HC Deb 28 November 1995 vol 267 cc1042-3
7. Mrs. Gorman

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what aims the Government have for their presidency of the Western European Union.[816]

Mr. Portillo

We intend to concentrate our efforts during the United Kingdom presidency on ensuring that the WEU can fulfil its operational role more effectively as the European pillar of the transatlantic alliance.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Great Britain was a member of the WEU long before it joined the Common Market? Does he agree that other European countries, such as those in eastern Europe, should not be excluded from membership of the WEU just because they are not yet members of the EU?

Mr. Portillo

I agree that the WEU has a long and distinguished history and we believe that it also has an important future. I also agree that it should be willing to extend its membership to new applicants. It would be most unhelpful if the criteria for membership of the WEU and of the EU were made the same, because we do not want to place in the way of eastern and central European countries, which may be able to join a military alliance, economic barriers that they might not be able to cross.

Mr. Hardy

I do not dissent from the Secretary of State's view, but does he accept that, over recent months, he and his colleagues have devoted a great deal of energy to berating Labour Members who expressed concern that our defence burden is somewhat greater than that of our colleagues in Europe? During our presidency of the WEU, should not he and his colleagues ensure that our neighbours are persuaded to bear a greater share of the burden? If he does not achieve that, the presidency will be a disastrous failure.

Mr. Portillo

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I believe that we have not yet spent nearly enough time berating Labour Members—I intend to put that right in the months to come. On the question of burden sharing, he seems to be hinting at what we have been saying all afternoon, which is that the Labour party wishes to reduce the amount that this country spends to the European average. The fact is that this country has special and global responsibilities and we are not prepared to cut our defences in the way that Labour Members want.

Mr. Colvin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principle of mutual security is as important to the WEU as it already is to NATO, and therefore that no country should be admitted as a new member of the WEU until it is a full member of NATO?

Mr. Portillo

It is extremely important that we distinguish between, as it were, political clubs and military alliances. NATO and the WEU are military alliances. That means that countries that want to join have important responsibilities, which they must understand, and it means that we are prepared to give guarantees to those countries. They are solemn guarantees, and we must be very careful about how we give them. I believe that NATO and the WEU will expand in future, but they are important matters, which are worthy of careful thought. We must not proceed imprudently in any.