HC Deb 23 April 2001 vol 367 cc11-4
9. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

What recent discussions he has had with his French and German counterparts on the proposed European rapid reaction force. [156935]

10. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

If he will make a statement on the European security and defence policy. [156936]

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

I regularly meet my French and German counterparts to discuss a range of defence matters. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary attended the European Union Defence Ministers' informal meeting in Brussels on 6 April. European security and defence policy was discussed on that occasion.

Our efforts are focused on delivering the headline goal to improve the military capabilities available to the European Union and NATO. Nations identified initial contributions to that goal last November. We are now engaged in the detailed analysis of the required improvements and the action needed to effect them.

Mr. Robathan

Did the Under-Secretary tell the Secretary of State that it was revealed at the meeting in Brussels that the German Government, who have a deficit of £1 billion in their defence budget, would be unable to fulfil their commitment to provide 18,000 troops to the European defence force? Would the Secretary of State like to comment on the remarks of the French Chief of General Staff who said that NATO and the European defence force would be entirely separate? The Secretary of State has denied that; nevertheless, it is the case. Furthermore, the American Secretary of State—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Secretary of State has got the drift.

Mr. Hoon

If the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) stands in any forthcoming elections to the Bundestag, he will be able to ask the German Defence Minister those questions. However, I have already dealt with the other matter fully. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are committed to improving European military capabilities.

Mr. Paterson

The Secretary of State says that he has dealt with the question fully. What does he say to General Gustav Hagglund, who is in charge of the rapid reaction force, and who claimed that we were considering not a subsidiary of NATO but an independent body? What about the comments at the weekend of a German defence spokesman, who said that the proposed European air transport command would "operate independently from NATO"? Can the Secretary of State spin his way out of that?

Mr. Hoon

Another Member of Parliament seems anxious to join the Bundestag. As to the highly speculative accounts in certain newspapers, which are fuelled by the shadow Secretary of State, I stress that members of the RAF will remain firmly under British control.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

On the question of deployment, does my right hon. Friend agree that any premature referendum in Montenegro could destabilise the whole region? If conflict spilled into Montenegro, who would be deployed as peacekeepers: NATO or the rapid reaction force?

Mr. Hoon

Montenegro's relations with the former republic of Yugoslavia are a matter for Montenegro, not the British Secretary of State for Defence. Arrangements for KFOR to be deployed in Kosovo have already been made. They will continue unless and until its presence is no longer required.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

While I have no present plans to stand for election to the United States Congress, may I ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has noted that a series of influential, experienced and pro-British American statesmen have said that the European rapid reaction force poses a serious threat to the future of NATO and to the American commitment to the defence of Europe?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman would have to hold US citizenship for 20 years before he could stand for Congress. I am sure that he has time for that. If he were elected, he would find a range of opinions there, as in any democratic country. There are some who are critical of improvements in European capabilities; however, in my experience, there are more who support the efforts of European nations to be more responsible for their security and thus less dependent on the United States taxpayer.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

When listening to the Secretary of State, I am led to wonder whether he has not already sought election to the Bundestag. We never get an answer to a straight question. When the remarks of any Government are quoted, the Secretary of State simply says, "Well, that's their opinion". They are also the opinions to which he signed up.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could comment on the proposals from the Germans and others for the joint transport command, reported in various newspapers. When questions on that point were put to the Ministry of Defence over the weekend and today, the Secretary of State's spokesman—or probably the Secretary of State himself, as he does not much like quotes being attributed to him—said that he was unaware of such proposals. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is unaware of such proposals or not?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman's kneejerk prejudices on European questions are well known. I have already made it clear in relation to those reports that the RAF and its equipment will remain firmly under British control. That is an answer to his question, and if it is the answer that he was seeking, perhaps he will accept it. The proposals that have been made over a long period for improving the co-ordination of European forces—not simply of air forces but of navies and of armed forces on the ground—have been well known to anyone who has followed this debate closely. I assume, given the hon. Gentleman's objections to this kind of co-operation, that if he had been Defence Secretary in either 1914 or 1939, he would have refused to allow British forces to co-operate alongside their then European allies.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Secretary of State is again attempting to use smooth words with nothing behind them. The reality is that he knows about this matter only too well. His spokesman told the newspapers yesterday that he was unaware of any such proposals, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that Rudolf Scharping has been proposing this for some time: right back into 1999, at which time the right hon. Gentleman was fully aware of it.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what is different about the situation now? He knows that these are proposals not just for co-operation but for a unified force, in exactly the same way as the Euro army proposals are. The Secretary of State should face up to what he has committed this country to, and admit now that the Government begin to deny, they deny more, then they sign the documents and pretend that they have not signed them: what a falsehood they put on us.

Mr. Hoon

I mentioned 1914 and 1939. Perhaps I should bring the hon. Gentleman more up to date. There was co-ordination and co-operation among air forces in the bombing campaign over Serbia, which was conducted effectively by a combined allied operation. That has been the history of aerial warfare throughout the past century. I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that it is in the interests of all European armed forces to be able to work more effectively together, and that he does not accept that—I say this for the third time today—the RAF, its personnel and its equipment will remain under British control.