However, those of us who are not in government must face the fact that organisations of that sort have more clout if they are Government organisations and if the representatives are selected by and report to Government. If we could thus improve on the work of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the sort of body that I am suggesting would have more clout and would be likely to have a greater impact on the problems.

My intention in speaking in today’s debate was to register the dangers to a critical relationship. We should be alert to those dangers and consider ways in which to minimise them. My modest suggestions might play some part in achieving that objective.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane) : This has been an enjoyable debate, particularly because it has allowed a wide range of comments on our most important relationship, with the United States. Mention was made of the venue for our proceedings. We would all rather have the debate in the Chamber, but the Liaison Committee decides these matters and allocates the dates. We are having more debates on foreign policy because of Westminster Hall and, as I shall announce shortly, we will have another debate on the United Nations, which may allow right hon. and hon. Members to develop some themes that have been raised in this debate. Many subjects have been covered and speeches have ranged far and wide—well beyond the report, which is our ostensible subject . I shall try to address most of the points raised. If I fail to do so in the course of my speech, I shall be happy to write to hon. Members.

The Government welcome the Committee’s careful and considered examination of the major multilateral issues that dominate the UK-US relationship. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s visits to the United States played their part in demonstrating Britain’s willingness to work closely with the United States at a unique time. The Government appreciate the Committee’s recognition of the work and the role of our diplomatic posts in the US, and in particular their words of congratulation to the staff in New York for their exemplary action on behalf of the victims of the terrorist atrocities of 11 September.

A few weeks ago, I answered a question in the House on whether the Government would raise the question of oil drilling in Alaska with the US Administration. I said no, because the matter was one for the US Congress. I also said that parliamentarians need to engage with all the sources of policy making in the United States, including the elected members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, whose decisions, laws or reaction to international treaties weigh heavily in deciding US policy. Our media—and some hon. Members in their remarks in our debate—tend to focus exclusively on the White House and the Administration, but the United States is a vigorous, debating and self-correcting democracy. We need to increase our parliamentary contacts with the lawmakers of the US as well as engaging with the influential pressure groups—such as the labour unions, which played a big role in President Bush’s decision on steel, and the Churches, which wield a great deal of influence in deciding US policy and intervention.

I welcome the report and the comments that have been made in the debate. I also urge all my fellow Members of Parliament to go west regularly and engage

25 Apr 2002 : Column 171WH

with our friends and fellow legislators not only in Washington, but in the powerful regional political networks that make up the state assemblies.

Each year, 4 to 5 million visitors go both ways across the Atlantic. Obviously, I regret any drop-off in the number of visitors from the US. Quite a lot were influenced by the slightly over-excited political debate that surrounded foot and mouth. We knew that we had an epidemic and that it would last for a certain period. On the basis of experience, we also knew that it would be contained and dealt with, yet international reporting made it appear as if Britain was closed. We all bear some responsibility for presenting to the rest of the world the calm and welcoming nature of our country.

In this debate, and in other discussions about the US and the UK since 11 September and in articles in our newspapers, we seem to be engaged in our own private discussion with ourselves, as well as in a public debate about the meaning of America. Almost all the speeches in this debate have been pro-America, but given some of the recent speeches in this Hall on aspects of US policy, I have been rather surprised at the support for the US that hon. Members have expressed.

Whatever position we start from, we all want more, not less, engagement with and by the US. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier this month in Crawford, Texas, the way forward must be based on engagement, not isolationism. We need to engage with America.

Of course we all have a certain idea of the US, and mine is the America that saved freedom on this continent twice in the last century. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was very eloquent in his wholly inimitable contribution. In the words of the ancient Greeks, young Americans gave their tomorrow so that Europe could enjoy its today.

My America is the one that stood up to communist tyranny when many sought to do business with the Stalins, Brezhnevs and other dictators. It is the America that stopped its own war in Vietnam because the people said no to the elite. It is the America that, from President Truman through to John F. Kennedy and President Bush the first, has always supported the construction and unity of Europe and, in the last case, the creation of the single currency.

My America imposed sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s and sent an African-American to be ambassador in Pretoria at a time when some political leaders—I mention no names—were rolling out the red carpet for the white supremacists of apartheid. It is the America that each year opens its doors to millions of legal and what are called undocumented immigrants, who immensely enrich that nation, in contrast to the fear and loathing of the anti-foreigner political class in Europe and our rabid and racial press campaigns against immigrants. Some 20 million legal immigrants, and as many, if not more, undocumented immigrants, have entered the US since 1980, each of whom has found a new life and new hope for their families and children.

25 Apr 2002 : Column 172WH

My America runs a massive deficit in trade and services with the rest of the world—$750 billion of imports each year. Economists roll their eyes at that deficit, so I am delighted that the shadow Chancellor has joined us at the end of the debate. However, each import represents a job in a poorer country, not least our own. It is up to us in Europe to discover the same capacity for job creation, productivity and economic dynamism. It is an America where a black man born in poverty in the Bronx can hold the mightiest office in the greatest democracy, although he has to sit in the State Department and listen to patronising and simplistic attacks from the all-white technocrats of a European elite. It is an America that launched civil rights and women’s rights as great campaigns that changed our continent.

There is another America, whose policies the Government do not agree with, and I shall outline some of those disagreements. However, as hon. Members from all sides have pointed out, we want a better America that engages with the world and the policy of the Government and our partners in Europe seek to lead us in that direction.

We agree too that our relationship with the United States should remain forward-looking, and that it is just as important, if not more important, in the 21st century as in the 20th century. The relationship will continue to be strong, particularly now, when our national interests coincide as much as they ever did. Britain’s strategic partnership with the United States remains fundamental to the national security of this country. Yet, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out, we are part of Europe and our role in the European Union enhances rather than detracts from our relationship with the US. The anti-Americanism of some on the European left—I speak as a man of the left—is as tiresome as the anti-Europeanism of many on the British right. We can play a pivotal role, but by no means an exclusive one, in drawing the US and our European partners closer together and in helping to articulate their views to each other.

We should not be arrogant. Yesterday I was in Sweden, where I found a determination to support Israel’s right to exist and an understanding from the Swedish Government of the threat that Iraq poses that would not be out of place in Washington. It was Le Monde that headlined its front page editorial a few days after 11 September with the words “Nous sommes tous americains”—we are all Americans—and Chancellor Schröder who wrote an article last year in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung under the heading “Germany: America’s Best Friend in Europe”. The peoples and Governments of the Netherlands or Poland, to name but two European nations—one could add others—are as proud of their friendship with the United States as we are. When Britain speaks to America we are part of the Europe, which I believe forms the majority of the continent, that wants more engagement with and by America.

The international coalition against terrorism has demonstrated what can be achieved when we and our European partners work with the US. The Prime Minister and President Bush are committed to taking forward the fight against terrorism in a measured, calm way that has been carefully thought through. The

25 Apr 2002 : Column 173WH

debate between the Governments is an intense one and it does not help to portray it in hysterical language—we have not heard any in the debate but one encounters it in some of our press and in speeches by other hon. Members. Since the tragic events of 11 September, the value of our relationship to each other has been reinforced. It was an attack on us all, with more than 67 British citizens murdered by the terrorist atrocities. It was an attack on our shared values and a test of our integrity. Together we have met the challenge.

We are not always in agreement with the United States, but we engage as close friends and allies in an open, frank and positive manner. The US is in no doubt of our position on areas where we do not agree. Today’s debate has shown many examples of that. We shall always fight for Britain’s interests and beliefs and so we will, for example, continue to make clear our opposition to the use of the death penalty, which hon. Members have not mentioned but which is an issue of concern to British people, lobbying on it with our EU partners or bilaterally at state and federal level.

The trading relationship between the US and the EU is the biggest in the world—it represented about a fifth of all world trade in 2000. Some of that two-way trade is subject to disputes.

Mr. Howard : Why is the death penalty in the United States a matter on which the Government and the European Union intervene, while oil in Alaska is not? The Minister said that oil in Alaska is a matter for the Americans, so why is not an appropriate punishment in their own judicial system?

Mr. MacShane : The right hon. and learned Gentleman should not mix up an economic decision with what many people around the world regard as a cruel and inhuman punishment. It is right to raise our concerns about such moral issues.

Some disputes over trade are inevitable, but the rule-based WTO system offers the best mechanism for dealing with such disputes and, through our membership of the EU, it is the forum in which to settle our trade differences. Real progress has been made on the trade agenda between Europe and the US—for example, the resolution of the banana dispute last April and the launch of a new WTO round in Doha last November. However, big differences still exist and President Bush’ s recent announcement on steel import restrictions came as a great disappointment.

I can inform the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) that, having been alerted to it more than a year ago by US steel union comments, I raised my concern about that matter with the US trade representative, Mr. Zelig, last August. My noble Friend, Baroness Symons, the Minister for Trade and Investment, also raised it, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We believe that the US action breaches WTO rules and has no economic justification. The Prime Minister, addressing UK steelworkers in an article in the current issue of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation journal, said:

“I can promise ISTC members that Britain’s outright opposition to the American steel industry’s demands for tariffs was made directly to President Bush by me. I informed President Bush personally, by letter, and by phone about Britain’s hostility

25 Apr 2002 : Column 174WH

to any move to restrict unfairly steel imports . . . I also told him that if the US did impose tariffs, Britain and the EU would have no choice but to ask the WTO to declare the move illegal. In the meantime, we have to take steps to protect our own steel industry and the people who make these plants amongst the most productive in the world.”

As a constituency Member, I know that those remarks were warmly appreciated in the steel communities of the UK, as were statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in south Yorkshire last Friday in an effort to get the US to change its mind on UK steel exports. That discussion is continuing.

Climate change, or more commonly the Kyoto protocol, is another area where we do not share the US policy approach. We believe that the Kyoto protocol, with its legally binding targets and timetables, is the most effective way of reducing emissions and tackling climate change. The agreement reached on the protocol in Bonn and Marrakesh last year demonstrated the international community’s commitment to Kyoto. As a result, Kyoto is alive and well and I am delighted to hear the news that Russia has initiated its ratification procedure.

Sir Patrick Cormack : I hate to introduce an acrimonious note into a constructive afternoon, but the Minister is reading a prepared speech and not dealing with the issues raised in the debate.

Mr. MacShane : I do not have the ability of all hon. Members to speak spontaneously for hour after hour without a note in my hand. After many more years service in the House I may reach that nirvana. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall attempt to deal with all the specific points that have been raised. If I fail to do so, I shall happily write to hon. Members.

We hope to complete ratification procedures of Kyoto and to allow the protocol to come into force before the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg. We also believe that we should continue a discussion with the US in order to benefit from each other’s experiences and continue to seek opportunities to share information.

The International Criminal Court was mentioned. We worked hard to get the International Criminal Court Act 2001 through Westminster and Edinburgh in good time for us to be among the first six ratifications. We want other countries to sign up to the ICC. It is disappointing that the US has been impervious to persuasion that its objections to the International Criminal Court are unfounded. We do not see much chance of a change of heart under the present Administration. We hope that the US—a nation based on rule of law, not men—will understand in time that creating the court will help human rights and democracy.

A Green Paper will be published next week on the biological and toxin weapons convention, about which we have also have disagreements with the US, as hon. Members mentioned.

Hon. Members discussed the middle east in some depth. We had a full debate last week, and I do not propose to repeat those arguments. We welcome President Bush’s statement “Enough is enough” and the

25 Apr 2002 : Column 175WH

efforts made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in person to show US engagement. In his Mansion House speech a fortnight ago, the Foreign Secretary said:
“The world has to get behind US Secretary of State Colin Powell as he works to stop the violence and persuade both parties to re-engage in the process of peace. Yes, negotiation inevitably involves compromise: but compromise, a readiness to see and to accommodate the other side, can be a great and honourable thing.”

Mr. Chidgey : Will the Minister respond to my comments about the interesting reaction from Gulf and other middle east states calling for more direct involvement by the British Government in the middle east peace process?

Mr. MacShane : If the hon. Gentleman checks the visits, statements and interventions made by Ministers and Members about British involvement, we are not found wanting. We must decide that the way forward should be based on a viable Palestinian state, the end to illegal settlements and a guarantee that Israel will have normal, peaceful, state-to-state relations in the region. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) suggested the deployment of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Major, as a peace envoy, which I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

There has been considerable speculation about military action against Iraq, which I have read with interest. However, I can assure the House that no decision has yet been taken, and no military action is imminent. We are looking at Iraq from the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of focusing on Washington, we should surely be mobilising public opinion to support the UN, and uniting to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein to get him to comply with UN resolutions. He can help to solve the problem tomorrow by agreeing to let in an effective team of weapons inspectors. However, we should be clear that the Iraqi regime has these weapons of mass destruction, and it has shown on several occasions that it is prepared to use them. Faced with that threat, the international community’s most pressing demand is that the weapons inspectors be allowed to return and finish their work.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) sought to find some difference between President Bush and the Prime Minister on the desirability of a regime change. I have the full text of the press conference from which the hon. Gentleman quoted. The Prime Minister said that the world and the Iraqi people would be better off without the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that doing nothing in these circumstances is not an option. It is clear that we identify with the United States’ view.

Sir John Stanley : Is it the British Government’s policy to bring about a regime change in Iraq?

Mr. MacShane : The Prime Minister made it clear that it is the will of the British Government to see a regime change in Iraq. I also made that clear in the House of Commons in answer to a similar question in Foreign Office questions earlier in this Session. I am not sure

25 Apr 2002 : Column 176WH

whether I declare policy—I am too modest and novice a Minister to do so—but we are splitting hairs. The Prime Minister’s statement in Texas is perfectly clear.

Mr. Savidge : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. MacShane : I want to make progress, as there are other issues that hon. Members want me to deal with. I will give way to my hon. Friend, but the price is that in six minutes’ time, at the end of the debate, we will not have discussed all the issues that have been raised.

Mr. Savidge : We may think that there are many countries in the world where a change of regime would be desirable, but I trust that we would not consider war in every case in order to effect it.

Mr. MacShane : Iraq represents a threat to regional peace, as many hon. Members have pointed out. It has used weapons of mass destruction against its own people and it is next to a member state of the United Nations. To debate whether a change of regime is desirable in Iraq—it certainly is, in my view—is a mistake. Our discussion on Iraq should focus on trying to press, and if necessary force Saddam Hussein to comply with the United Nations resolutions on weapons inspections. The Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed the Government’s policy of engagement with the Iranians based on supporting the reformers in Iran while maintaining a robust dialogue on issues of concern.

I shall now deal with some of the specific issues raised by hon. Members, and thus avoid having to write to them. Reference was made to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and its change of director. The decision was taken this week by a vote of 48:7 that the gentleman in question had not shown sufficient drive in management or policy to deliver the organisation that the international community wanted. The votes deciding his removal from office came from Asia, Africa and nearly all the east and west European countries. We must be careful not to allow every decision taken around the world to be refracted into the issue of Iraq.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked about the nuclear posture review paper in the United States. As statements about that leak made clear at the time—I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s words—it was not a new policy but a contribution to a debate, part of which we welcomed. It was an affirmation of scaling down the level of nuclear warheads that the United States holds, and at the time a commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons. I will refresh my memory on the matter and write to the right hon. Gentleman if he wants.

Other hon. Members have debated whether any nation is able to use any of the weapons that it possesses in the manner best designed to maintain its security. I am not going to announce that Britain, faced with what it would perceive to be a direct threat, would not use all the necessary means at its disposal to maintain the nation’s security. That would be of the highest irresponsibility and I am surprised that I was asked to comment on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) asked about help for Russia in disposing of nuclear weapons and material. The Government have taken an active lead in that matter and I will be happy to write to him about it.

25 Apr 2002 : Column 177WH

I was asked about Guantanamo Bay and the status of the British citizens who are prisoners there. They have had visits—the most recent was last month—and we are seeking another. We have been assured that their treatment is in accordance with international humanitarian norms. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a permanent presence there. The United States and all countries that have citizens there are still discussing their legal status. It is a conundrum and it is right that we engage with the United States on the matter. If—

It being half-past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

Leave a Reply