HC Deb 19 June 1996 vol 279 cc815-33 10.59 am
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of Britain's role in Europe's defence and security policy and to address issues of the utmost topicality and importance.

The outcome of the first round of the Russian presidential elections last weekend has demonstrated how finely balanced are the political forces in the Russian federation. The emergence of General Lebed, with his background as former commander of the Russian 14th army in Moldova and of operational experience in Afghanistan, as national security adviser to President Yeltsin has more than domestic significance.

At the European summit in Florence on Friday, it is possible—if the beef crisis permits—that there will be discussion of Europe's common foreign and security policy. It is certainly a theme for the intergovernmental conference, and Britain's views should be more influential than most. The United Kingdom is, with France, one of only two nuclear powers in Europe, so the UK's strategic weight is disproportionate to its military manpower. We are the sole nation within NATO, apart from the United States of America, to have troops permanently stationed outside its national territory in Europe, and beyond—for example, in the Falklands and Hong Kong. Also, with principal NATO subordinate commands—Allied Forces North West at High Wycombe and Headquarters Eastern Atlantic at Northwood—Britain is the cornerstone of Europe's defence and security architecture.

With major US military facilities still located in Britain, the UK is crucial for the projection of American power to Europe and the maintenance of a balance of forces and security on the continent. In defence terms, the UK has long been at the heart of Europe. It would be even more so if it had persuaded the rest of the Western European Union to allow the other organs of the institution to join the council located in London, by offering County hall as the headquarters for the whole organisation, instead of succumbing to the European impetus towards Brussels, which seems so fundamental these days.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech, but does he not realise that if the WEU is to be an effective European pillar for NATO, it is essential that liaison and co-operation between those organisations has practical and real significance? That prospect will be enhanced if the WEU is situated in Brussels, where there can be regular personal and other forms of contact.

Mr. Wilkinson

I totally understand the point, but I was thinking about Britain's influence in defence affairs. As ours is an Atlantic nation, that influence should be important. The concomitant risk of locating the WEU in Brussels is that it could be over-influenced by the European Union and its aspirations to take over much of the WEU's role, but I do not dispute that there is considerable validity in the hon. Gentleman's argument.

From 1945 to the end of the 1980s, the artificial division of Europe by Soviet force of arms dominated defence debates in the House, and the necessity for deterrence of potentially aggressive Warsaw pact forces through the doctrine of flexible response determined the character and scale of the military dispositions of the western alliance and its nuclear-based strategy. Paradoxically, the division of our continent remains the greatest challenge for Europe's security policy and overall strategy.

In the days of the cold war, the imperative was the perpetuation of the artificial division of Europe through the containment of the potentially aggressive Warsaw pact along the iron curtain. Today, inclusive initiatives are emerging to hasten the end of the political divisions that plagued our continent for so long. Those initiatives are crucial in extending to fellow European nations which were denied democracy for four decades after world war two the fruits of political and economic liberty, underpinned by collective security arrangements that offer genuine defence guarantees and no provocation to any neighbouring state.

NATO's post-cold war adaptation has been rapid and remarkable. The rationalisation and reorganisation of its integrated command structure to reflect the lower level of its assigned forces have been impressive. NATO's continuation as a defensive alliance after the former Soviet forces had gone home from central Europe was fully justified by the organisation's decisive role in bringing the Bosnian war to a halt when the United Nations, WEU and European Union had between them failed. NATO's implementation force in Bosnia, which even contains contingents of non-NATO countries, has kept the peace in that country and provides the security necessary for economic reconstruction and, hopefully before too long, for successful democratic elections.

In the Gulf war, the coalition of western and Arab nations that successfully defended Saudi Arabia and liberated Kuwait was made possible by the long experience of the western allies' armed forces and military commanders of working together in NATO's integrated military structure. NATO has, through the North Atlantic Co-operation Council and the partnership for peace programme, shown commendable initiative in adapting to the realities of contemporary Europe, which is mercifully no longer imperilled by hostile ideology or aggressively configured forces.

Instability in the Russian federation, as in Chechnya and the sovereign republics on its southern flanks, provides risks and unpredictable contingencies. NATO's new Balkan involvement is supposedly limited to the end of this year, but could prove longer lasting. The impact of militant and fundamentalist Islam from Turkey to Morocco poses a new orientation to Europe's security arrangements and a real danger in the Mediterranean basin. Nuclear and chemical proliferation allied to ballistic missile transfers to aggressive regimes challenges the processes of arms control and demonstrates the need for NATO in Europe to acquire its own ballistic missile defence.

NATO's defensive credentials are impeccable, and the democratic nature of its member states unquestionable. There is no reasonable cause for delaying NATO's expansion to the east. By what justification should the genuine democracies of central Europe and the Baltic states be denied the security guarantees previously extended by NATO to Turkey, Greece and Portugal when those countries, for a time, did not have democratic Governments?

Why should Russia have a veto on the purely defensive security arrangements of sovereign democratic states? This is particularly so when the example of Norway showed that it could be—throughout the cold war, as a full NATO member—a good neighbour of Russia, with a common border and a sensitivity to the Nordic balance, which made it wholly appropriate that neither NATO nuclear weapons nor NATO foreign troops should be stationed on Norway's soil in time of peace.

Today, the Norwegian model has relevance for the full and early NATO membership of the Baltic states. The cost of Russia's interventions in Afghanistan and Chechnya have shown the Russian people and the Russian military how bloody was their denial of legitimate self-determinations and how high was the cost to the Russian armed forces—a lesson that General Lebed has never forgotten.

There has never been a qualifying contribution for NATO membership. Luxembourg has been a welcome member with only one battalion of troops, no air force and, certainly, no navy. Iceland has no armed forces at all. Importantly, through the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there is now—there was not previously—an over-arching instrument for crisis management and for better understanding across the European continent. Through the partnership for peace there is also, of course, an experience of military dialogue upon which to build.

In the cold war, the European Community—which in those days was a purely economic organisation—never offered security guarantees or kept the peace. It was an example of free enterprise principles jointly applied for the common good. Today, the European Community—I use the word advisedly—could, as a community, be a unifying force for the new Europe rather than a potential source of division, which it promises to be as a political entity.

The objective of ever closer union via the chosen path of economic and monetary union, as laid down in the Maastricht treaty—to which the Government fatally subscribed in the fullest sense, committing themselves not only to the end of Union, but to the financial means of bringing the European Union about through the ever larger budgetary contributions agreed at the Edinburgh summit in 1992—is incompatible with the much more important goal of swift enlargement to include all the democracies of eastern and central Europe, and not only the Visegrad three.

Our deliberations in the European Standing Committee have revealed the huge additional cost of extending the common agricultural policy, on enlargement of the European Union, to the acceding countries to the east, especially to Hungary and to Poland. It is small wonder that the European Commission is now talking of admitting only the Visegrad three in 2002, with no firm date for equally eligible states such as Estonia. Why should those countries be in only the second division of applicant countries?

Applicant nations regard their accession to the European Union as an element in their overall security policy. Are western-oriented democracies to be left out in the cold? Procrastination over their entry will feed resentment among their people and their political classes, especially since the European Union is denying them access, through its tariffs, to its market for their cheap agricultural produce and, in some instances, dumping on them surplus food over-produced by European Union farmers through the munificent operations of CAP subsidies.

It is a similar tale with the Western European Union, to full membership of which central and eastern European countries reasonably aspire. If one takes contemporary rhetoric at its face value, the WEU is either the European defence identity or the European pillar of NATO. The recent NATO council in Berlin enhanced further this apparent status by affirming the assignment to WEU of combined NATO joint task forces. Those NATO formations are, in the first instance, for performing the St. Petersburg tasks of peacekeeping and humanitarian relief, but conceivably—by implication—they are ultimately for military operations when the United States does not want to invoke its security guarantee, including a nuclear option, or when it might not wish to imperil its good bilateral relations with the Russian Federation.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence was very sceptical about the efficacy of the WEU as a military organisation. However, the ministerial council of the WEU—in its Birmingham communiqué in May, to which the Government subscribed—called the WEU the defence component of the European Union". As such, applicant countries take it very seriously. They do not deserve to be disappointed in their desire to join the WEU as full members.

There are two elements to Europe's defence and security policy that are of intense interest to the United Kingdom, and upon which Britain has direct influence. The first is the ambition of the European Union to arrogate to itself a military competence through armaments co-operation. The Franco-German armaments agency, which the United Kingdom has recently joined, might be the first stage in that process. If so, I believe that it will be a retrograde step.

If the purpose of the agency is to predispose the participating nations against the procurement of equipment from the United States, it could diminish the operational effectiveness of the British and European armed forces, which need to be able to buy the best equipment, or the most cost-effective equipment, from whatever source. It could have the adverse effect of excluding European industry from lucrative American programmes, recent examples of which include the C130J Hercules, the AH64 Apache, potentially the Orion 2000 and many others.

In my judgment, an imposed and unnecessary bureaucratic and managerial superstructure will not enhance cost-effective European arms procurement. The NATO management agency and the NATO Eurofighter management agency, for the Tornado and the Eurofighter programmes—to provide only two examples—were bad enough. Where would such an agency be located? How would it be staffed? How would its programmes be funded? Would it not merely duplicate the work of NATO's committee of national armaments directors, which is already experienced in seeking to harmonise operational requirements and to maximise equipment standardisation between member states?

The main impetus to collaboration should be commercial rather than political. This is particularly true in a world in which there is a diminishing market for armaments and in which defence equipment exports are crucial for the prosperity of defence companies.

There is a final aspect of Europe's defence and security policy to which Britain can make a key contribution. The Sunday Telegraph of 2 June reported that the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the European Parliament had proposed in a draft report that the EU take over the nuclear weapons now owned by Britain and France. The draft report is alleged to say that, without them, the European Union will never be able to adopt a common foreign and security policy". Apparently, the report was adopted, and Marlene Lenz, a German Member of the European Parliament, was reported in The Sunday Telegraph as saying: If we have a union, and we need a strong union, there should be a military capability to it—and nuclear weapons would be part of that". That would circumvent the basic law of the Federal German Republic that forbids nuclear weapons, and as French sources have suggested that the French nuclear deterrent should be held in trust for the European Union, it is important to take those dangerous aspirations seriously—for dangerous they are.

A nuclear European Union would in effect be a super-power, incapable of fulfilling, as Britain must urge that it does, its nobler destiny, which is to transform itself into a genuine community of sovereign independent states—a community whose objectives are free trade and friendship, which would be an instrument for reconciliation and harmony within a reunited continent.

11.20 am
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on securing a debate on this important issue, but it was a pity that his Euro-scepticism so coloured his speech, especially towards its conclusion, when he spent some time on the common agricultural policy. His political attitude to the Union, which is very different from mine, means that he found himself in a way contradicting his own knowledge of defence questions, and adopting what in my view are unrealistic positions.

Co-operation and yet more co-operation is the name of the game. That has long been argued by Liberals both in the House and elsewhere; it is not a new position. I remember vividly that almost 20 years ago, in 1977, in the European Parliament of which the hon. Gentleman is so disdainful, my noble Friend Lord Gladwyn was responsible for producing a trail-blazing report on common weapons procurement in Europe. We have come some way since those days, but not far or fast enough.

As recently as 13 June, the Institute for Public Policy Research produced a document called "About Turn, Forward March with Europe". I shall quote briefly from the press release that accompanied the publication of the book, which was edited by Jane Sharp, the director of the defence and security programme at the IPPR. Apparently the document asserts that Britain can no longer afford, either politically or financially, to pursue a foreign and defence policy separately from her major European partners. That contradicts what the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said. The press release continues: Britain must integrate more deeply with France and Germany at all levels of defence planning and procurement. The link with the United States in NATO remains vital but Britain has to recognise that the special relationship with Washington is over. Britain can best influence world events in future as part of a strong and cohesive Europe. The book is critical of much conventional thinking about defence", and so on. That is a good basic position, very different from that outlined by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who speaks on such matters for our party, expressed the same feeling a couple of years ago in the Defence Industry Digest, succinctly and with the clarity that his legal mind gives him: The European Union consists of many middle-ranking powers none of which can really afford"— again the word "afford" is used— to maintain a full range of capabilities but which collectively form an extremely formidable alliance. Burden sharing, force specialisation and common procurement are all areas that should be examined. Once the CFSP has developed there may be scope for greater equality in expenditure on security among member states. Britain and France, which"— as the hon. Gentleman said provide most of the capability, should be recompensed by those who spend less. The German position, which the hon. Gentleman also touched upon, is changing and will continue to change. It has already changed, when Germany sent troops into former Yugoslavia, and it will change further. It will not remain static. The Franco-German Eurocorps and the British-Dutch marine force have developed slowly, but I think that those exercises point in the right direction.

I do not know whether the swear word "Maastricht" passed the hon. Gentleman's lips, but it certainly hovered in the air above him, so it might be useful if I remind the House exactly what the Maastricht treaty said when we passed it. As I recall, the Minister of State was most active at that time. The treaty called for the European Union to develop political co-operation, in particular through the implementation of a common foreign and security policy including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence". The language is cautious, very likely because of the United Kingdom's reservations, but the intent is clear. The treaty both sets an objective and recognises technical and financial realities.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that the Western European Union was possibly over-influenced by the European Union, partly but not entirely because of its location in Brussels. I believe that he said that it was subject to the risk of dread diseases by being stationed there. I am not sure whether I know what he means by the idea of "over-influence". The EU is not a monolith apart from the United Kingdom; the United Kingdom is part of it. The hon. Gentleman may not be happy about that, but it is a fact.

The United Kingdom's aim must be to work within the WEU, NATO and the EU. We must sit down with our colleagues there and work out political objectives. In our view the main flaw in previous defence reviews has been the fact that they have often been Treasury driven, rather than our having sat down and asked what we are capable of doing, who we are doing it with, how the activity should be shared out together, what we are prepared to undertake and what we are not prepared to undertake.

For example, we were prepared to undertake to try to control the situation in the former Yugoslavia, but if there were a widespread repetition of the Chechnya conflict in the Soviet Union I do not think that we would endeavour to intervene, because we do not have the capacity to do anything about such matters. We must draw lines, too.

I shall conclude by referring to the former Yugoslavia, because the hon. Gentleman touched on arms control at the end of his speech. I find the lifting of the arms embargo, which I believe took place yesterday, worrying. I do not think that it contributes much to the safety of our troops there, and I am sure that the French would agree with me. I should like to know what the Government's position is.

According to The Guardian today: The Bosnian Serbs will face the most radical cuts in the region"— the lifting of the embargo is based on concomitant cuts— leaving them with 500 artillery pieces and 137 tanks, nearly halving their present force. The poorly-armed federation would have to acquire significant amounts of new equipment to reach its new ceilings of 273 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery. Then cometh the crunch: However, much will depend on verification procedures and these must rely on trust, a rare commodity. It is indeed a rare commodity, which is still, sadly, virtually absent in the former Yugoslavia. Considering the risks that we and other western European countries—notably France and the Netherlands, as well as, of course, the Americans—have taken on ourselves to try to sort out a dreadful position, opening the floodgates to more arms entering the region is a mistake.

11.30 am
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am grateful to be called and particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for choosing this subject for this morning's 11 o'clock debate. I do not think that we have debated a more important subject in the past few weeks. The importance of it is highlighted by the fact that it takes place in the interim between the first and second rounds of the Russian presidential elections. Whether my hon. Friend chose today and the subject for his debate knowing that that might be the backdrop or it was simply a gift from the Prince of Serendip does not matter. I congratulate him on the subject and the timing of the debate.

I agree wholeheartedly with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said—in fact, almost 95 per cent. of it. Before we came into the Chamber, my hon. Friend confessed that he was going to make one or two generalisations. On the contrary, he made a highly detailed, well-argued and tightly constructed speech, which would have done the Europeans great credit. When I say the Europeans I mean those in the 16th and 17th centuries who created those wonderfully detailed tapestries in the low countries. My hon. Friend's speech was excellent and taught us much.

It is regrettable that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and I are the only Conservative Back Benchers present—he to make the speech and I to listen to it. Parliament is diminished and those whom we represent are less well served when such speeches are listened to only by those who have to be present and one or two others who feel it of interest to be present. I trust that what my hon. Friend said will be reported widely and digested with pleasure.

Not only those in my party have failed to attend this debate. I note that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) is wearing a very tasteful blue shirt, and I am particularly delighted that he has found time away from his duties in Scotland and elsewhere to be with us to represent his party. He always speaks with great learning and experience on foreign and defence policy, and although his speech—I hope that he will not think me rude—did not marry entirely with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, it was worth listening to. I hope that it will be digested—perhaps not quite so comfortably—by the great British public when it is read.

I look across the Chamber to the official Opposition. It is always a personal pleasure to see the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) because she speaks with great intelligence and sincerity. It is a pity that, behind her, the massed ranks of new Labour are notable for their absence rather than their presence. I am not blaming anyone, but it is worth observing that the Chamber is empty and it is a pity that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has been listened to with such poverty in the numbers of the audience.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

Come on, get on with it.

Mr. Garnier

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who I know is a keen critic of Europe, devoted some of his speech to the common agricultural policy. I draw his attention to the fact that the European Union donates huge sums to—I think—the Greek economy to subsidise its tobacco farmers. One could not put a cigarette paper between what my hon. Friend said and what I, eventually, will get round to saying—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—on Britain's role in European defence and security policy. I fear, however, that we could put a complete cigar box between what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber said and what my hon. Friend and I have to say.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

Not much tobacco is grown in Harborough.

Mr. Garnier

My hon. Friend is quite right. We do not grow much tobacco in Harborough.

My hon. Friend the Minister may be able to form a bridge—in so far as one is necessary—between my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and myself, but I fear that the gap between Inverness and Harborough is unbridgeable.

There are important lessons to be learnt not only from what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said but from the wider political scene in Europe. We cannot understand Britain's role in Europe's defence and security policy without bearing in mind the Russian elections and what is going on there. There are three dominant themes at the centre of Russian politics at the moment. First, there is the continuing need for reform of the social and economic structure of that much-troubled country. Secondly, there is a desire for protection.

Over the past 10 or so years, there has been severe dislocation in Russian society—not only since the collapse of the iron curtain but before it. Millions of Russians see themselves as victims. They are homeless, poor and out of work and fear that they will not have a home, get a job or have the domestic security that they believe was their right. During the presidential elections, demands for the people of Russia and particular sectors of Russian industry to be protected were advocated.

The third theme that ran through the Russian elections was nationhood. Now, 25 million ethnic Russians live outside the borders of the Russian Federation. The Russians, whether they live within or without the Federation, have a deep and sometimes melancholic sense of nationhood. General Lebed, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred, and who came third in the presidential elections, is the author of "The Dash to the South". I understand that he is now the new ally of President Yeltsin, which leaves Zyuganov as the second-placed presidential candidate—the communist—and his only hope of victory lying in the hands of Zhirinovsky. That must have a profound and direct consequence for us and the way in which we look on our defence and security role in Europe.

Sir Russell Johnston

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman so early in his speech, but surely it was a matter of encouragement that support for Zhirinovsky fell by—I think—3 per cent.

Mr. Garnier

It was encouraging that Zhirinovsky got 4.8 per cent. or thereabouts—

Sir Russell Johnston

Five point five per cent.

Mr. Garnier

It was a relatively small amount but none the less significant when it comes to tactical voting in the second round. I do not want to become too bogged down in the detail of Russian politics in the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has initiated.

What is important to us is how the new, developing Russia will regard its near abroad after the shenanigans in Chechnya. How will it regard our desire for an enlarged NATO? Will it want to expand not contract its armed forces, especially its navy, to satisfy domestic concerns and protect what it sees as its expanding capitalist economy as it looks to new markets overseas? How does that touch on us? I suggest that it affects us directly and most vitally.

Politicians of all parties—including the two main Opposition parties and those outside the House—may whip themselves into a lather over local government spending, social security spending and its consequences for future tax breaks, and the BSE crisis which, of course, are all greatly important, but they shrink into insignificance when one considers the matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has addressed this morning. Another world exists outside Britain. It is changing and we ignore it at our peril.

Defence matters to us in a world where Russia is politically and economically unstable and unsure of its future and of how it is regarded by the rest of the world. Defence matters when the politicians and bureaucrats of western Europe are talking about closer integration, while our experience of eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union is of disintegration. Some of it, happily, has been peaceful, such as the split between the Czech and Slovak republics. Other experiences of the disintegration in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been profoundly violent. We need look no further than the former Yugoslavia to see an example of that.

One also needs look no further than the former Yugoslavia to see Britain's importance as a European military power with a significant and influential role to play. The work of our forces there is an example of our co-operation with our European allies, our NATO allies, those in the WEU and across the Atlantic as well as within the main continental bloc. I am glad that others have found time this morning to praise and draw attention to the work of our forces in that troubled country.

Defence matters in a world where the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the huge economic strains that that has caused has brought about huge economic migration from the eastern bloc into the west and where economic pressure has forced the peoples of northern Africa to move into southern Europe. It matters in a world where each country wishes to take a more or less aggressive stand against those who wish to move into it for economic reasons as opposed to reasons of racial, political or religious persecution.

Defence matters in a western Europe that will be failing if it refuses to look outside the confines of the European Union and to recognise the need for a strategic global overview, encompassing the transatlantic link with the United States and Canada. Europe must also recognise the importance of fostering relations with Japan and the other democracies of Asia and Australasia, not just commercially but militarily as well. An inward-looking, exclusive European Union that tries to hammer a wish list into a prefabricated mould of politically correct Europeanism, including a European standing army, a European Union foreign and security policy that takes no account of intergovernmentalism, national co-operation and the need for practical answers to questions of practicalities and which wishes to translate the WEU into the European Union and fails to see the continuing need for NATO right across our continent would be damaging and contrary to the interests of this country.

My criticism of those who advocate such policies is not to deny the need for unity of purpose or to say that this country has no place in the security picture of the European continent—far from it. We certainly need to be part of it. We have experience on the world stage as members of NATO and WEU and as one of the two European members of the permanent five on the UN Security Council. We also have military capability in manning and planning and good intelligence services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood read a passage from the European Union report published earlier this month about a desire to bring the nuclear capability of individual member states such as France and the United Kingdom within the competence of the European Union machinery. That is deeply disturbing and misunderstands the needs of the future development of the European military scene. It misunderstands our natural desire to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent.

All the experience and skills that I have mentioned, our equipment, both nuclear and conventional, our will to protect our national interests wherever they are threatened, within or outside Europe and our determination to back our words with actions suggest that the British approach to the security of Europe is better and more realistic and will work.

Since our policy commands respect beyond the limits of the European Union, on the wider continent of Europe, in the United States and, at this juncture, in the Kremlin, it is the policy that should be preferred. Although I sincerely respect the views of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, I suspect that the Liberal Democrats' views on co-operation mean something rather different from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and me. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reject them out of hand.

11.45 am
Ms Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his success in securing this Adjournment debate and on his choice of subject. This subject is often lost in wider defence debates or wider debates on the European Union such as the one that we will no doubt be having in the Chamber tomorrow. The debate has provided an opportunity to focus specifically on the hon. Gentleman's choice of topic. The choice of subject is timely because of the United Kingdom presidency of the Western European Union and because of the discussions taking place within the intergovernmental conference.

When I saw the subject for debate today I wondered whether a Defence Minister would represent the Government rather than a Foreign Office Minister. I hope that the fact that it is attended by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office means that the Secretary of State for Defence is temporarily silenced after his disgraceful speech the other evening. He should go back to his history books and remember that it was a Labour Government who helped to set up NATO. We need no lessons in patriotism from him. I was rather relieved to see that the editorial in the Daily Mail described his speech as one puffed up with "patriotic bombast". That described it nicely.

The speech of made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood was interesting and was perhaps less strongly marked than usual with his suspicion of anything to do with the European Union, although there was a little bit of that, particularly in his exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall).

The hon. Gentleman made many valid points. One which I strongly endorse was that about the protectionist impulses in economic policy which some European countries are showing to countries of central and eastern Europe and to Russia. That is completely unacceptable. We have an economic duty to the countries of central and eastern Europe to be as open as we can. I believe strongly that it is in our long-term interests to be generous and to help create that large pan-European market that is capable of benefiting all the countries involved.

I shall comment on the Opposition's position on some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and others. The Labour party has a strong commitment to NATO and see it as the cornerstone of our defence policy. Active membership of NATO and participation in it is an essential part of our defence strategy. Obviously, we agree with the comments made this morning about the fact that NATO is now, self-evidently, operating in a different European and world climate and that its role has to be re-evaluated in that respect while building on the co-operation and achievements that it already has to its credit.

Obviously, enlargement of NATO will be an important subject for years to come, and we very much welcome initiatives that have already been taken, through the Partnership for Peace programme, with many countries of central and eastern Europe and many countries who were formerly viewed as enemy countries and well outside any co-operative framework with NATO. Such Partnership for Peace programmes are important, as will be eventual enlargement of NATO, but we want enlargement of NATO to take place in a way that does not create new divisions in the European continent. We must consider that important aspect at every opportunity.

That does not mean giving Russia or anyone else a veto over any one country's application for membership, but it does involve ensuring that we work for and build a stable and peaceful European continent for the future. It is an especially difficult time for Russia, as many hon. Members have said. Obviously, we are glad that the elections in Russia took place on schedule, and we are keen, as I believe is everyone in the House, to support the continuing reform process in Russia, to help underpin democracy and to create economic relationships that will be vital for the future.

The WEU was mentioned by all participants in the debate. We welcome recent moves to strengthen the WEU as the European pillar of NATO. We welcome France's decision to reintegrate itself into NATO and to play an active part in the WEU, to which it has always been strongly attached, as it has been to NATO. We welcome the initiatives of the combined joint task forces, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and we welcome the initiatives regarding the Petersburg tasks—which he also mentioned—of peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and so on. We believe that there is room for the WEU to take several important initiatives and act in a distinctively European way, but in a way that does not cause political tensions in the transatlantic relationship. I do not envisage any significant danger of that happening. We want the WEU, not to duplicate NATO activities, but to be able to supplement and enhance the work of the wider alliance.

In terms of the role of the European Union in this process, we feel that the common foreign and security policy should remain a separate pillar in the pillar structure as we know it, and that decisions in the common foreign and security policy should be taken by unanimity. We do not see the European Union as taking over the Western European Union, and obviously there are question marks concerning the future development of a defence role for the European Union, which make progress in this area very difficult.

The 15 countries of the European Union have somewhat different defence traditions. Some have a neutral status, although the type of neutrality of countries that profess neutral status varies case by case, naturally, because of the history of the countries concerned and their different traditions, and sometimes their different international links or geopolitical situation.

That means that, especially during the intergovernmental conference, it is unlikely that the position regarding European defence co-operation will change dramatically, but it would be interesting to hear from the Minister some more details about the discussions between European Union countries in that area.

We have all had an opportunity to read the report of the reflection group, in which the Minister of State participated, but that document is often very unsatisfactory in that it says, "Some countries thought this, some countries thought that," so we must rely on press leaks to find out what countries said and which countries committed themselves to specific policies. Perhaps, in the interests of openness in the European Union, the Minister might give us a few more details this morning about the breakdown between countries on the key issues of how the European defence identity may or may not develop in future, and what different countries in the European Union regard as the respective roles of the European Union and the Western European Union.

As the wider common foreign and security policy was mentioned, especially by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), perhaps the Minister will tell us something about the continuing thoughts of the Government about appointing a European Union foreign policy representative. I understand that the Foreign Secretary favoured that proposal but many of his hon. Friends did not.

I strongly support what was said by Opposition Members about the institutional links between the Western European Union and the European Union. We want closer relations between the WEU and the European Union; Brussels, which has been the home of NATO and the European institutions, would be an obvious place for that liaison to occur.

I am glad that there are now contacts between the WEU Assembly and Members of the European Parliament, especially the security and disarmament sub-committee of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. It makes sense that those Members of the European Parliament who are especially involved in examining that aspect of policy within the European Union framework are able to discuss regularly with their parliamentary counterparts in the WEU Assembly. I pay tribute to the work of my colleagues here on the WEU Assembly and to the Labour Members of the European Parliament who are involved in that liaison process.

Sir Russell Johnston

Often a false antithesis is made between the advisory Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU and the European Parliament; there are reports from the European Parliament of a sort of takeover. Does the hon. Lady agree that, even if WEU becomes more integrated into the European Union, that is no reason necessarily to abolish the advisory Parliamentary Assembly, which offers a useful outlet for national Parliaments to speak on defence matters in Europe?

Ms Quin

I agree. In any case, I do not envisage the abolition of the WEU Assembly, and I believe that national parliamentarians who have built up expertise in that regard need to have a close dialogue with Members of the European Parliament, who come at it from a slightly different angle but who have an equal interest in parliamentary and public scrutiny of the matters being considered.

More generally, it appears that, despite the fears that some Members of the House occasionally express about competition between the European Parliament and national Parliaments, there is a great deal, especially in the short term, that can be done to improve joint scrutiny by both national and European Parliaments of many of the issues that are important in the eyes of the public, but are not publicly debated as much as we should like.

Mr. Wilkinson

I wish to add a further point to that made by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston). Is it not the case, though, that, as long as national Parliaments have responsibility for voting budgets for national defence, and as long as national Defence Ministers are answerable to those Parliaments—indeed, in some European Parliaments, the Defence Committees have very important roles—the purpose and function of the Assembly of WEU will be central to the formulation of a common European view on defence? That is not to say that there is no merit in Members of the European Parliament taking an interest; increasing interest in, and intelligent inquiry about, matters of defence, at whatever level in Europe, is all to the good.

Ms Quin

Obviously the budgetary aspects are important, but that does not undermine the importance of the institutional links between the two bodies, which are now more necessary than ever before and which need strengthening.

We also believe in the idea of back-to-back sessions between the WEU and the relevant institutions of the Council of Ministers, as offering more co-ordination and better dialogue between the WEU and the European Union. That would make a great deal of sense.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood also mentioned arms procurement. The Opposition can see important advantages in collaboration between European countries in arms production and in improving competition, but we have doubts about the way in which the system works at present. If a country is to have a 10 per cent. involvement in a project, it has to have 10 per cent. of the economic activity involved in the arms effort in question. That often seems to work against the interests of competitiveness and open tendering. Given the efficiency of some of our arms industries, we should bear this in mind when planning for the future.

Finally, I believe strongly that the end of the cold war presents us with enormous opportunities. Because of the growth of nationalisms and xenophobia in many parts of the EU—the latter is not always absent, unfortunately, from the United Kingdom—there is always a danger of renationalisation in this important area of defence and security policy. Labour does not want that to happen. We want the end of the cold war to be put to good purpose, by building on the achievements of the international co-operation that we already enjoy in defence and security matters. Based on our European and international commitments, we must try to build towards a wider, more peaceful, stable and prosperous European continent.

12.1 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

Our debate takes place against the background of some important developments in the European security landscape. In Bosnia, British troops are playing a leading role in the success of IFOR—the NATO implementation force—which is the largest military operation in NATO's history. In NATO itself, important work on enlargement and the changes needed to adapt the alliance to new strategic realities is under way. There is also the intergovernmental conference, the agenda of which includes European security and defence.

I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his choice of subject and I welcome the debate which, for these reasons and for others that my hon. Friend outlined, is especially timely.

All the speeches in this debate have been of a high quality. Although I do not agree with everything that has been said, hon. Members have put their arguments cogently. I must tell my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that building a bridge between him and the Liberal Democrat spokesman on this subject is beyond my meagre abilities—although, as he remembers, I have spent some time bridge-building with him in the past.

Because the debate is so timely, some of the issues it covers are highly sensitive, so I shall choose my language with care today, for reasons that the House will understand. I might add, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin), that I am responding to the debate because, quite apart from its European dimension, my responsibilities cover international security, including NATO; the Western European Union; and nuclear weapons. There is no hidden agenda behind my appearance.

The term Europe's defence and security policy carries the risk of misinterpretation. Like many of the other catch-phrases—such as the European pillar of the alliance—it is something of a misnomer. I say that because our defence is not a purely European concern. It is primarily to NATO, a transatlantic organisation, that we owe the peace that we have enjoyed for the past 50 years, so when we consider Britain's role in European security and defence, it is right to start with our contribution to NATO.

That contribution remains substantial. On any measure, Britain more than pulls its weight. For example, our contribution to IFOR involves about 11,500 personnel—a much greater effort proportionate to population, gross domestic product or the size of our armed forces than any other nation has been able to make. We can all be rightly proud of the work of these service men and women. The shared values and interests on which the alliance was built remain as strong as ever. As Bosnia has shown, the American presence in Europe continues to be an essential contribution to security.

The end of the cold war does not mean that we no longer need to be ready to defend ourselves and to keep the Atlantic community together. For the British Government, a strong NATO remains the key; it informs everything that we do.

The experience in Bosnia has also shown that a greater European contribution is one of the most effective ways of keeping NATO strong. Two thirds of IFOR' s personnel are European. France is fielding a substantial contingent—testimony to the strength that NATO will draw from France's welcome decision to participate more fully in the alliance. European countries outside NATO—Finland, Sweden, Russia and nine central European countries—are also making significant contributions.

The challenge that we face with IFOR, with future NATO operations and at the intergovernmental conference is to allow the widest possible range of European countries to contribute to security, but that must be done in a way that strengthens the Atlantic alliance. That, I believe, was the thrust of my hon. Friend's speech this morning.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) asked me a question about Bosnia. The United Kingdom is committed to keeping the balance of armaments at the lowest possible level consistent with regional security in that part of the world. The parties have committed themselves to agreed levels of armaments. The agreement was signed in Florence at the Bosnia review conference on 14 June. The NATO-led implementation force has agreed to verify compliance with the agreement, so compliance will not be, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply, voluntary. Verification will be done in conjunction with Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe arms control experts, leading to a verified reduction in the armaments held by some, particularly the Bosnian Serbs. Some room will be left for rearming by the Bosnian-Croat Federation, however.

Sir Russell Johnston

The fact that General Mladic is still at large and confident enough to go to Belgrade without being arrested—and still in charge of the Bosnian Serb army—leads many of us to doubt whether he will co-operate in any large-scale reduction in armaments.

Mr. Davis

I will not be drawn any further on this—nor would the hon. Gentleman expect me to be. My point stands.

Britain is leading the way towards the new flexibility goals in three key areas. First, the Atlantic alliance has not stood still as the world has changed around it. The end of the cold war and subsequent regional instability have changed the strategic environment radically. Since the fall of the iron curtain, Britain has played a key role in moving NATO towards the more flexible structure that is now required. The landmark decisions taken by NATO Ministers in Berlin on 3 June were a mark of our success. They pave the way for reform of NATO's command structure, allowing it to respond quickly and effectively to future regional crises such as the one that occurred in Bosnia.

Agreement on the combined joint task force concept will allow NATO headquarters facilities to be deployed systematically for operations involving NATO and non-NATO countries. The decision to build a European security and defence identity within NATO will allow the Western European Union to provide political control and strategic direction for European operations drawing on NATO assets, capabilities and planning.

The last point is of fundamental importance. It means, in effect, that a European identity can be built in partnership with NATO, using common structures. It also means that NATO will be able to draw strength from the desire of Europeans to do more for their security—both in operations involving all the allies and, more rarely, when the United States does not wish to be directly involved in European operations under WEU political control. This ends the prospect of any European Union identity competing with NATO—that is an important point.

Secondly, no one would claim that the Western European Union has been a central player in European security during the past 50 years, important though its actions have been. It gained useful experience in operations in the Gulf and in Yugoslavia. It will need more experience, and robust machinery for control and direction of operations using NATO assets, if it is to fulfil the role accorded to it at Berlin.

That role will not involve operations of the scale and complexity of IFOR. Such tasks must continue to be carried out by European countries working together with our north American partners. The Western European Union should be able to carry out smaller peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks, working closely with NATO and the European Union. Giving the WEU the necessary operational capability to do just that has been the top priority for the British presidency of the WEU in the first half of this year.

We have made considerable progress over the past six months. This is summarised in the declaration of the Western European Union Ministers at Birmingham on 7 May, a copy of which has been deposited in the Library. In short, we have developed working links with NATO. The conclusion of a security agreement between the two organisations last month means that the WEU will be able to receive classified NATO intelligence and information in the future.

We have promoted practical co-operation between the WEU and the EU where it makes sense for the two organisations to work together, such as in relation to evacuation planning and Mostar. We have established within the WEU a situation centre and an intelligence section, both of which are vital if the WEU council is to have the up-to-the-minute information that is needed to make operational decisions.

We have made it easier for the widest possible range of European countries to contribute to the work of the WEU by agreeing to procedures for the participation of neutral countries in WEU operations, by allowing the central European associate partners to play a greater role and by strengthening relations with Russia and the Ukraine. I am grateful for the recognition that all these measures received in the Defence Committee's recent report on the WEU, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred.

These developments, and the decisions taken by NATO Foreign Ministers at Berlin, are of fundamental importance for the intergovernmental conference—which is the third area that I intend to address. Defence is one of the issues that Maastricht agreed should be reviewed at the IGC. In our view, there is no urgent need to rewrite the provisions of the Maastricht treaty that deal with defence. The IGC is not central to the future of European defence—the success of IFOR and NATO adaptation is much more important to the evolution of what is sometimes called the European security architecture. The IGC must avoid decisions that are driven by institutional theology rather than operational logic—that is an important point.

Arrangements for European security and defence must respond not only to a desire for bureaucratic or institutional tidiness, but to the real security challenges that we face in the years ahead. That is why we will continue to oppose proposals that aim at an eventual merger of the EU and WEU, or subordinating the WEU to the authority of the EU. Those approaches are simply not practical—they would be a recipe for less effective, not more effective, European action.

Not all members of the EU are full members of the WEU. It would be wrong for countries that do not share obligations to defend each other's territory as enshrined in article V of the Washington treaty and to have an equal say in decisions on defence binding those who do. The Berlin Foreign Ministers' communiqué makes quite clear that NATO assets and capabilities are to be made available on a case-by-case basis for European operations under the control and direction of WEU.

It is not realistic to expect allies to make these assets available if the EU ultimately gives the orders. The EU has neither the expertise nor the purely intergovernmental structure necessary for the life-and-death decisions that are needed during military operations. There can be no question of the Government allowing the Commission, the European Parliament or the European Court of Justice a say in decisions affecting the safety of British forces; the IGC can complement the progress already made in NATO and the WEU towards effective and credible arrangements open to a wide range of European countries.

Last year, the Prime Minister set out in the House our approach to defence at the IGC. He made clear that keeping NATO strong as the bedrock of European security would be our first priority. That remains the case, and it will always remain the case. He underlined our determination to develop European defence co-operation in the WEU as a means of strengthening NATO. He proposed a reinforced partnership between the EU and an autonomous WEU so that the political, economic and military elements of European crisis management could be properly co-ordinated.

I shall now address some of the specific points that hon. Members have raised during the debate and, first, I refer to co-operation in defence equipment procurement. We play a full and active part in the western European armaments group, which is the main forum for the discussion of issues related to European armaments co-operation. We are also exploring with France and Germany the conditions for cooperation within the armaments structure that they have pioneered. Both countries have agreed in principle to United Kingdom participation. This is good news for British industry and for the British taxpayer. Discussions with France and Germany are at a preliminary stage at this point. We hope to start work soon on an intergovernmental memorandum of understanding that will define in more detail how the armaments structure will work.

We believe that intergovernmental decision-making remains the correct approach to this and to all other policy areas related to defence, but we have no desire for a "Fortress Europe" to develop. We value our transatlantic defence trading relationship and we will continue to conduct business with the United States where that best suits our requirements. We remain committed to value for money and to competition in our procurement. European protectionism is a recipe for stagnation, as the hon. Member for Gateshead, East said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood raised the question of a specifically European nuclear deterrent. I see no advantage in addressing this issue outside the transatlantic framework. Nuclear deterrence is bound up with the defence of our territory and that of our allies. Collective territorial deterrence is a matter for Europeans and north Americans working together in NATO. No Government are seriously suggesting that that should change—we certainly are not.

I agree that to give the EU military responsibilities for which it is not equipped would impede the task of extending stability and prosperity to the east. It would create a new obstacle to EU membership for central European countries and it would unnecessarily provoke Russian fears—a point that was touched on by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

The developments in NATO and in the WEU that I have described today reflect the considerable progress we have made, but more can be done in the EU to improve the working relationship with the WEU. The Maastricht treaty already provides for the EU to request action from the WEU, and access to NATO assets and capabilities will put it in a much stronger position to respond to such requests in future. However, the habit of practical co-operation that we have been encouraging over the past six months must be built up if the two organisations are to work together effectively in such cases. We have proposed back-to-back arrangements from the highest level down to facilitate that.

There is sometimes a tendency in Europe to mistake pragmatism for a lack of vision. That could not be further from the truth in this case. Our approach to the IGC is based on a clear view of the defence and security policies that are needed to preserve peace and prosperity in Europe. It is underpinned by an ability and a readiness to deploy military force when circumstances require it. That ability makes our voice in the debate an influential one and it ensures that Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe's defence and security policy.