HC Deb 16 February 1999 vol 325 cc720-3
6. Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

If he will make a statement on progress on peace in Kosovo. [69425]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

Along with my colleague the French Foreign Minister, I have been acting as co-chairman of the peace talks at Rambouillet. We have tabled a framework agreement and other texts that provide for a democratic, self-governing Kosovo.

Both delegations have got down to serious work on the texts, and have prepared detailed comments and amendments. It has not yet been possible to bring both sides together to negotiate on their amendments, mainly because of the insistence by the Serbs that both sides should first sign the statement of principles.

I return to Rambouillet tomorrow with the French Foreign Minister, when we will strongly remind both sides that the Contact Group requires them to conclude negotiations by Saturday. In my statement to the House two weeks ago, I warned that I could not guarantee that the talks would necessarily end in agreement. I regret to say that that remains the case today.

Mr. Lock

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and congratulate him on the steps that have been taken so far to bring the sides together. Conservative Members have been liberal with their criticisms of my right hon. Friend, but I assure him that there is an appreciation, on these Benches and throughout Europe, that without his personal contribution, the talks might never have got going. Will he confirm that, if the talks are successful and there is a settlement, British ground troops under British control will be committed to Kosovo to ensure that the humanitarian atrocities that have afflicted the region in recent months will not be repeated?

Mr. Cook

It is indeed the case that Britain as a whole can take some pride in the work that is being done by its officials to secure those talks. It was, after all, Britain that drafted the key texts at New York and at the Contact Group meeting in London, and which played an important part in getting agreement in the North Atlantic Council. I am glad that our efforts have managed to bring together both sides for these talks.

However, the talks will be a success only if we get agreement by the end of them. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we are willing to commit British troops as part of an international force to provide stability in Kosovo so that a political settlement can take root, but they will go there only if there is a clear commitment to a political settlement. I hope that that will increase the pressure at Rambouillet to reach agreement.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, if troops are deployed in Kosovo, they will have to go for more than six months? With one division deployed indefinitely in Bosnia, the possible deployment of a corps headquarters and a brigade to Kosovo would drive a coach and horses through the central assumption of the strategic defence review about the full defence structure required by the United Kingdom. Will the Foreign Secretary recommend to the Prime Minister that there should be a review of the full structure, and of the Army in particular, so that he can continue to pursue the foreign policy that he is pursuing at present?

Mr. Cook

We have only just completed a defence review that has been widely praised around Europe and which is currently being copied by a number of allies. The outcome of that review was in stark contrast to the repeated cuts, which amounted to a third of British forces' capacity, made under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported—and during his time as an adviser at the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Any fair person must congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way that he and his French counterpart have acted, and would hope and pray that there will be a successful conclusion. The success, or otherwise, of the negotiations will determine the success of the Washington NATO summit in April. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not a laboratory experiment, but a practical experience of Europe working with the United States for proper ends?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right, in that the drafting of the strategic concept for discussion at the forthcoming NATO summit envisages that organisation playing an important part in crisis management and crisis intervention. However, if such an international force is to be provided for Kosovo, we would want it to go beyond NATO, and would hope that some of NATO's other partners for peace would also play a part and help to provide a truly multinational force.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The Foreign Secretary is right to be cautious about the prospects of a successful agreement. May I press him, however? If there is no successful agreement, there will, of course, be no NATO ground forces in Kosovo, but the threat of air strikes will remain. What would be the strategic and military purpose of air strikes if no agreement can be reached? Would the purpose be, as has been reported recently, to break Belgrade's hold on Kosovo by degrading its military infrastructure?

Mr. Cook

I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the House that there is no question of NATO ground troops being provided if there is no settlement. We shall not fight our way in. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right to say that a NATO decision already provides Javier Solana with the power to activate military action against Belgrade in the event of Belgrade not complying with the Contact Group's demands. The objective of such action, and of the threat of such action, is to try to secure the compliance of Belgrade. At present, we are still working to achieve a successful outcome, and that must be our priority for the next four days.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

If there is an agreement and troops go to Kosovo, can my right hon. Friend assure us that they will be sufficiently well equipped either to extricate themselves or to defend themselves adequately if there is any danger of the ceasefire breaking down? The experience of Bosnia has been one of mission creep, and many of us are concerned that we cannot be sure at the start of a process just where it will lead in some months' time.

Mr. Cook

The lesson of Bosnia is, indeed, that one should not commit forces unless they have the capacity both to defend themselves and to enforce their mandate. That is why the proposed force for Kosovo is significantly greater than the one deployed in Bosnia in the early years. As my hon. Friend may know, we are already embarking heavy equipment as a contingency plan, in case we need to commit British troops, as we want that equipment to be available in advance.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

We wish the Foreign Secretary well in his attempts to broker an agreement on Kosovo. We support his efforts and we hope that they will succeed.

But will the Foreign Secretary now answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt)? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Minister for Defence Procurement told the other place last week that deployment of British troops in Kosovo would add greatly to overstretch in the Army. We were constantly told that the strategic defence review was driven by the Foreign Office, so do the Government intend to revise the SDR or to adjust their foreign policy?

Mr. Cook

There is no point in the right hon. and learned Gentleman rising at the Dispatch Box to wish us well in the talks, but then trying to knock away one of the main incentives for reaching agreement. We are clear on two points. First, the Chief of the Defence Staff has been fully involved in our decisions, and I am sure that he would have made no irresponsible decision. [Interruption.] I do not see why any hon. Member should find that amusing.

Secondly, we are conscious of our own role in the alliance. It is broadly agreed that the core of provision for Kosovo should be the ARRC—Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps—headquarters. Britain has for decades been the lead nation there, and it would gravely undermine our standing in NATO if we were to walk away from that responsibility. We intend to fulfil our responsibility, and we are conscious of having a much better prepared military posture than we inherited from the previous Government after 10 years of cuts.

Mr. Howard

No one is suggesting that the Government should walk away from that responsibility. As I have repeatedly said, we support the Government's efforts. But the Minister of Defence Procurement, at least, was aware of the questions posed for overstretch within the British Army. The question is: will the Government look again at the strategic defence review, or will they look again at their foreign policy in view of the great overstretch conceded by that Minister?

Mr. Cook

I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have no intention of looking again, as he puts it, at the foreign policy that is committed to trying to achieve peace in the Balkans. I wish that, just once, the right hon. and learned Gentleman could rise to express his support without immediately following it by a "but".

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