HC Deb 21 June 1999 vol 333 cc747-9
3. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

If he will make a statement on the development of the Anglo-French European Defence Co-operation Initiative. [86532]

5. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

If he will make a statement on the Government's initiative on European defence co-operation. [86534]

8. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on European defence co-operation. [86537]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

The recent Cologne Council meeting set out the way forward for the European Union's common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy. That built on agreement at the NATO Washington summit, which itself had originally stemmed from the Anglo-French St. Malo declaration in December last year. Our intention is to strengthen the European capability to contribute to security within the framework of the Atlantic alliance as a whole.

Mr. Rammell

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that response. He will be aware that the Conservative party has claimed that European defence co-operation will undermine and weaken NATO. Will he confirm that, at the NATO summit in Washington, the principle of European defence co-operation was supported by all 19 NATO countries, including the United States of America? That drives a coach and horses through the false claims of the Conservative party. Those claims say everything about excessive Europhobia and nothing about the real defence interests of this country.

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is right in pointing to the inconsistency of the Conservative party. It was, after all, my predecessor, Michael Portillo, who signed up to the European security and defence identity at the Berlin summit. It is strange that the Conservative party should be so emphatically opposed to an initiative that is designed to strengthen NATO's capability to act in situations where NATO forces could be of use, and to build European capabilities, so that we will be able to get good value for the expenditure of European taxpayers and to contribute in situations where the United States of America and Canada may choose not to be involved.

Mr. Bradley

My right hon. Friend referred to the lost Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Michael Portillo. Will he confirm that it was the last Government who signed up to the Maastricht treaty, which, among many other things, called for the framing of a progressive common defence policy? Will he identify any developments in the past two years since the election, when the Conservatives left office, or in the past two months that would justify the Opposition's current claim that a common defence policy would undermine NATO?

Mr. Robertson

I felt that this was a day for generosity, which is why I thought that reminding the Opposition of Michael Portillo would be sufficient. It would, I thought, be going too far to remind them of the Maastricht treaty, in which the idea of a common defence policy had its germination.

The fact is that no one else shares the rather ludicrous view that is being taken of anything European, especially when it involves the Europeans doing more about their defence, and building European military capabilities to a point at which they can be useful to us all in the future.

Mr. Smith

Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that an enhanced European defence identity will strengthen NATO, but that, in the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis, Britain and Her Majesty's Government should be taking a leading role in that new defence identity? Does he also agree that, far from such a new identity costing more, it is important for us to continue to spend defence money more wisely—on, for instance, the strategic heavy lift that that lot opposite failed to fund?

Mr. Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out some home truths. We have reshaped our forces in this country, and it must be said that a good many members of all parties in the House agreed with the analysis. We simply wish our European colleagues to spend what they spend wisely. It is a fact that Europe spends nearly two thirds of the total budget of the United States on defence, but achieves only a fraction of that in military capability. That must be dealt with.

European forces must be—as ours will be—readily deployable, flexible in order to meet diverse challenges, and sustainable over long distances and for long periods. That is what the defence initiative is all about.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The Secretary of State will be aware of Mr. Prodi's recent observation that a European army is both the logical next step for Europe, and inevitable. Does he agree with that view, or will he take this opportunity to repudiate it?

Mr. Robertson

Mr. Prodi speaks for himself in talking about a European army. I have heard no other European leaders speak of a single European army.

There will be no relinquishing of national control or deployment of our forces. That is the view not only of this Government—who hold it emphatically—but of the rest of the European Union countries.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Secretary of State not realise that that answer is entirely inadequate? It is his Government who have been promoting Mr. Prodi.

For decades, Governments of all party political persuasions have supported strengthened European contributions to NATO. What worries us now is the idea of a common defence policy with united armed forces, which would mean that the armed forces of this country would pass out of our control and into the majority control of continental politicians such as Mr. Prodi. Will the Secretary of State now answer my hon. Friend's question properly, and repudiate once and for all what Mr. Prodi wrongly said?

Mr. Robertson

If I remember rightly, Mr. Prodi was the unanimous choice of all the European Union leaders, just as Mr. Jacques Santer was the choice of the last Administration and unanimously adopted by others. The ability to rewrite history is now becoming an art form in the Conservative party, but they cannot fool all the people all the time.

There is no intention of making defence policy anything other than intergovernmental. National defence policy will remain in the hands of national Governments, and there is no intention of changing that.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

The difference is that we said that Mr. Santer was wrong.

The Secretary of State said earlier that, at St. Malo, the Prime Minister had signed an agreement on a European Union defence capability within or outside NATO, and, at the Cologne summit, had signed up to an autonomous EU defence capability. Does the Secretary of State recognise that an autonomous European defence union will risk alienating the greatest ally of the 20th century—the United States—both politically and militarily, and that to do so would jeopardise the security of both Britain and Europe? Does he accept that NATO must remain the bedrock of European defence and security co-operation?

Mr. Robertson

I welcome also the hon. Gentleman to the Opposition Front Bench, and I wish him well. I also offer him one piece of advice: before asking that type of question, he would be well-advised to read the conclusions of the Washington summit. Believe it or not, that summit was held in the capital of the United States of America and was subscribed to by the Government of the United States of America. The United States Government believe that our defence initiative—which is embraced by all our European partners—will strengthen European defence, that it will strengthen—not weaken—the alliance, and that it will do well for Europe if, in future, we have to deal with situations in which the United States does not want to be involved.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Would my right hon. Friend take the advice not of the little Englanders who have taken over the Conservative party, but of the distinguished former Defence Minister, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—who, last week, in the House's debate on Kosovo, said that one of the most glaring lessons of the past 10 years' experience of the Balkans was the need for a more effective European common defence and foreign policy?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is usually in so much trouble that I am loth to make matters worse for him by praising him, but, on that point, he has reality on his side. The European defence initiative—which has been endorsed by the Washington summit and by the Cologne European Union summit—is designed to supplement, not to duplicate NATO assets, to strengthen NATO, and to strengthen European capabilities—at a time when one should have thought that the desirability of that objective was self-evident.

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