HC Deb 13 December 1999 vol 341 cc3-6
3. Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

What discussions he has had with his European counterparts regarding spending on common defence initiatives. [100955]

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

At the Helsinki European Council, European Union member states committed themselves to strengthening their military capabilities and to developing the means for the EU to act in support of its foreign and security policy objectives, strengthening the European NATO pillar and allowing the EU to undertake operations where NATO is not engaged.

Mrs. Spelman

President Chirac has said of the European Union that it

"could not fully exist until it possessed autonomous capacity for action in the area of defence."

That view is shared by Mr. Prodi. Is not that the clearest indication of an inevitable direction in defence policy towards a Euro army?

Mr. Hoon

No, it is not, and if the hon. Lady read carefully the conclusions of the Helsinki summit, she would find that there is a specific undertaking not to create a European army. What Helsinki does is good for Europe and good for NATO. By strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we are providing a greater capability for Europe to strengthen NATO's operations and, in particular, to allow the European Union, as I said few moments ago, to become engaged in operations where NATO is not involved.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

When does my right hon. Friend think that he will be able to make a decision on common spending and procurement, which affects not only Britain but Germany, France and Spain, on the heavy lift project? May I urge on him the solution of the A400M, which British Aerospace would participate in and which would be of huge benefit to my constituents in Broughton? I remind my right hon. Friend that, in a previous Administration, a Secretary of State for Defence said that he recognised the need for some 40 to 50 heavy lift aircraft—what we could call the A400M. It is insufficient to have only 25 to 30 such aircraft.

Mr. Hoon

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his ingenuity in asking such an erudite and thoughtful question, which I am sure is of passing interest to his constituents. I can assure him that the Government are considering carefully that procurement issue. That careful consideration will continue for some time yet, but I am confident that the decision will be made not too far into the new year.

Mr. kin Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Secretary of State answered my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) by talking about the EU defence capability. Is not the reality, however, that, after Amsterdam, the Prime Minister referred in the House to the plans—which he said that he had blocked—to move the Western European Union into the European Union and give the EU a defence capability as

"an ill-judged transplant operation"?

Is not it a fact, therefore, that in the past 12 months the Prime Minister and the Government have reversed what had been British defence policy for 40 years, and what the Prime Minister said was an ill-judged transplant operation has now become British defence policy?

Mr. Hoon

The UK played a leading role in shaping crucial European Union policy that strengthens the EU's ability to operate and to support its common foreign and security policy while, as I said earlier, strengthening NATO. On the subject of changes of emphasis, what is revealing is the Conservative party's obsessively anti-European tone. A once formidable political party has now assumed the status of a pressure group.

It is perhaps still more revealing that the Conservatives now rely on Baroness Thatcher to lead the charge, with the shadow Defence Secretary following closely behind. The hon. Gentleman refers to Baroness Thatcher as small children refer to a security blanket. He should consider carefully the cautionary tale that says,

"keep a hold of Nurse, For fear of finding something worse."

Mr. Duncan Smith

As ever, the Secretary of State talks rubbish. The truth is that the Prime Minister has not introduced a change of emphasis; he has turned British defence policy round by 180 deg. The Secretary of State glibly refers to that policy change as a change of emphasis, but that is not what they believe over in Europe.

Mr. Prodi knows exactly what is going on when he talks about the inevitability of a Euro army. The French are absolutely clear when they say that the policy is a breathtaking reversal of British policy. The Italians are clear when they say, after conversations with the British Government, that the Euro army will number 120,000. Above all, in the past four days the Russians have welcomed the Euro army. Why? They say that it will decouple the United States from Europe and render European defenceless and less capable. Will that not be the Government's epitaph?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman has been trying hard to decouple the United States from the United Kingdom and Europe. Indeed, he has gone to the US deliberately to scaremonger on that particular subject. He cannot get round the fact that Strobe Talbott said at Chatham House,

"the US is for ESDI".

The US supports that policy. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Financial Times today, he will see that there is further United States support for a stronger European pillar.

It really is deeply depressing for the remaining few pro-Europeans on the Conservative Benches to find that, unlike when the party was led by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), it is apparently ever more dependent on Margaret Thatcher. We were told that, under the right hon. Gentleman, she was a back-seat driver. Now, she is sitting firmly in the front seat, driving the party's policy.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Yet again—this is the third time—the Secretary of State will not answer the real questions. There will be no extra spending by any European Government on the proposal. The capability will be no greater; it is more likely to be less. As we saw in the Sunday papers, east Europeans who recently joined NATO are scared stiff because they are excluded from the process and the United States is worried to the extent that it carries out an inquiry. What the Prime Minister does not say publicly is that he has agreed to Mr. Solana becoming the Defence Minister for Europe. Will not the Government's policy leave us with a common European army policy, which is the same as the common agricultural policy—a disaster?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman should know that questions of defence spending are a matter for national Governments, and that the matter to which he referred is one for our European partners. He would equally know, if he had read the Helsinki summit conclusions carefully, that a specific commitment on capability was agreed, and that each country signed up to it. That means that each country must make available such forces and assets to deliver up to a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force into a theatre of operations quickly. That is clear and practical and, I am proud to say, something which the British Government led the way in negotiating and framing.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If the European defence initiative represents such a threat to NATO, will the Secretary of State explain why all 19 NATO countries, including the United States, signed a declaration of support for it at the Washington summit?

Mr. Hoon

I have puzzled for some time over why Conservative Members cannot understand the plain statements of representatives of the American Administration and senior figures in Washington. They have made it clear, as did William Cohen, the United States Defense Secretary, at a recent NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, that the improvement of European capability "will strengthen NATO", and that there is no ground whatever for any speculation of a possible division between Europe and the United States. If Conservative Members were able to be less obsessively anti-European and looked at the facts a little more clearly, they would come to the clear conclusion reached by our friends in Washington.