HC Deb 13 December 1999 vol 341 cc12-4
10. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What representations he has received from his French counterparts regarding European defence co-operation. [100962]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

At St. Malo in December 1998, the United Kingdom and France launched a major initiative aimed at building European security and defence. Since then, we have continued to work closely with our French defence counterparts, culminating in the joint declaration made at our London summit on 25 November. That declaration called on European nations to strengthen their military capabilities and was an important stepping stone towards the Helsinki European Council.

Dr. Lewis

Despite their many other virtues, have not our French allies for more than 40 years weakened the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by staying outside its integrated military structure? Has not their main reason for that been pride, and resentment of America's role in defending Europe? By playing dangerous games with the formation of a Euro-army, are not the Labour Government undermining the prospects for our future conventional defence, just as they tried to undermine our prospects for successful nuclear deterrence in the 1980s?

Mr. Hoon

If the hon. Gentleman goes to the Library, he will be able to find a copy of the Helsinki summit conclusions, which state that it has been agreed by the United Kingdom and the French Government, as well as every other Government of the European Union, that the initiative is not leading to the creation of a European army.

As for defence co-operation with the French, the hon. Gentleman should consider these words: The relationship between British and French forces at operational level is fantastic. It should be developed. We are the two most serious countries about defence in Europe. … We need to do things together."—[Official Report, 10 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 812.] Those are excellent words. They are not my words, but the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary after St. Malo. Yet as soon as we try to do something together—remember: the shadow Foreign Secretary said that we need to do things together—the shadow Defence Secretary accuses us of trying to create a single European army and a vast European super-state. What is clearly required on the Conservative Benches is a little joined-up opposition.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

My right hon. Friend is confident that the common defence policy will not affect our relationship with the United States, but does he agree that the forces of isolationism are always just below the surface in the United States, and is he not concerned that these initiatives might give succour to people in the United States who want to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty, with all the consequences of that?

Mr. Hoon

Clearly, there are concerns in the United States. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] In a vigorous democracy it is inevitable that some people will take a particular view of a particular problem. However, there are no difficulties with the Administration and majority opinion on the Hill: they recognise that, by strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we are strengthening NATO as a whole.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Can the increased defence capability as proposed at the Helsinki Council be provided by the United Kingdom and France alone, or is it a non-runner unless there is greater public expenditure on defence by other European Union countries?

Mr. Hoon

As I said earlier, precise expenditure by other European Union countries is a matter for them. By agreeing to a capability assessment and to deploying specific forces to meet that assessment, European nations are saying that we will spend what is necessary to reach that conclusion. By specifying what forces and equipment are needed to reach that rapid reaction capability, we are specifying precisely what we need to do as European nations. We are improving the European pillar of NATO in a practical way. Those countries will have to decide how they should spend the money to achieve those ends. Having agreed the ends, we have achieved a practical conclusion that strengthens Europe inside NATO.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that Britain and France enjoy a close relationship on nuclear matters? My memory tells me that. Would he also confirm my recollection that the policy was put together by the Conservative party, which now doubts anything and everything French?

Mr. Hoon

I can recall an occasion in the 1980s on which the Government under Lady Thatcher were keen on closer Anglo-French co-operation—indeed, her major foreign policy adviser wrote about that recently. Perhaps Conservative Members should consider a little more carefully the history of these matters, especially the conclusion of the Berlin summit and the text of the Maastricht treaty, which show that they were in favour of European defence co-operation in the relatively recent past. They have now abandoned that view because of the obsessive anti-Europeanism that now infects the entire Conservative party.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with those who say that membership of the euro—the single currency—is essential to the success of a European defence force?

Mr. Hoon


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