HL Deb 16 July 2001 vol 626 cc1266-7

2.52 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support full membership of NATO for some or all of the nine current applicant states within the next three to four years.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we support the launching of the next round of NATO enlargement at the Prague summit in November 2002. It is too early to say which of the aspirants will meet the political and military criteria for membership by then. We are providing practical support to their preparations under the Membership Action Plan agreed with NATO.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can she reassure us that the British Government are playing an active part in the debate in Washington about NATO enlargement, which is clearly where the main debate is now taking place, rather than simply waiting for the Americans to decide the matter so that we can follow their decisions? Can the Minister further assure us that there will be some consultation of public opinion and Parliament in this country since a large-scale NATO enlargement taking in most of the current applicants would clearly transform NATO itself?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that the British Government are taking a very active part in preparing the Membership Action Plans. The noble Lord will know that they cover a number of different matters—political, economic, military, legislative and security. From my personal experience in the Ministry of Defence, I can tell the noble Lord that this country is taking a very active role with aspirant countries. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that assurance from me.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government will give special attention to the need to recognise the human rights of minorities in some of the candidate countries, with particular regard perhaps to two of the Baltic countries, given the presence of tense international relations with Russia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course the human rights of the countries concerned are very important. I believe that those are covered by the parts of the Membership Action Plans that deal with politics and legislation.

I did not pick up the latter part of the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about consultation on these issues. As the House may know, there will be meetings towards the end of this year. The NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers are due to meet towards the end of this year and next May before we reach the conclusion of the process in Prague in November of next year. There will be an opportunity, which I am sure that your Lordships will readily take, for consultation on the widest possible basis. A number of your Lordships have already expressed views on those countries which some of you believe are readier than others for membership. But the criteria for membership will be assessed on the same basis for everyone at the time.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the role of the three Baltic countries deserves special sympathy in this process? Does the Minister accept that those three brave little countries always used to regard Britain as their champion and look to Britain today to see them right? Further, can the Minister reassure us that in considering their applications and their role neither this Government nor the NATO governments will be overawed by Russian grumbling in seeing that the proper security of Europe and these three states is secure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that the three Baltic countries have a very special place in these considerations. They will of course be judged in the same way as any other aspirant country; that is, in relation to NATO's readiness to absorb the new member in question; as to that country's readiness to sustain the burdens of the relationship with NATO; and the overall effect on European security. There is no way to circumvent those three criteria. I would assure the noble Lord, as all of us have done from the Dispatch Box, that there is no veto on Russia's part on any assessment of the criteria in relation to any country, including the Baltic states, when looking at its readiness for membership of NATO.