HL Deb 21 March 1996 vol 570 cc1363-6


Lord Finsberg asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they agree with the assertion of the report to the Intergovernmental Conference of the Political Committee of the Western European Union adopted on 23rd February 1996 that defence must remain with the Western European Union and not be handed over to the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, the Government believe that an autonomous Western European Union provides the best framework for the further development of European defence co-operation. The European Union is not equipped to fulfil that role itself.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer which is highly satisfactory. However, will he perhaps take on board that that is a view shared by other parties because, in the delegations that I lead to the Western European Union, all the parties fully support it? Those countries taking part in the IGC which may try to delay matters in the hope that there will be a change of government after the next election ought not to think that there will be a change on that particular issue of Western European Union.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is most satisfactory that my noble friend finds my reply satisfactory. Of course, he is quite right.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, we on these Benches find the Minister's reply a little less satisfactory. Is the noble Lord aware that the view of the committee of the Western European Union seems to us to be essentially a short-term view? In the long-term, the best way of maintaining NATO in the post-Cold War world, with the American commitment to NATO, is through the Western European Union so building on an effective European Union defence and foreign policy arrangement.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, our position in respect of the relationship between the Western European Union and the European Union is one which we believe is both clear and in the national interest.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, is right in saying that, so far as concerns the Labour Party, we support the view that the Western European Union as a second pillar of NATO—if I may put it that way—is the proper mechanism for Western European defence? Further, will the Minister agree that, in terms of defence procurement, there may well be matters which can be raised within the European Union but that, ultimately, as regards defence of the United Kingdom, the Western European Union as a pillar of NATO is a policy which, as the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, pointed out, is supported by our party?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for explaining his party's position in that respect. As I have already explained, we believe that the Western European Union is an important element of NATO and that NATO is a mainstay of our defence.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is on this issue—

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the greatest respect, I believe that it is the turn of this side of the House.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, is it not correct to say that if the Western European Union was merged in any way with the European Union to form such a defence pillar, there would be some problems with Russia which would then regard the European Union as being a defence organisation?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I must begin my reply to my noble friend by emphasising that it is no part of the Government's policy that the WEU should be merged with the European Union. Of course, the point made by my noble friend is correct; indeed, we are most concerned about the suggestion that such a merger might take place.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, following on from the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, does the Minister agree that, in all this very interesting controversy about Western European and then European Union, it is the Atlantic alliance that counts, that the defence of Europe is indivisible from that of North America and that it is membership of NATO and of the Atlantic alliance which really should lie at the heart of the Government's policy?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, all I can say is that, so far as concerns the Government, NATO does lie in that position.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was over-eager to express my support for the Question and, indeed, for his acceptance of it? I believe that one of the things which is most widely known throughout the parties and probably throughout the country is the fact that, generally speaking, both that Question and the Answer have our full support.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is indeed an historic event, both in terms of this afternoon's proceedings and in terms of the more recent history of this House, to find the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and the Government at one on such matters.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any thought on the part of the Government, which would be possible under the Brussels treaty, to create a head of state and a formula at governmental level to improve the level of communication which exists at present and which, thus far—and I can say this from some experience as an elected member of the WEU Assembly—has been far from satisfactory?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, alludes is one of which the Government are aware. However, it seems a little early at this stage to form definite views about such matters.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there must be some sympathy with the supplementary question put by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth? If in fact there were a federal Europe, the case for a European defence policy would be logical and irresistible. Those of us who think that the idea of a federal Europe is an absurdity to be avoided have no problem in that respect. Is the Minister actually saying that the Government also dismiss the idea of a federal Europe out of hand?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, using the word "federal" in its English sense, the concept of a federal Europe—which is a centralised, monolithic Europe—is one which the Government entirely reject.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister give the House an assurance that at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference Her Majesty's Government will resist any endeavours to amend Article J8 paragraph 2 of the treaty which gives the power to determine policy to the European Council and not—and I emphasise the word "not"—to the Commission?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, do I understand that the Minister has now admitted that there are two interpretations of the word "federalism" and that the English version is quite different from the other? Would it not be a good idea if the Government agreed with the other members of Europe as to what the word really means?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, so far as concerns the English language, surely the British themselves can determine the meaning of the word.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I very much welcome his reply to the original Question tabled by his noble friend? However, I welcome even more the question, and its direction, posed by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel from the Labour Front Bench. However, can the Minister give us the absolute assurance that in no circumstances whatever will the Government agree to qualified majority voting on defence matters in Pillar 3—as I think it is—of the European Union?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the Government do not have the slightest intention of allowing defence matters to intrude into Pillar 3 of the European Union. Even if it were to do so—which we are opposed to and, indeed, would resist in any IGC—it would be entirely inappropriate for such decisions to be taken by qualified majority voting.