HC Deb 21 June 2004 vol 422 cc1062-3
4. Mr. David Ames (Southend, West) (Con)

When he last discussed progress on the European security and defence policy with the French Defence Minister. [179362]

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

I last met Madame Alliot-Marie on 9 June on board the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, anchored off Portsmouth. The visit formed part of the entente cordiale centenary celebrations. Our discussions covered a range of issues, including European security and defence policy.

Mr. Amess

Does the Secretary or State agree that the European defence agency, if fully implemented, would have a significant impact on Britain's ability in the next Parliament independently to choose a replacement for Trident?

Mr. Hoon

It would not have that impact, no.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most crucial issue in European defence at present is encouraging our European partners to improve their defence capabilities? What is he doing as secretary of State to encourage that? Does he also agree that the best way to do so is to work in co-operation with our European allies, and not to carp from the sidelines, which gets us nowhere?

Mr. Hoon

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. What is important is that we engage our European partners in improving their military capabilities. If we can do that through NATO, all to the good. If we can also do that through the European Union, that would be an extra benefit. Indeed, that was the Conservative party's policy at the time of the Maastricht treaty. Somewhere along the line the views of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), which in those days were considered somewhat extreme by most members of the Conservative party, have become mainstream. That says something about the current opportunism of the leadership of the Conservative party.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)

How does the Secretary of state react to the extraordinary statement last week by the three largest aerospace businesses in the EU—BAE Systems, Thales and EADS—which was reported in the Financial Times on 15 June, to the effect that the European defence agency is merely a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of any progress towards European defence? Is that not an extraordinary indictment from that very authoritative source?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that criticism. Indeed, last weekend, in the course of the discussions on the framing of a draft European constitution. there was agreement on the need to develop European defence policy and specifically to establish a European defence agency, which will have the opportunity of co-ordinating industrial and military efforts to improve European military capabilities, which I would have thought should be approved of by the Conservative party—indeed, a few years ago would have been approved of by the Conservative party. As I said in my last answer, the Conservative party today is so determined to court any cheap popularity that it is opposing things that only a few years ago it strongly supported.

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