HL Deb 10 November 1998 vol 594 cc627-30

2.55 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support a closer relationship between the Western European Union and the European Union, leading in time to the incorporation of the Western European Union into the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government support the objective of the Amsterdam Treaty for closer institutional relations between the EU and the WEU as one way to help develop a more coherent and effective common European foreign and security policy. Amsterdam makes clear that there can be no EU/WEU integration unless and until all member states agree by unanimity in the European Council.

The Prime Minister has made clear that he wants European foreign policy to be more effective and, if necessary, to have the military tools to back that policy. The Government are not focusing on institutional changes though these may come.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that clear statement of a shift in government policy since the Amsterdam Treaty was negotiated. I should love to know, as I am sure would all noble Lords, how much further the initiative is intended to go. Officials have spoken of opening up the debate. Others have talked about the potential fourth pillar of the European Union into which the WEU would be merged. Others have again spoken of dismembering the WEU between NATO and the European Union. Do the Government yet have anything more coherent than the idea simply of reopening the debate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear that NATO would remain the foundation of collective security in Europe. The Prime Minister launched the debate about the sort of foreign policy that the EU should have at Poertschach. As Kosovo has shown, Europe needs to strengthen its political voice. As part of that Europe requires credible military forces and the political will to use them.

We are prepared to think afresh and we have an open mind. But it is important to remind the noble Lord of the crucial role here of NATO. The Prime Minister has stressed that the control of armed forces remains a matter for national governments and that there is no place for a European standing army. I hope therefore that that has cleared some of the points that the noble Lord raises and cleared his mind a little more on the issues.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it was the OSCE which together with NATO brokered a peace deal with President Milosevic in NATO, and that the WEU was nowhere to be seen while that peace process was under way? That in itself reflects badly on the WEU. Does my noble friend therefore agree that, whatever the future may hold for the WEU, the status quo cannot continue?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is the purport of what the Prime Minister indicated. I believe that all noble Lords would acknowledge the important role of the OSCE in the deal thus far negotiated with Mr. Milosevic. Kosovo highlighted some of the current strengths in the arrangements that we have because the EU was able to stand united behind the international communities' pressure on Belgrade; and the EU was able to exercise its economic muscle through further sanctions. However, I agree with my noble friend that it also put the spotlight on some of the weaknesses in current arrangements, in particular the problem of acting quickly and decisively enough to address an international crisis.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, in the context of Anglo-French relations, can the Minister tell us what is the attitude of France to the WEU?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, France is a member of the WEU. I am sure that the French will wish to engage in any discussions that the Prime Minister's initiative will take forward. We are at an early stage in that initiative, so I am not able to give the noble Lord any particular insight. However, if he would like, and if it would be helpful, I can send him a chart showing the current arrangements of the WEU and the various countries which are involved in their different ways.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, as the Minister has twice mentioned Kosovo as an example of the need to strengthen Europe's political voice, can she say what action has been taken since President Milosevic refused to allow the prosecutor of the ICTY, Miss Louise Arbour, to visit Kosovo? What action does she believe can be taken to deal with that gross breach of Security Council Resolution 1199?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I had hoped that we were discussing the WEU and EU and I do not have detailed information on the current position in Kosovo in relation to Miss Arbour. The noble Lord asked an important question. I recognise that it is an issue in which he has taken a great deal of interest, as have your Lordships in general. I will write to the noble Lord and place a copy in the Library.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's reassuring and constructive reply from the Dispatch Box, will she agree with two propositions? The first is that it is important that European countries should have the requisite military power to stand behind whatever political decisions they take. Secondly, in that context is it not true that NATO is the correct vehicle for delivering that power? Would it not be wrong to do anything which either duplicated or usurped the power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes. Not all European countries are members of the WEU and some are neutral. But of course I can agree with the noble Lord that it is enormously important that nothing in the Prime Minister's initiative is read as undermining or duplicating NATO's role, a point which was stated unequivocally by my right honourable friend in his speech at Poertschach.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, speaking as a Member of this House who spent 11 years in the WEU, I ask the Minister: does she believe that it might be well and good if Members understood that the WEU exists solely for European defence?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes. The role of the WEU is probably not as clearly understood as it might be. Of course, as the Question indicates, that role is now under scrutiny. Indeed, the subject of European defence policies was discussed by your Lordships in great detail when we debated the aspects of CFSP in the Amsterdam Treaty. I believe that the noble Baroness is right and that the relationship between the WEU and Europe on the one hand and the WEU and NATO on the other is one on which a little more clarity from time to time would be helpful.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the information she volunteered in answer to the question put to her by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, is of great interest? Will she ensure a wide circulation of the document which may help considerably in clarifying the position?

In the meantime, will the Minister assure the House that any endeavour to convert the unanimity rule applying to such changes will not be side-stepped into moves by the Commission to turn the required vote into one of qualified majority?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as your Lordships were able to see when we discussed the Amsterdam Treaty, the common strategies developed under CFSP are subject to a unanimity vote. However, the common positions which flow from those strategies are subject to qualified majority voting unless they are not covered by a common strategy. I hope that point is clear. Your Lordships—I would not necessarily include my noble friend—were to some extent reassured by the provisions on unanimity and CFSP in the Amsterdam Treaty.

As regards the second point which my noble friend made, it is difficult to describe in words across the Floor of the House the structures of the WEU. A helpful chart which shows the WEU's membership, associate membership, associate partners, observers and so forth should be of some help to your Lordships in coming to grips with these issues.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and despite the Amsterdam Treaty, can the Minister confirm whether or not the proposals set out by the Government at Poertschach on the establishment of a closer EU defence formation included the extension of qualified majority voting? If not, can she tell the House whether the Government would support such an extension?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that the discussions have been anything like as detailed as the noble Baroness's question implies. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear that we are approaching the debate with a fresh mind. He also made clear that NATO must remain at the foundation of our collective security policy in Europe. The Prime Minister also set out some thoughts on the development of the European security and defence identity, which he said must continue to be fulfilled primarily by NATO. As regards the specific question of the extension of qualified majority voting, I do not believe the Prime Minister's speech covered that in detail. However, if I am wrong in so saying I shall write to the noble Baroness and let her have the full text of what the Prime Minister said.