HC Deb 02 June 1992 vol 208 cc690-1
2. Mr. Ian Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he plans to meet the Secretary General of the Western European Union to discuss future European security arrangements.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I shall meet Dr. Van Eekelen at the Western European Union Council of Ministers meeting on 19 June, but I hope to see him in London before then.

Mr. Taylor

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give clear evidence that progress is being made within the WEU on its strategic thinking about how to react to the increasing dangers outside the traditional territory of NATO, given that it is rethinking its strategy and given the rather worrying and puzzling aspect of the Franco-German brigade? We need strong WEU thinking on this.

Mr. Rifkind

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. A clear decision was reached at the end of the Rome summit that the WEU should be the European arm of the NATO alliance. My hon. Friend referred to the proposed Franco-German corps—to which, as an example of Franco-German co-operation, we do not object. However, a number of questions are still to be answered about the relationship of the corps to NATO and we would regret any weakening in the commitment of those countries to the alliance.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the right hon. and learned

Gentleman agree that the effectiveness of European security arrangements will depend not only on institutions such as the WEU but on the adoption of common policies in areas such as procurement? Does he share the concern of many hon. Members at the announcement again today of the possible withdrawal of Germany from the European fighter aircraft programme? Would not such a withdrawal have considerable implications for European security arrangements?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I share that concern unreservedly. Over the years, Germany has been an extremely reliable European partner and I am happy to pay tribute to that. However, the European fighter aircraft is perhaps the most important example at present of European collaboration. The United Kingdom, Spain and Italy are very keen to go ahead with the project. We very much hope that the German Government, who have not yet reached a decision, will confirm their willingness to be associated with the project, as it will be difficult to take seriously protestations about the need for European co-operation and collaboration if such an important project is endangered.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

While accepting my right hon. and learned Friend's assertion that the Germans have been reliable partners in defence, many of my constituents believe that the Germans have had their defence on the cheap. They will be extremely angry if the Germans renege on their participation in the European fighter aircraft project, thus depriving many people in my part of the world of their jobs.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the important employment implications in this country. There are similar implications in Germany; my hon. Friend may have noticed the strong representations supporting the EFA project from the coalition partners of the German Government and the similar views expressed by hon. Members of all parties.

Mr. O'Neill

I welcome the Secretary of State's continuing commitment to EFA. Does he agree that replacements have still to be found for the Phantom and Jaguar aircraft, not only in our own Air Force, but in others in Europe and the rest of the world? Does he agree that there must therefore still be possibilities for additional orders and sales? If the Germans backed out, the contract could still continue with the continued participation of Italy and Spain. Will the Secretary of State also bear it in mind that the present figures were arrived at in 1986 on the basis of the threat assessment then and may not be figures to which we should be committed in terms of the EFA numbers that we should want in future?

Mr. Rifkind

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest in defence sales, which has not always been apparent on the Opposition Back Benches. We have been working on a planning assumption of 250 European fighter aircraft. That assumption would be concluded only at the appropriate time. We do not need to reach a conclusion on the precise numbers for some time, so it is appropriate at this stage simply to give our unqualified commitment to the project. I have no doubt that a substantial number of aircraft will be required; the precise number can be decided at the appropriate time.