HL Deb 26 January 2000 vol 608 cc1548-53

2.38 p.m.

Lord Blaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to give effect to the European defence initiative.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government are actively pursuing discussions with EU partners on the commitment made at Helsinki to strengthen military capabilities. This will mean that EU nations will be better able to assemble, deploy and sustain effective forces for NATO or EU-led operations. We are also taking forward discussions on the political and military structures necessary for the EU, where NATO as a whole is not engaged, to decide and act in response to crises. All these matters will he taken forward under the Portuguese presidency of the EU.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for the European defence initiative to be successful it is essential that it should enjoy the confidence of our American allies? Do not our American allies see at the moment that too many of our ships are in port or subject to speed limits because of a shortage of fuel; that too many of our aircraft are grounded because of a shortage of spares; and that too many of our soldiers are unable to communicate because their radios do not work? On top to all that, the Government are planning further defence cuts. Can we expect the Americans to have confidence in the situation, bearing in mind also the fact that the level of defence spending of our European partners is, in general, lower than ours?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord adroitly raised a huge range of issues in his supplementary question. On the question of some of the issues that have been aired in recent newspaper reports, perhaps I may point out that there is a good deal of exaggeration in what has been said regarding such matters as speed limits. There have been problems over the Clansman radio and a number of other issues which I would be very happy to discuss with the noble Lord if he wishes.

However, the central point of the noble Lord's question is whether the Americans would have confidence in what we are taking forward. Perhaps I may tell him what Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, said about these ideas on 15th December last. He said: There should be no confusion about America's position on the need for a stronger Europe. We are not against; we are not ambivalent; we are not anxious; we are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the Alliance or, if NATO is not engaged, on its own. Period. End of debate". There is no doubt in the minds of the Americans that we are taking forward a matter both properly and rightly.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, despite the matters to which the noble Lord drew attention a few moments ago, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the military capacity of the United Kingdom remains far more significant than that of any other member state of the EU and NATO in Europe? Can my noble friend say whether it is appropriate at this stage for consideration to be given in Parliament at Westminster to the future political structures of defence organisations in Europe, not least in regard to the future of the Western European Union and its parliamentary assembly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I believe that the United Kingdom's military capacity is very considerable and certainly very significant within Europe. I do not think that we need to look any further than the recent engagement in Kosovo. I know that many noble Lords will have heard what General Sir Mike Jackson had to say on this issue when he was recently interviewed during a radio programme. He said: I look back and just recall … the entry into Kosovo by KFOR … the record speaks for itself. It was a considerable success". That was a considerable success to which the United Kingdom contributed in no small measure. None of us should forget that fact.

The Kosovo crisis also underlined the need for European nations to make a greater contribution to their own security. It is right that Europe should have a place on the international stage that matches its economic and political weight. It is the matching of that considerable political and economic weight that Her Majesty's Government seek to progress in taking forward these discussions on the European defence identity.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the implementation of this initiative will require any additional British troops and, if so, how many? What will be the cost? Are there any implications for the already serious over-stretch of the British Armed Forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, obviously we are looking at all these questions carefully. As I indicated in my initial Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, these matters will be discussed under the Portuguese presidency. Over the next few months we shall have to consider not only what we in this country are doing but also what our allies are doing.

The European nations will certainly need to spend defence budgets more effectively; I think that we can say that without fear of contradiction. Just as the UK has done in our Strategic Defence Review, our European partners will need to review the structures of their Armed Forces. But, of course, we shall also have to consider the implications of that for our own Armed Forces and also the cost implications. I am afraid that it is too early for me to give a detailed answer to the points on cost that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, raises, but I assure him that they are very much in the forefront of our minds as we consider this question.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend is aware of the importance of nuances in this question of a separate European defence identity. But surely I am right in recalling that Strobe Talbott, whom my noble friend quoted at some length, referred in that passage particularly to the need for Europe as a whole, as it were, to strengthen the European side of the alliance. He went on to say, if my memory is correct, that he was concerned at the possibility of an autonomous European defence force growing away from the main body of NATO. Surely if I am correct about that, it puts a very different interpretation upon his speech.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have repeatedly made it clear—and I have made it clear on innumerable occasions from this Dispatch Box in your Lordships' House—that NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom's defence policy. Nothing I have said today should in any way derogate from that principal undertaking. The noble Lord returns to what Strobe Talbott said. I quote the passage again, specifically as it relates to Helsinki where the headline goal specifies that, [when] co-operating voluntarily in EU-led operations, Member States must be able, by 2003, to deploy within 60 days and sustain for at least 1 year military forces of up to 50.000–60.000 persons capable of the full range of Petersberg tasks". I repeat that that was the Helsinki headline goal.

I quote directly the words of Mr Strobe Talbott: Helsinki represented, from our perspective, a step—indeed, several steps—in the right direction". I do not think that there is any doubt about what our American colleagues feel on this issue.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree—but perhaps she is too young to remember this—that the late President Kennedy often spoke of the two pillars of NATO: the North American pillar and the European pillar? Is it not correct that until now we have singularly failed in Europe to build that pillar? Is not this new initiative long overdue?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that we have singularly failed to develop that pillar. I think that that is taking the argument a little further than we on this side of the House are prepared to do. As I have already indicated, I believe that Kosovo showed that the European alliance, the EU, can act on occasions when our American colleagues choose not to do so. Although I am not, sadly, quite as young as the noble Lord would like to imply, it is quite clear that the American view on this matter does not come simply from the current administration. I quote from a Republican source, Mr Robert Zoellick, a key adviser to George W Bush, who said that, Congress is far more likely to support a US presence in Europe if the EU is a full partner". I believe that we have seen on the part of key players on both sides of the American divide that the Americans are in support of what we are trying to do. I refer to the initiative in which the Prime Minister has been a key player and a key initiator.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that integration might give much better value for the money spent all over Europe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I did not hear what would give better value for money.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

Integration; in other words, when companies merge they normally intend to save money. In this case integration of defence in Europe should give better value. Does she agree?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, integration raises a whole range of other questions. We would wish to ensure that on this issue we move at a pace that is comfortable for all our allies. Everyone will know, for example, that for operational purposes our French colleagues are not as integrated into the NATO alliance as we are. It is important to bear in mind that all nations involved in NATO will want to ensure that the particular feelings and worries that they may have are properly taken into account. This is not a process over which we can wave a magic wand and that it will all come right overnight.

Over the coming months, under the Portuguese presidency, we shall have to look at the detailed arrangements, for example, for the participation of non-EU European allies, and we shall have to devise arrangements for EU and NATO relations. These are all difficult questions but they are ones to which we should now turn our minds.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, how will the Minister achieve convergence of EU defence expenditure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am happy to say that that is not necessarily a question entirely for me to answer. Over the next few months, under the presidency of our Portuguese allies, we shall be considering how to focus on the capabilities in order to define the headline goal that I detailed to your Lordships a moment or two ago. It is important that we look at what we are trying to achieve.

We are all aware that there are different levels of expenditure among our EU allies. I am sure that questions about levels of expenditure should be given a great deal of consideration. But it is very difficult to make the direct comparisons that we have seen recently in some of our newspapers. When one sees comparisons of relative expenditure across European countries, very often they do not compare like with like. One set of budgets will be dealing with a range of issues which are not comprehended in another set of budgets. Your Lordships should treat with very great caution the kinds of figures that we have seen in our newspapers.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that one of the primary purposes of defence in Europe these days is humanitarian? If that is the case, what consequences does it have for recruitment?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, much of what we have dealt with recently have been humanitarian exercises. The noble Earl will be aware that the Strategic Defence Review concentrated very considerably on peacekeeping exercises and on conflict prevention. Recruitment—which I think was the question raised by the noble Earl—is running very well at the moment, particularly in the Army. The last calendar year was the best year for recruitment in the Army for some 10 years or so. The young people joining our Armed Forces today are in no way put off by the humanitarian emphasis in what they will be asked to do. Rather, I think that there is considerable enthusiasm among young people in this country for the kind of tasks that they will be asked to undertake in Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is puzzlement among some people as to exactly what the new European army will do? NATO is the defence organisation which has protected Europe and intervened in conflicts in Europe over a long period of time. Can my noble friend say what will be a European issue and a European conflict and what will be a European Union interest and a European Union conflict? Or will the European Union army be responsible for the whole of Europe, wherever it extends?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I regret to say that the puzzlement is not so much in the minds of young people or others looking at this matter but is a basic confusion in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. We are not creating a standing European army. I have repeated that on many occasions when speaking from this Dispatch Box on behalf of both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. I do so again. We are not creating a standing European army or a standing European rapid reaction force. We have made that clear. We have also made clear that we are not prepared to relinquish national control of our Armed Forces. I cannot think of a more unequivocal way of putting that. It is, to me, absolutely crystal clear. I hope that now it will be crystal clear to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.