Speeches sourced from the Labour party’s online archive More…

- Check Against Delivery - 

Douglas Alexander MP, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, said in a speech to the EU Member State Ambassadors to London at the Hungarian Embassy today:

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event and in particular, I would like to thank our Hungarian hosts for making it possible. 

Hungary has taken the rotating presidency of the European Union at a hugely important moment. 

Having been the UK’s Europe Minister during Britain’s last EU Presidency in 2005, I have some experience of the hard, diplomatic work involved. 

In that Presidency, I think we managed to achieve a lot, but we were not faced with anything like the scale of change that you are faced with today: Europe’s economies face very significant and fast moving challenges, while the politics of more than one continent have been shaken by popular protest. 

My Party, in office and now in Opposition, is pragmatically pro-European in our policies and internationalist in our values.

I have no intention of returning our Party to the policies of its last time in Opposition, during the 1980s, where Europhobia and pointscoring, left us isolated and backward looking.

Across Europe, I think that kind of pro-European pragmatism, tired of institutional change but optimistic about what can be achieved within the current institutions, is becoming a quiet consensus. 

So today I do not want to address my remarks to Europe’s political infrastructure or to our economic problems.

Instead, I want to talk about an Arab Spring that began in a market in Sidi Bouzid and continues to be felt across the region.

From Morocco in the West to Iran in the East, we have seen not a domino effect, but a demonstration effect – where the success of one set of demonstrators has given energy and inspiration to other people in other countries.

I was Britain’s International Development Secretary from 2007 to 2010 and although we worked with the poorest, most troubled nations in the world, we never saw a wave of instability of this kind in three years, let alone three months.

Indeed, it is fitting that the EU should be led by a country of the East in such times – a country that has known popular protest and democratisation in the lifetime of many around this table.

If anyone thought that this would be a quiet moment on the international stage while countries sorted out their different domestic economic problems, that view has now become untenable. 

In Tunisia, the demonstrators met limited resistance. In Egypt, once the army decided to side with the people, the demonstrators couldn’t be opposed. 

In other countries, protests have been met with –sometimes murderous – repression more often than they have been met with reform. 

Where the West has influence – such as Bahrain and Yemen – we should be pushing for the former and not the latter. Where the West has less influence, such as Iran, we should be just as unequivocal in our condemnation if only to stand in solidarity with the victims.

In Libya the protests were met with a far more violent response.

And the threat to the Libyan people escalated from snipers and tear gas to artillery and air power.

The breadth and speed of the outcry was unprecedented. The first ever ejection from the UN Human Rights Council. The Arab League calling for action against one of its own members. Two UN Security Council Resolutions in a matter of weeks.

In the House of Commons, the Government asked us to support the use of British military power – alongside that of many other countries – to enforce those resolutions. 

Ed Miliband, the Labour Shadow Cabinet and I decided to support that action. As I said at the time, we did it not because we were eager for conflict or simply because we wished to show support for our forces.

We did it because we judged it necessary to avert the imminent threat of slaughter.

Some weeks later, we see a situation where Gaddafi can’t enter Benghazi but won’t leave Tripoli.

We must remember that not to have acted would itself have been a choice and would have had consequences.

But in the last few days, while I welcome the transfer to a NATO command, I cannot but note the remarks of US General Carter Ham, when asked if we are approaching a stalemate in Libya, who said "I would agree with that at present on the ground." He has said it was "unlikely" the rebels would be able to advance on Tripoli at present.

In the run up to Security Council Resolution 1973, the US Defence Secretary and others in its military establishment made clear that a no-fly zone would neither be a full solution, nor could it be implemented without taking tough action from the outset. 

Look back at the first month of the Kosovo intervention and events in Libya stand up to comparison. Rather than an escalation in attacks on civilians, the international community’s action has protected those under immediate threat.

However, the military power by which Gaddafi can make war on his own people – tanks and artillery – is now being placed in densely populated areas that make it hard for NATO planes to operate without unacceptable risk to civilians.

So if a military impasse is reached at some point, what should be our response be?

I believe we need to be practical as well as principled.

My concern is to ensure the sustainability of the international community’s position for the long term, while maximising the pressure and deepening the isolation of the Gaddafi regime.

What do I mean by a sustainable international position?

Firstly, by staying to the letter and spirit of Resolution 1973. There is no mandate and little appetite to go beyond it at present.

Secondly, by continuing to share the operational burden, not only amongst countries represented in this room but with Arab countries too. 

Thirdly, by taking the public diplomacy seriously. In different times and, admittedly, in different circumstances, my good friend former NATO Secretary General George Roberston said of the Kosovo conflict:

"We ran a military campaign and in parallel we ran an information campaign. Both were professional and focused but it was, to my mind, the information campaign which won it."

If we can keep our position strong, we then need to give renewed focus to maintaining pressure on Gaddafi. 

Our determination to protect the people of Libya through military means should be matched by our determination to enforce and expand the non-military aspects of Resolution 1973.

That means using diplomatic and economic means to sharpen the choice on Gaddafi supporters.

So doing what we can to deprive the regime of the means to pay for and bring in mercenaries.

That means both continuing with the escrow policy while increasing pressure on the governments whose nationals are working with Gaddafi.

In the short term, we should be supporting humanitarian efforts in Benghazi, while making clear that we have no desire to simply swap a Libya where West dominates East with an equally unbalanced situation.

In the longer term, we should be clear that any post-Gaddafi Libya would be fully supported by the European Union, whether that is in terms of trade, aid or the building of civil society.

This is where Libya’s two post-protest neighbours can’t be ignored. 

Not that they should be far from our minds anyway – Tunisia is about twice as populous as Libya, Egypt is around fourteen times more populous.

But the people of Libya will rightly judge the West’s intentions through our actions in supporting the two countries that have successfully removed oppressive leaders.

Just as no European country can afford to have a foreign, defence or development policy that is of a pre-Tahrir era, the Union as a whole must respond to this call for change. 

Go back to the moment this uprising began; when the unemployed 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi was humiliated by the Tunisian state for selling fruit and vegetables without a permit.

There you have the two biggest challenges: economic torpor and repressive state institutions.

The first challenge is the more straightforward: Europe is North Africa’s nearest wealthy neighbour.

Trade barriers are already limited but some informal barriers still exist.

Certain, non-tariff barriers have been identified by Cathy Ashton as hindrances that are preventing North Africa’s economies exporting north, in particular the need for support for rural development in North Africa to raise standards to export quality.

That brings us to the question of direct support; I am already on record saying that funds should also be redirected within the external relations budget from areas such as Latin America towards North Africa. 

That would be a tough decision – but if we miss this moment to support countries like Egypt and Tunisia because we avoided taking tough decisions, we will regret it for many years to come.

However, this is to miss the fact that prosperity without the rule of law is unlikely in itself and would always be insecure.

So we need to be asking ourselves, what can Europe do to ensure Egypt and Tunisia, and other countries later, have police forces that are honest, judges that are independent and officials who are accountable for their behaviour?

The promise of accession has helped in the past and is helping today to reform states on Europe’s periphery. 

But given that accession is not on offer to the North African countries, we must think about what Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski has called "multiple small carrots" in respect of European support for countries in transition to democracy in north Africa. 

So our strong support to build liberal states in Egypt and Tunisia should be matched by a generous but conditional approach to economic assistance.

When I assumed this role in January, it wasn’t the easiest time to be an active advocate of multilateralism.

After Copenhagen, Doha and the constant to-and-fro of EU institutional reform, the recent history of major multilateral bodies was not altogether encouraging.

So I welcome the fact that different parts of the United Nations and NATO have come together to act in Libya. 

So far, the European Union itself has been somewhat slower, but, as we are all aware, the EU continues to have both experience and expertise to offer in helping ensure the Arab Spring achieves its potential.

That is a common challenge and shared responsibility for Britain and for each European country represented in this room today.

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech