HC Deb 15 January 2001 vol 361 cc8-10
4. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will make a statement about British armed forces involvement in the European rapid reaction force. [143714]

5. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts about European defence co-operation. [143715]

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

There is no standing European rapid reaction force. The United Kingdom has identified a pool of forces and capabilities that would enable it to make a powerful contribution to operations in support of the European Union's common foreign and security policy, when NATO as a whole is not engaged. Participation in any particular operation, and the nature of our contribution, will be matters for decision by the United Kingdom Government in the light of circumstances at the time. I have regular discussions with both my EU and NATO counterparts on all aspects of European defence.

Mr. Bercow

I thank the Secretary of State for that woefully inadequate reply. Given that 60 pages of the Nice treaty provide for a separate EU military staff committee and organisation, a strategic planning capability, a satellite centre, an institute of security studies and a force catalogue comprising 100,000 men, 400 combat aircraft and 100 vessels, why cannot he understand what the former British ambassador to NATO, Sir John Weston, emphasised last week—that with a European Union army, NATO will be progressively downgraded as the principal instrument of western defence and security? How does he justify ignoring historical experience and military common sense alike through the pursuit of that craven and foolhardy approach?

Mr. Hoon

Again, I emphasise that there is no European army. The Government are seeking to improve the capabilities of European nations, and the new arrangements will prove an extremely effective means of achieving that. In particular, they will be based on the closest possible ties with NATO. As the hon. Gentleman would have realised if he had read his background documents on Nice more carefully, provision is included for operational planning to be conducted at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Notwithstanding his observations, there is no intention to establish an EU operational planning capability.

Mr. Crausby

Does my right hon. Friend agree that European nations must work together on defence in order to support NATO? Will he confirm that that will involve the interchange of kit between European nations? Are not the A400M and the Meteor prime examples of European co-operation?

Mr. Hoon

I am fairly sure that it was President Kennedy who first spoke about a European pillar for NATO. It is in the interests of NATO, the United States and European nations for Europe to be capable of making an effective contribution to the alliance. Nothing would destabilise the alliance more than a perception in the United States that European nations are not prepared to play their part. That is precisely why we are seeking to improve our European capabilities—to strengthen NATO, not to weaken it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Who in the military chain of command will be responsible for force generation in respect of any force decided under the new arrangements, and what role will the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe have?

Mr. Hoon

Force generation will be conducted precisely as it is currently conducted for multinational operations. There will be an assessment in the United Kingdom of the forces that we can contribute, and that will be set against the situation with which we are required to deal. Part of the planning currently under way concerns the variety of scenarios that will be tested in order to see what forces Europe can contribute. That work will be done carefully by the allies as part of the process of ensuring that a range of capabilities is available. Part of the reason for such a process is to ensure that gaps will be identified; indeed, some have already been recognised. Work will then be undertaken by European nations to improve capabilities. It is important for a close connection to exist between European Union and NATO planning experts.

DSACEUR will be in a crucial position in giving practical advice on the nature of planning that is required. We continue to negotiate the matter with our European allies as part of the NATO process.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

In this European defence arena, does my right hon. Friend envisage that our troops will still use depleted uranium? Given that the Ministry of Defence was warned about the issue 10 years ago and that increasing circumstantial evidence is available from troops in America, Iran, Europe and elsewhere, should not the burden of proof be on the Ministry and on Governments, instead of on individuals who are ill? It is they who currently face the burden of proving that their illnesses are a direct result of the use of depleted uranium.

Mr. Hoon

If my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, the issue is rather more complicated than he suggests. In the absence of any specific evidence to link depleted uranium with any particular illness suffered by any individual, it is extraordinarily difficult for any Government to prove a negative. That is what his question invites the Government to do, but it is not possible. What is required is that the best scientific and medical evidence available to the Government be relied on in taking decisions on the use of a highly effective weapon.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

Have the Government entered into any unpublished agreements on the proposed EU military capability?

Mr. Hoon