HC Deb 19 March 2001 vol 365 cc16-8
13. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

If he will make a statement on the development of a European rapid reaction force. [152710]

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

There is no standing European rapid reaction force. Efforts in the European Union are focused on improving military capabilities to meet the headline goal. Nations identified initial contributions to this goal last November. We are now engaged in detailed analysis of the improvements required, and the action needed to put those improvements into effect.

Mr. Leigh

I do not think that I have ever heard a British Prime Minister say that the Opposition have been effective in changing attitudes in the American Administration. However, that is what the Prime Minister said in his interview with The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, although he was rather rude about it. I seem to remember words such as "poison", "ears" and "dripping" being used. I wonder whether this could have influenced the United States Defence Secretary's comment that We need to be vigilant to see that we don't do anything that could inject an instability into the alliance Is that diplomatic-speak for "I don't like the smell of this. It sounds like limey double-speak to me, but I don't want to criticise it openly because we need Brit support for bombing Saddam Hussein"?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has become so tired and cynical in opposition that he cannot accept words at their face value. The United States Administration have set out their position very clearly, as did the new US President at Camp David. Like their predecessors, they want European defence to develop in a way that strengthens NATO, and so do we. The Prime Minister agreed with the United States President on that at Camp David. Mr. Rumsfeld also said, in the course of the interview to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that the devil was in the detail, and he was right. We are determined to ensure that those details continue to be developed in ways that will support and strengthen the alliance. That is the position of the British Government, and will continue to be so.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

On the development of a European rapid reaction force, does my right hon. Friend agree that training is imperative, and that Whale island in Portsmouth in my constituency has unique facilities that ought to be used to cross-pollinate the value that we can obtain from such facilities?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to my constituency, and apologise personally for the bad press, which was unfounded. I hope that that will not deter him from coming again, because the visit was appreciated by my constituents and by many of the trade unionists working in the naval base.

Mr. Hoon

I had an excellent visit to my hon. Friend's constituency, and I assure him that it was not in any way affected by the somewhat tendentious headlines that followed. I was certainly very impressed by what I saw on Whale island and I thought that it provided an excellent facility. As he knows, the question of armed forces training is still being reviewed right across the United Kingdom. I cannot, therefore, give him a specific answer to his question today, save to say that he has mounted an extremely vigorous and effective campaign on behalf of his constituents and I am sure that he will continue to harry and harass Ministers with the considerable ability that he has already displayed.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is being given a bad press wherever he goes. Some of us understand that.

As for the substantial point about European defence co-operation and European defence initiatives, any enlightened Member will welcome greater European defence co-operation as long as it is supportive of NATO, as the Secretary of State said. Do the French now see his point of view, and can he be much more specific about what might happen in Macedonia if action were required and the Americans decided to pull back? Have we yet reached a point at which the right hon. Gentleman is confident that a European presence could be effective in keeping the sides apart on the Macedonian border?

Mr. Hoon

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister in the last Government, is an expert on bad press. I assure the House that the limited criticism that occurred in a Portsmouth paper following my visit is not something over which I am likely to lose any sleep; but should 1 require advice on dealing with bad publicity, I shall be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's implied offer of assistance. [HON. MEMBERS: "What was the headline?"] It is a matter of private grief. I shall leave it to the House of Commons Library to reveal.

As for the more serious matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, I cannot tell him at this stage precisely how allies propose to deal with the continuing instability along the border of Macedonia. He will understand why it is important that consultations with allies continue—there needs to be broad agreement among them on how to tackle the problem—but we are engaging in close consultation with both NATO capitals and the Macedonian Government. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that a determined effort is under way to resolve the continuing instability.