HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc13-5
12. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy towards further European defence co-operation. [75976]

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

Our aim is to ensure a strong common foreign and security policy, so that Europe can speak with authority and act with decisiveness in international affairs. To achieve that, we need to provide the tools to allow the European Union nations to make decisions collectively on military matters, including the political control and strategic direction of Europe-led military operations. We also want more effective European military capability so that we are able, when necessary, to back up our policies with military action, both for Europe-led military operations and as a means of strengthening NATO.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does he agree that, just as there is a need for greater co-operation in Europe, there is a need for greater co-operation in our own domestic market? Does he recognise that, with a contracting and diminishing United Kingdom defence sector, interdependence between the Ministry of Defence's procurement strategy and the private sector is all the greater? Does he share my concern that companies with healthy long-term order books, and the jobs that underpin them, are at risk when they have no short-term work? Will he therefore consider the benefits of better and closer integration between the armed forces' procurement strategies and the needs of private contractors in order to predict their business, and thereby to underpin their capacity and the jobs that they provide?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. That is precisely why the Government have evolved a close partnership with the industry in this country. I do not think that I would be contradicted in the industry if I said that the co-operation between us in dovetailing our requirements and its demands is at an historically high level. My responsibility is to ensure that the budget that I have is spent in the most cost-effective way, but I am always conscious of the fact that we have a big industry with a huge export potential and a great record at the forefront of our manufacturing cutting edge. We cannot neglect our industrial responsibilities either.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

When deciding on European defence and security co-operation issues, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that there are six European NATO countries that are not members of the European Union and that five of the 15 European Union countries are not members of NATO? Does that not lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Western European Union should take the initiatives on such matters, rather than the European Union?

Mr. Robertson

What matters is that NATO's integrity and strength remain undiminished. We in Europe should have the political will and the determination to act when it is in our interests. It is also vital that we have the military capability to act when we come to policy decisions. There are plenty of ways to design and redesign the security architecture of Europe. There are wiring diagrams by the thousand, but a wiring diagram cannot be sent to a crisis. That is where we have to put our principal efforts and energies. The Western European Union has shown how we can weld together all the nations that are involved in that common endeavour, but we need to concentrate much more on the political will and the military capabilities and allow institutional relationships to be developed thereafter.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that defence co-operation in the European Union will benefit our relationship with the United States? With a more grown-up relationship, the European Union would be able to deal with certain difficulties without being compelled to go to the United States for assistance. That would be better and more sensible.

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Europe can and should do more. In many ways, that will strengthen the alliance. The European security and defence identity inside NATO was developed at the 1995 NATO summit, when the Secretary of State for Defence was one Michael Portillo. The development of the European capability inside NATO was not dreamed up by this Government, but the process of making that capability real, strengthening NATO and giving Europe more control over its destiny has come to fruition only since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched that major and significant initiative.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Secretary of State is in danger of confusing me. At one moment, he is trying to downplay the significance of the development, talking about it as merely wiring diagrams, but he told the Select Committee on Defence that the importance of the St. Malo agreement could not be understated. If I understand it correctly, it represents the most fundamental shift in British defence policy for decades. Bringing defence policy within the remit of the European Union would change the policy that informed the Government's approach to the treaty of Amsterdam. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is an enormously significant change for British defence policy? Why were we not able even to get the French to join the integrated administrative structure of NATO as part of the St. Malo deal? That would be a small price for them to pay for a fundamental change in British policy.

Mr. Robertson

There is a danger that I am misleading the hon. Gentleman, but that does not seem to be too difficult. Let me spell it out in simple terms for him.

The concept of a European defence identity inside the European Union was not born in the Amsterdam treaty; it came into existence in the Maastricht treaty, signed by the previous Government. We are moving towards a European security and defence identity with the office of high representative, and all the responsibilities that go along with that for establishing the policy and making sure that that policy can be put into practice.

The St. Malo declaration—which brought France and the United Kingdom much closer together in terms of being able to do things in Europe, rather than talk about them—was backed by a practical example, the extraction force based in Macedonia to relieve the Kosovo verification force, had it got into trouble. That force is French led, and has double the number of French to British troops; however, the French Government decided to put it under the command and control of the NATO commander.