HC Deb 22 November 2000 vol 357 cc311-27 3.33 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Hoon

With permission, I should like to make a statement to the House about recent developments in European defence co-operation. There are those who, in recent days, have frankly become a little over-excited, and I should like to set out the facts and separate them from the Euro-sceptic fiction.

Our aim is the improvement of European military capabilities to deal with the security challenges now facing us. The enhanced capabilities will be available to the countries concerned, to the European Union and to NATO. This is a key step towards achieving our goal of strengthening the European pillar of NATO and encouraging our European partners to do more.

This is an aim that everyone in the House should share. It is about making it easier for British armed forces to deploy in a multinational context—a routine requirement of modern operations. I spent this morning with the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Green Jackets, currently serving in Paderborn in Germany. They emphasised to me the number of recent occasions when they had been deployed alongside other European forces from Holland, France and Italy.

I should like to set out what we have been discussing this week at the capabilities commitments conference in Brussels. Last year, it was agreed at the Helsinki summit that European Union nations should, by 2003, be able to deploy rapidly up to 60,000 ground troops to meet the full range of crisis management tasks. Those troops could contribute either to NATO-led operations or, if NATO as a whole was not engaged, to a European-led crisis management mission.

Over the past two days, European partners—both in the European Union and outside it—have been identifying the type and level of forces that they may be able to make available for Petersberg-type operations. It would not be a standing European army. It would be a pool of potentially available national forces. It is envisaged that there would be full transparency and consultation with NATO as a potential crisis develops. It would then be for contributing countries to decide whether, when and how to deploy their armed forces. No country would have to take part. A British Prime Minister, answerable to this House, will always have the final say over the use and deployment of British armed forces.

NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of European defence. It alone remains responsible for the collective territorial defence of its member states. The European Union has stated repeatedly that its aim is to have the ability to conduct military crisis management operations only when NATO as a whole is not engaged. Nothing that has been done in the European Union this week changes any of that. For the foreseeable future, such major operations would draw on NATO assets and use NATO operational planning and command structures. In short, the force would be NATO supported. So it is time we lowered the temperature and raised the tone of the debate.

One way of doing that is to place the current developments in context. In 1992, the Maastricht treaty established the present framework of the European Union and the so-called second pillar of a common foreign and security policy. It said that member states

shall define and implement a common foreign and security policy.

It went on to specify that that

shall include all questions related to the security of the Union, including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence.

That policy was signed up to by the previous Conservative Government: it was signed up to by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) as well as by the current Leader of the Opposition.

Those who look for consistency in their politicians might assume that the Leader of the Opposition would still support a policy he signed up to as an ambitious Minister in government. At least it can be said of the shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), that he has consistently opposed Maastricht and consistently opposed the European Union. Sadly, his Euro-sceptic opposition is now leading the Conservative Party, with its leader jumping on the anti-European bandwagon.

The Leader of the Opposition should not try to hide behind NATO. It was NATO at Berlin in 1996 that offered to make its assets available for European operations, and it was NATO at the Washington summit last year that offered its support for the European defence initiative.

The policy that we are discussing today has not suddenly appeared. In fact, what we are doing is a long way short of the aspirations that the last Government signed up to and agreed. I apologise for this short history lesson, Mr. Speaker, but it is important to be clear that the aim that I set out at the beginning—the improvement of European capabilities—is not only an aim that all parties have shared, but an aim that has already been pursued over several years.

If it is necessary for Europeans to do more, why do they not simply take action within NATO? The answer of course is that we do take action within NATO. The fundamental structures of co-operation are there in planning, training, and command and control arrangements. What we are doing through the European Union will complement that action.

There are three main reasons for taking this action. First, there is a clear imbalance in capabilities between the Europeans and the United States, and that has grown over the past decade. Kosovo was a wake-up call. Both the United States and NATO strongly support increased efforts by Europe to respond to that challenge.

Not a single senior figure in the US Administration is opposed to the proposals. Madeline Albright described Monday's conference in Brussels as

a strongly positive development we wholly support.

At the recent NATO conference in Birmingham, Bill Cohen, the US Defence Secretary said:

Let me be clear on the American position—we agree with this goal, not grudgingly, not with resignation but with wholehearted conviction. The effort now being put into developing better European capabilities—an effort led by Britain—is beginning to have an effect. For years, defence budgets throughout

Europe have been falling. Next year, according to figures given to NATO by its member nations, defence spending will rise in real terms in 11 of the 16 European states of NATO. The restructuring of armed forces to make them better equipped to face today's challenges is taking place in a number of European Union countries.

Secondly, the European Union is already actively involved in crises—through economic sanctions, diplomatic measures and humanitarian aid—but it has lacked clout. In security matters, especially in a real crisis, political weight reflects military weight. The EU has lacked a practical method for mobilising a military response.

The third reason is that additional political will and momentum for Europe to improve its capabilities is best generated through NATO and through the European Union. The multi-dimensional nature of security issues demands a co-ordinated political response. For that, frankly, we would be failing if we did not make full use of the mechanisms offered by the European Union.

The capability commitments conference earlier this week is neither something to fear nor something to scaremonger about. On the contrary, we as a nation should be delighted to see our European partners making a serious commitment to improving their capability to be able to respond to crisis management situations. It strengthens the military capability and resolve of the European Union, and strengthens the capability within the NATO alliance.

This is a statement of requirement—a goal, a level of ambition. It is a means of galvanising action. That is why it is called the headline goal. It is not a European army. It is not even a standing rapid reaction force. Nor is it confined to the European Union. On Tuesday, we heard from non-EU NATO nations and from the 15 EU aspirants. They, too, support the goal. They, too, have offered forces towards it, yet, as we have seen, the Opposition would pull the United Kingdom out of that process. They would have us isolated not only among 15 EU member states, but among 15 further non-EU European states.

Since Helsinki, military experts both from EU countries and from NATO have developed a detailed statement of requirement for the pool of forces and capabilities needed to cover the Petersberg tasks—peacekeeping, peace support and peace enforcement. On Monday, countries nominated elements of their national forces which they believed could contribute to that requirement. The process of identifying those forces is, in principle. no different from the process of declaring forces to NATO, or, indeed, to the United Nations. We need the ability to assemble the right sort of force quickly for a range of possible operations.

The key difference about the current initiative is that capabilities are being identified against a specific goal. The countries involved are demonstrating their determination to follow through on the areas of shortfall and deficiency which that process will highlight, so it is a step in a process, not the end of a road. We are perfectly well aware that there are many detailed issues to be followed up both in the European Union and in NATO.

Like others, the United Kingdom has identified a pool of forces and capabilities as its contribution towards the achievement of the headline goal. Those forces provide for a balance across the full range of Petersberg tasks, including the most demanding ones. In the maximum scale operation envisaged at Helsinki—a corps level deployment of up to 60,000 ground troops—the UK land component would be about 12,000 strong. Maritime and air deployments of up to 18 warships and 72 combat aircraft would be made in addition. I set all that out in more detail in my response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) on Monday.

Let me be clear about what the initiative is and what it is not. It is a planning process to ensure a more effective defence effort by European forces. It is a mechanism to improve European contributions to NATO and to ensure that European nations can in future play a more effective part in alliance operations. It will encourage more efficient and targeted defence spending by our European friends, and it will ensure that, when NATO is not engaged, the European Union can act effectively in a wide range of peace support operations, if and when its member nations want it to.

It is not a European army, or even a standing rapid reaction force. It is not an agreement to give up or to reduce Britain's sovereign control over British forces, and it is not a commitment to undertake operations that we would not previously have wished to take part in. It is not, therefore, a new burden on our armed forces. Those who have said that either do not understand what is happening, or deliberately seek to mislead for reasons of political opportunism.

The success of our armed forces in co-operating with our partners and allies deserves better. The Opposition should be ashamed of themselves for trying to use our armed forces to further their anti-European obsessions.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

What we should have been given today was a reasoned outline of the arguments in favour of the complete nonsense created by the Government. What the Secretary of State gave us—and it demeans his office—was a political rant in support of a Prime Minister in retreat over a policy U-turn that he made two years ago.

The reality is that the Secretary of State at no point bothered to answer the key question that he has failed to answer for the last year and a half, during which it was asked endlessly. What is this all for? The right hon. Gentleman says that it is for low-level peacekeeping tasks, as envisaged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) at Petersberg. But what do the others say? The French do not see it like that at all. Alain Richard says:

We could increase the strength of the deployable forces. The land component should allow us to deal with two simultaneous crises, including a high intensity one with a long term requirement for forces. The ability of the sea and airlift components to project forces and carry out deep strikes would be significantly increased. Here we could envisage an army corps supplemented by 6 to 7 brigades and 600 to 700 aircraft including 400 to 450 combat aircraft. So that is to aid the civil power—a Petersberg task, just to help the police to get on with their operations in a difficult area? I think not.

Perhaps we should now consider what was said just last weekend in a briefing to German newspapers. It is not what the Government choose to say here. Die Welt, for instance, featured a headline stating: "The EU Army prepares itself for crises in Asia and Africa." The paper said:

The European Union plans to inform the world of a new Super-Army for heavily armed Military deployments in a radius of 4,000 km from Brussels. That will include large parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus. That, in essence, is what those newspapers are being told.

The reality is that the Government are in denial. They have been in denial since the beginning of the process, because they did not start it for the purposes for which they now say that they started it. Why, following the creation of an organisation that apparently supports the Petersberg tasks, is it necessary to have available 100,000 soldiers on standby, 400 aircraft and 100 combat ships to back it up?

Furthermore, as the right hon. Gentleman should know—he may not have discovered it yet; if so, he should do his homework a bit better—if a soldier is deployed in the field he must be backed up, which would require another two for every one deployed. So we are now talking about 200,000 troops in deployment, and we are confronted with a completely different argument.

There is another point with which the right hon. Gentleman did not deal—a point that is not for the Petersberg tasks. Why does the right hon. Gentleman need a structure that is completely separate from NATO, and mirrors NATO? It includes a European military committee, a political committee, a security committee, European military staff, European intelligence and logistics support, and a headline goal that competes with that of NATO.

The reality is this. What the Secretary of State did not say is that the ambitions and proposals for this operation are far grander than he would want to let on.

There is another point about which the right hon. Gentleman did not say much. What about the European nations which are not members of EU, but which have been strong and firm members of NATO? This is not just about Europe; it is about the EU. Here we have nations such as Norway, the Czech republic, Poland, Hungary and Turkey, all in support. Yesterday, panicking about the idea that they were so far out of the proposal, the Government tossed them a scrap. They said, in effect, "You can come in if you want—when we ask you: when we call you. You will not be in from the word go, you are not members of the EU, and you cannot be involved in the planning process, so you will come in when we want." That is the key. That is why the Turkish ambassador said today "Frankly, this does not work at all."

So, we ask ourselves what the policy is all about. It is simply about a Government who dare not speak of their great love—their love to join the euro—which was rebuffed in 1998. Back in 1997, when the Government were considering the problem and the Prime Minister still thought that he would be able to join the euro, the Prime Minister said:

getting Europe heard more clearly in the world will not be achieved through merging the European Union and the Western European Union or developing an unrealistic common defence policy.

That was the Government's position in 1997-98.

The change came in December 1998, when the Prime Minister realised that the game was up for his entry to the euro and that he needed to show his friends and allies in Europe that he was a good European. He offered them the proposed arrangement, regardless of its impact.

When the Prime Minister wants to know what other European countries think about the policy, he should perhaps remember why they are so keen about it. Joschka Fischer said:

it means an important step for the development of the European security and defence identity, another pillar of the process of European unification.

Mr. Jospin said:

By bringing its armed forces closer together and through its continuing commitment to peace and respect for international law, Europe must be able to complete that process. Over there, they know what this is all about, and they say it every single day: over here, we have a Government who are in denial. The previous Government vetoed such an arrangement. The previous Government knew that the Petersberg tasks did not require a European Union organisation that would be a mirror image of NATO, discriminate against the east Europeans, dilute the forces available to NATO and duplicate NATO's organisation. The previous Government knew that, and the previous Prime Minister knew that. When he first started, even the current Prime Minister knew it.

Like everything else, however, we cannot trust this Prime Minister or this Government. When the opportunity comes, they will do a U-turn and change their mind as it suits them. That is the truth of this Government.

Mr. Hoon

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to take the shadow Defence Secretary seriously on any matter that has the word Europe or European at the beginning. Sitting behind him are any number of right. hon. and hon. Members who consistently supported the then Government's line on Maastricht. When we were in opposition, Labour Members watched the current shadow Defence Secretary split his own party on Maastricht by consistently voting against his own Government, over and over again.

As I said in my statement, the hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency: he consistently opposed Maastricht and all that it contained. That is not true of the Leader of the Opposition, who supported it at the time. Now, in opposition, for reasons of political opportunism, the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to change his view on common European defence. That gives the House, and indeed the country, a real insight into the current state of the Conservative party—which consistently opposes anything European. It also consistently turns any argument to that direction.

I am accused of not doing my homework by someone who talks about having 100,000 ground troops on standby—there is no reference to that. The reality is that we have committed to achieving a capability that could, if necessary, deploy rapidly. That is the whole point of the process—[Interruption.]

The shadow Defence Secretary scoffs. He is scoffing at the lessons learned from Kosovo—at documents published for and debated in the House—where we could not deploy rapidly in the crisis and were heavily dependent on the United States. Why should we not be able to deploy our own European forces together?

The shadow Defence Secretary also talks about 200,000 troops being on standby as a back-up. He should know full well that, when we rotate troops to a crisis, we have those troops available. Those troops are available to go to Kosovo. The reality is that 80 per cent. of the forces

currently in Kosovo are of European origin. The reality is that, when we had the time to deploy, we were able to achieve that. What we were not able to do was to get those forces into a theatre quickly.

As for the 15 non-EU member states, they were present at the meeting; they were there on Tuesday. They offered their own forces as a contribution to the headline goal. So not only are the Conservatives absolutely determined to be isolated in the European Union, they are also determined to be isolated among 30 states that are prepared to participate in the process. The shadow Defence Secretary really gave the game away when he talked about people who are doing things for the United Kingdom as being "over there". That is his and his party's perception of Europe—Brussels acting against the Conservative party, against the narrow isolationist position of those who, in opposition, cannot see the benefits of European co-operation and are acting totally inconsistently with the actions of the previous Government, whom many of them supported at the time.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

When the Opposition spokesman asked what this was all about, why did my right hon. Friend not let the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is a trained shrink, tell him that it is more about paranoia, xenophobia and election fever than rationality?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who puts the case very well.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I welcome the statement and suggest to the Defence Secretary that he might take the opportunity, politely but firmly, to remind the cold war warriors—military and political—however distinguished, that Europe's defence needs today are rather different from our requirements in the days of the cold war and the Berlin wall? Is it not realistic in the light of recent experience, in particular the terms in which the presidential election was conducted in the United States, to assume that we cannot expect the United States to be willing in all circumstances to come to the assistance of Europe in conflicts such as Kosovo and Bosnia and that Europe must have the capacity to deal with such matters?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that there will be total transparency between NATO and the European Union in any European operation, but may I seek a further assurance? Will he use his every endeavour to ensure that the United Kingdom and all others who have pledged forces on paper during the past two or three days meet those commitments in reality?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. His implied criticism of the Conservative Opposition would have further force if it were not for the fact that, in government, they set in train the process of improving European defence capability, not simply in an EU context, but in the context of NATO and the EU through amendments to the Maastricht treaty to which they signed up. Former Conservative Ministers, now sitting on the Opposition Benches, agreed to that in the context of the Maastricht treaty.

What is important about the work in which we are engaged is the review mechanism. We need to ensure that those who offered forces offer forces of the right kind and the right quality that are capable of rapid deployment. That is a significant step forward in the operation of multinational organisations. In the past, we have not had an effective checking mechanism that has worked as we would have liked, but we are going to get that out of this process.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

Is the Secretary of State aware that on many strategic issues since the last election I have either supported the Government or remained silent, conscious of their mandate? I have always favoured European co-operation on defence, as did the last Government, but only and exclusively as the European arm of the NATO alliance. The present proposals are not the same as that; they are totally different and wholly mistaken. Can the Secretary of State not understand some of the dangers? Can he not understand that what is proposed has no military logic? It adds not one iota of additional capacity. It offers no secure chain of command and, in my judgment, it will undermine NATO. The danger is that it may weaken the United States' traditional commitment to Europe. The Americans may well say to themselves, "Why should we ever contribute troops in future to a European regional conflict when Europe boasts an army of 60,000 men?"

Equally dangerously, the Secretary of State might reflect that, over time, what is proposed may even begin to erode our security arrangements with the United States which the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary will know about, which have worked immeasurably to the advantage of the United Kingdom.

The fact is that this is a political proposal, and an unwise one. Those of us in the previous Government would not have made it. The Secretary of State and the Government know that. The right hon. Gentleman has tried to hide behind a grotesque distortion of our policy, which is not what I would have expected from him.

The proposal comes from the Prime Minister. Where is he? He should have been here. The Prime Minister has blundered into a misconceived political proposal that should never have been made. It is profoundly not in our national interest, and should be dropped without delay—even if to do so might embarrass the Prime Minister.

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman speak in those terms. When I first arrived in the House, I watched him—week in, week out, and month in, month out—struggle with the sort of people who now sit on the Tory Front Bench. They consistently opposed the right hon. Gentleman's policy on Europe.

We are talking about the Conservative party's obsessions with Europe. The right hon. Gentleman struggled manfully, week in and week out, with the very people who now speak for his party on Europe. I am sorry that he should argue that the policy on European defence for which he signed up involved only a European arm of NATO, as that is not what the Maastricht treaty says. He considered that treaty carefully, and I recall with some admiration how he took the House through its details.

Article J4 of the Maastricht treaty makes no reference to NATO and its European arm. It talks about the common foreign and security policy of the European Union, and about the eventual framing of a common defence policy that might, in time, lead to common defence. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon signed up to that treaty, which contains no reference to NATO.

The right hon. Gentleman made a second point about the headline goal, the purpose of which is to achieve extra military capability. The House has debated on a number of occasions the deficiencies of the Kosovo campaign. The key deficiency was that we were not able to get European forces into that theatre sufficiently quickly. The headline goal is all about improving that deficiency, and thereby improving European military capability.

Thirdly, as I said in my statement, the United States Administration, at every level, have consistently supported the proposals, and have said so. I am sorry that the former Prime Minister should wish to avoid the fact that every senior figure in the US supports what we are doing.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. The Government are taking a constructive and wise course that represents the only way for European countries to co-operate properly to overcome some of the problems encountered in the Balkans and the occasional reluctance of the United States Government to intervene.

I have two questions for my right hon. Friend. First, the new structure will absorb many of the institutions and defence structures of the Western European Union. What will happen to the WEU's remaining obligations under the Brussels treaty?

Secondly, the new structure lacks provision for adequate international parliamentary scrutiny. The European Parliament cannot perform that scrutiny as not all the countries supplying troops will be EU members. However, national Parliaments will not be able to scrutinise matters properly either. How does my right hon. Friend propose to replace the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to hon. Members to be brief. I made that request at Prime Minister's questions, and this statement is no different.

Mr. Hoon

I thank my hon. Friend for his carefully thought out observations, but I disagree with him in one particular. National Parliaments will still have a significant role in assessing their Governments' contributions to any European-type operations. As I made clear, it will be for a British Prime Minister to decide whether British forces should be committed to a particular operation, even if that operation were to be led by the European Union. Quite rightly, therefore, the matter will still be one for debate in Parliament.

As for the Parliamentary Assembly and parliamentary scrutiny at the European level, those matters are for the parliamentarians themselves. The Government have made it quite clear that we would welcome suggestions on how such European scrutiny could be continued.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The Secretary of State has chosen an unusual way to try to lower the temperature on this issue. The extremely party political way in which he introduced the proposals has not been at all helpful. Competing structures will be set up—whatever the apparent safeguards—and that is precisely why we did not agree in the past; my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) is right. The matter is even more grave at a time of serious overstretch in our forces—competing structures would be extremely damaging.

The Secretary of State cites the present American Administration. Has he noticed that one gentleman—Mr. Cheney—who knows as much about defence and the value of NATO as anybody and who may well be the next Vice—President, has expressed his serious concern about the proposal as a threat to NATO?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. Gentleman uses the word "overstretch". I am disappointed to hear the word in this context, because I assume that he would not use it in the context of a commitment of forces to NATO or indeed to the United Nations—[Interruption.] I am being barracked from Conservative Front—Bench Members, who are shouting "over and above". The reality is that we have one set of forces whom we use once. As I made clear, it will thus always be the case that the British Prime Minister of the day will take a decision in the light of prevailing circumstances—that must include the demands on our armed forces at the time—as to whether we will participate in a particular operation. That is no different from the situation that would arise in relation to a NATO operation or if we were asked for support for a UN-led operation. The word "overstretch" has no relevance in this issue, because we do not have standing forces, waiting for a so-called Petersberg operation. Instead, we have a commitment that we can make them available, if we are able to do so at the time.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What have the Government in Prague, whose forces have played such a valuable role in Kosovo, said about the proposals?

Mr. Hoon

A number of EU-aspirant countries were present at the meeting on Tuesday, which I have mentioned. They have indicated their willingness to participate and the type of forces that they would make available, so they are strongly in support of the initiative.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a growing isolationist movement in the USA? Does he think that these initiatives will encourage or discourage those isolationists?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. Gentleman knows well that, over a long period, there have been debates in the United States as to the extent to which they should or should not be engaged in providing European security. My strong view is that, unless European nations are willing to take more responsibility for their own security—to strengthen the European pillar of NATO—isolationist tendencies in the US would be fuelled. A strong argument in the US is that the US electorate should not fund European security. I can understand that, so it is right that European nations should try to do better and try to do more. That is precisely what this initiative is about.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. I realise that the initiative relates mainly to defence, but it would also help in humanitarian responses to disasters.

In Mozambique, the British response was wonderful—magnificent; the European response was patchy and the NATO response was nil. At one stage, we were held up by the non-availability of an Antonov plane to transport helicopters to Mozambique. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in future, when lives are being lost and when only military capacity can deliver the means to save them, such an initiative can provide a response for the good?

Mr. Hoon

The Petersberg tasks include humanitarian assistance. Clearly, one of the lessons that successive Governments have realised that they needed to learn was about the provision of heavylift capacity, by both air and sea. That is precisely why the Labour Government—not a previous Government—have invested so much money in providing that capacity by air and sea. It will fulfil the needs described by my hon. Friend.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Will the Secretary of State accept that, although I was one of those Members who voted against almost every clause of the Maastricht treaty, I have never been opposed to close military co-operation with our European friends within NATO? May I remind him that my first political master, Anthony Eden, formed the view as early as 1937, that a second world war was unavoidable unless the United States could be heavily involved in European affairs, and that it was because Neville Chamberlain, out of hand, repudiated a secret telegram from President Roosevelt offering to intervene that Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary?

The Secretary of State knows perfectly well, does he not, that the French have long wanted to weaken European co-operation with the United States in NATO, and that this whole project is a French design to weaken Anglo-American NATO co-operation?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that for a moment. In answer to a number of questions that have arisen, I am absolutely convinced that, by strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we are strengthening NATO.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that of all the things we could do, the one that is most likely to weaken the American commitment to Europe and encourage isolationism is to listen to the anti-Europe isolationist rantings of the Conservative party, and to continue to allow the European nations to sit back and expect America to take the greatest burden of NATO operations and peacekeeping tasks?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that we had some answers from the Conservatives as to why they failed to strengthen European defence capability within NATO during their 18 years in office?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend makes several telling points. As I spent the last two and a half days in Brussels and in Germany, I must tell the Conservatives that their political friends and allies on the continent are beginning to despair of the attitudes that they are now striking. Those attitudes may well simply be fuelled by the prospect of a general election—they may be no more than cheap political opportunism—but they are completely inconsistent with the position that they took in government. The test that must be applied to them is: can they remain consistent while in government and when moving to opposition? In reality, they are completely failing in that.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that for the Opposition to question these proposals is in some way anti-European is grotesque, and is deeply resented by the Opposition.

Everyone agrees that the Europeans need to do more for defence, a policy pursued with great vigour by my right hon. Friends the Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) when he was Secretary of State for Defence, but always under the umbrella of NATO. Why, then, is there the need, other than to play a great political card, to undertake these proposals outside the NATO umbrella, thus duplicating the most effective peacetime military alliance of all time? In view of the right hon. Gentleman's quotation of Secretary Cohen, may I refer him to what Mr. Cohen said at Birmingham on 10 October this year? He said that it would be highly ineffective, seriously wasteful of resources and contradictory to the basic principles of the close NATO-EU co-operation that we hope to establish, if NATO and the EU were to proceed along the path of relying on autonomous force-planning structures. Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with that?

Mr. Hoon

But that is absolutely right. We are not relying on autonomous force-planning structures. We have made it absolutely clear—and I have made it absolutely clear in my statement—that there will be complete transparency. There will be no duplication of those planning resources. That has been agreed by all those who signed up to this process. A number of right hon. and hon. Members are shaking their heads. It is in the agreement. It has been decided. It is no good for the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) to quote the United States Secretary of Defence out of context as a way of seeking to validate his own prejudices.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) for the work that they did in government to promote European defence. I said that they took the process ahead and moved it along—we are simply taking it further. However, it is not true to say that their work was carried out solely in a NATO context. The Maastricht treaty was not a NATO treaty; it was a treaty of the European Union.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the biggest threat to the future of NATO comes not from Europe, but from the political platform of the Republican party in the United States and the desire of many people there to reduce its military involvement in Europe? Is it therefore not prudent for us to make preparations so that, if we face difficulties in future, we, as Europeans, can act on our continent to increase and enhance our security and to deal with crises as they arise?

Mr. Hoon

In answer to an earlier question, I made it clear that there has been a considerable debate over a long period in the United States as to the extent to which it should be committed to defending European security. There are those in the United States who argue that it should not spend a single cent of US taxpayers' dollars on defending Europe. I am delighted that that view will not prevail. However, to resist that argument, it is important that European nations do more. That is precisely what the proposal is about.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

The Secretary of State would be very wise not to parrot the phrase that those who are opposed to the policy that he has announced are isolationist or xenophobic. I strongly resent such an attack. In fact, it only underlines his own experience in the matter—he seems more and more to parrot the phrases of the Prime Minister.

Does the Secretary of State understand that many of us are totally opposed to the concept—which is enshrined in the documents—that we should find a European defence community well embedded as a European enterprise that would ultimately be responsible, as it develops, to a European Parliament? If the Secretary of State thinks that those are the views of europhobes, let me quote the views of the chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Czech Parliament and of a Polish member of the national defence committee of the Polish Parliament. They say that it appears more and more that this EU defence project has less to do with rebalancing capabilities and more to do with political separation. I have just attended a conference in Berlin of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and I know that that view is echoed by many people in eastern and western Europe.

Mr. Hoon

Conservative Members have quoted different people from the United States in the same way as the hon. Gentleman has quoted figures from European countries. I entirely accept that some people in all countries will resist the proposals and will say that they are not sensible. However, the hon. Gentleman cannot cite a single figure from the Governments in any of the 30 states represented around the table on Tuesday, the United States or Canada who is opposed to what we are trying to achieve—strengthening the European pillar of NATO by strengthening NATO itself.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Although I accept the need for an enhanced European defence capacity, will the Secretary of State answer the question that has been pressed on him by many right hon. and hon. Members? Why cannot that enhanced capacity be achieved within the framework of NATO? He has not dealt with that question fully or properly, so will he please do so now?

Mr. Hoon

I made it clear in my statement that the proposals can and will be implemented in the framework of NATO and in support for the common security policy of the European Union. However, they will not involve any duplication of forces or planning. That is why we have made clear the need for full transparency between the European Union's processes and those of NATO. If we are to deploy the single forces that we have available to those bodies, there must be absolute consistency between the two approaches. That is clear. It is what I said in my statement, so it should not be a surprise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

If there are operations in which NATO as a whole is not engaged and we are, therefore, operating under the Feira summit arrangements with the European Union acting in an autonomous fashion in an international crisis, the policies that are pursued will be inconsistent, by definition, with the fact that NATO as a whole is not engaged and will mean the United States takes a different view. In such a case, what arrangements will be put in place to deal with questions of military intelligence of the kind that were raised during the Falklands war?

Mr. Hoon

The phrase, "NATO as a whole is not engaged", has been included to deal with the situation described by the hon. Gentleman. It would allow access to NATO assets and capabilities by an autonomous European Union force when NATO as a whole is not engaged. That was agreed at Washington by the NATO nations.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

The Secretary of State has acknowledged that greater European defence co-operation, which is entirely welcome, could take place within NATO. Does he accept that that was the Government's policy until the 1998 St. Malo agreement? Why was that policy changed?

Mr. Hoon

That policy has not changed. I made it clear in my statement that this agreement is a development of not only this Government's policy but the previous Government's policy, which he supported.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I am sure that we can all agree on one thing: if forces—men and material—are committed on operations to the European force, they are not available to NATO, the UN or to act in our national interests. The Secretary of State failed to explain in his long statement why it is in our national interest to fritter away already overstretched forces.

Mr. Hoon

We are not doing that. Any international deployment of British forces would have to be reviewed carefully if a direct threat to Britain's vital national interest arose. That would be the case for deployment in the context of NATO or the UN. If there were a threat to the United Kingdom, we would withdraw those forces where necessary. That is the position already. We are not changing it at all.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when we finally borrow the four wide-bodied jets from the Americans, they will be the only ones this side of the pond, so the force can go nowhere without American support?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman knows—at least, I thought he knew, because he has served on the Defence Committee—that a number of heavylift assets are available to us. We will be augmenting those by the lease of C-17s and the construction of the A400M. Frankly, he could have more vigorously criticised his Government for failing to take those decisions, certainly during the five years when he was a Member of the House under that Government. The reality is that we have taken those decisions and those assets will be increasingly available to us.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The tone of the Secretary of State's statement and his response to

questions has been a disgrace. If people needed proof that this agreement was all about European politics and nothing to do with defence, they have had it this afternoon.

When the policy U-turn was announced two years ago, Madeleine Albright set three tests: that there should be no duplication of expensive military assets, no discrimination against non-European Union members of NATO and no risk of decoupling the United States from the defence of Europe. The Government have, I believe, breached all three, and the development risks seriously undermining NATO.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman would have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister quote the United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in response to Monday's meeting. I have also quoted her, and she was eminently satisfied. All three tests were satisfied; all three tests were achieved. That is why it is important that Britain continues to lead the way on European defence.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that many Conservative Members have been fighting for 20 years and more to support NATO, irrespective of their views on the European Union? Does he also accept that it is a not normal for a Government continually to push the Chief of the Defence Staff to endorse their political positions? As they have chosen to do so, will the Secretary of State comment on what the Chief of the Defence Staff said a few days ago in answer to a question from a Member of Parliament who asked why anything that could be done outside the NATO structure could not be done within its structure?

I suppose it could have been done within the NATO framework and in some ways it would have been easier. But, he went on:

It was decided by the EU governments that this was the way it would be done. What will be achieved outside the NATO structure that could not have been achieved within it?

Mr. Hoon

Let me deal first with the hon. Gentleman's point about the Chief of the Defence Staff. I should make it absolutely clear that nobody pushes the Chief of the Defence Staff forward—absolutely no one. I have far too much respect for a man whom the Conservative party appointed when in government ever to push him forward to deal with any issue. He chooses to comment when he chooses to comment. Certainly—perhaps this is the hon. Gentleman's difficulty—he has consistently supported the idea of more effective European co-operation. He —ecognises that that is good for the armed forces and their ability to participate in crisis missions.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

As the British armed forces appear to be out of date and under repair or, in the case of their equipment, late in delivery, and their men, women and machines are under immense stress, what specific commitments have been given by continental Governments on their forces' equipment, so that if their forces are used they can be well equipped with compatible equipment? Will he cite an example of where the force might act in the event of American disapproval? If the force did not have such approval, would it be capable of acting?

Mr. Hoon

I assume that the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's comments referred to the recent Public Accounts Committee report. If he studies that carefully, he will find that nearly every aspect of criticism relates to projects begun under the previous Conservative Government. We are trying to resolve the delays that are inherent in the process of procurement from that time. Indeed, the PAC report indicates that there is now progress in that respect and, indeed, congratulates the Government on the steps that they are taking.

On the capability question, I said in response to a previous question that one change that we have negotiated in the present European process is a much more effective mechanism for reviewing contributions from all participants, to ensure that they are genuinely rapidly deployable forces and have the qualities that are required to participate in such a force. So, there is a step change in improvement in the way in which we can take forward the capability.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Why was the language of the statement so defensive? Why did the statement seem to have been composed on the back of an envelope? Why is the red line behind the Secretary of State so very thin?

Mr. Hoon

If the language was defensive—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Offensive."] I apologise if I misheard the right hon. Gentleman. I certainly did not intend the language to be offensive to him. He has always approached these matters extremely courteously. We are seeking to address the real issues, but there are those on his Front Bench who would mislead the public by trying to present a completely misrepresented account of what we are trying to negotiate. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman if he was offended by the tone of my remarks, but I do not necessarily extend that to the Conservative Front-Bench team.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Secretary of State knows that the Governments of the United States and Canada have been as anxious as everyone else to achieve greater co-operation and European contribution to defence in NATO. He knows that we have been negotiating for years, trying to use NATO's capabilities and planning process to enable Europeans to make such a contribution themselves. That could have been achieved in NATO. Who decided that it could not? Was it the Americans and the Canadians or our European partners?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my statement. I made it clear that the process is being taken forward in both NATO—NATO recognises the importance of rapidly deployable forces—and the EU. A consistent planning process will be available to both in order to achieve our objective: no duplication of assets and resources.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Why should neutral Ireland, Austria, Sweden and Finland be more closely involved with the decision making on whether to use or deploy the force than NATO Iceland, Norway, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland? Is not the proposal deeply divisive for European security and thoroughly retrograde? Will the right hon. Gentleman encourage the neutrals to sign up to the mutual security provisions of the Brussels treaty?

Mr. Hoon

Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman's observation, representatives of all the countries that he mentioned sat around a table on Tuesday offering their forces as part of the process. Indeed, Turkey has made a substantial contribution and indicated how vigorously it wished to participate. I am afraid that the premise of the hon. Gentleman's argument simply does not work. With regard to the neutral states, they have many of the forces that are useful for the range of Petersberg tasks and precisely the kind of humanitarian work envisaged at Petersberg. The hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Secretary of State was being utterly candid when he said that the initiative was only one step in the process on the road ahead. Can he say how long he thinks it will be before we move from national troops committed to a European corps, to a European army with troops regardless of their nationality?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear that we are not discussing a European army. The process was begun by the previous Conservative Administration and carried on by the Government.