HC Deb 01 March 2004 vol 418 cc607-8
11. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

What changes have been introduced regarding the implementation of the EU headline goal; and if he will make a statement. [156739]

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

No changes have been introduced to the implementation of the Helsinki headline goal. A successor to the headline goal with a target date of 2010 is now under discussion. This will capture continued progress on the European capabilities action plan, the development of European rapid response capabilities, and the European security strategy. This goal will place a new emphasis on interoperability, deployability and sustainability as its major themes. We anticipate an announcement being made at the European Council in June.

Mr. Swayne

I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. What assurance can the Secretary of State give the House regarding any commitment that we might make to the European rapid reaction forces given that defence statistics published last year show a fall in our trained strength of some 12,000, despite increased commitments? Will the reserves make up the gap?

Mr. Hoon

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not coming to the House to support enthusiastically our efforts to improve European military capabilities, not least because of the cuts in military capabilities that would have to be carried through in the unlikely event of his party being elected to power. Not least of those would be the equivalent of a 40,000 cut in armed forces personnel if a £1.5 billion cut in the defence budget were made. That is a matter that our European—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I expect the Secretary of State to answer the question. That was not a proper answer.

Mr. Hoon


Mr. Speaker

Order. I call Mike Gapes.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

The Secretary of State referred—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. If Mr. Skinner has any objection, he can always leave the Chamber. [Interruption.] He can always leave the Chamber; there is no problem.

Mike Gapes

The Secretary of State referred to the importance of interoperability. In that context, when SFOR in Bosnia is handed over to the EUFOR before the end of this year, will he assure us that that will be able to operate as effectively as SFOR, and that national caveats, which are currently taken by some of our European NATO allies—especially Germany—will not impair the work of our forces and the important security role that they currently play, and will continue to play, in Bosnia?

Mr. Hoon

If NATO decides that the SFOR mission has been completed successfully, the United Kingdom has indicated its willingness to lead a successor EU operation. It is obviously crucial, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, that effective military contributions are made by our EU allies, and those matters are already the subject of discussion.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State give me a proper answer? Will he make it absolutely clear that there will not be any wasteful duplication and that there will be no common control of any nuclear assets?

Mr. Hoon

I can give that assurance. That is precisely why the Government have consistently supported the development of European military capability on a European scale and why it is so difficult for us to understand why the hon. Gentleman's party has so consistently opposed that. It is to avoid the duplication of military capabilities that such a coherent strategy is required.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and. Crayford) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the warning given by President Putin's special envoy last week against NATO stationing forces in the Baltic states, despite the recent accession of those countries to NATO? Is it likely that that is linked to Russian unwillingness to ratify the conventional armed forces in Europe treaty?

Mr. Hoon

It is important to emphasise that once the Baltic states fully become members of NATO, they will be in exactly the same position as any other member of NATO as far as the deployment of NATO forces is concerned.